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Management of the (non-technical, with team members based in different locations) project I'm currently working on has a huge issue - it is extremely dynamic, with a static team-size. At any given point in time, each team member has on their plate:

  1. Certain fixed repeating tasks which need to be repeated on daily/biweekly/weekly/fortnightly level
  2. Implementation of 4-5 unique sub-projects which are highly dynamic - client requirements can and do change at any minute, but there are also a few fixed points at which certain status reports need to be created and presented.

Additionally, new sub-projects can get added to our plate with very little warning. These new sub-projects can change the prioritization of existing work, causing timelines to always be in flux.

As such, we're struggling to maintain visibility into all that the team is working on at any given point, and hence have a realistic handle on what is possible for the team to handle at any given point.

The short-notice addition of tasks is a new challenge, and prior to this we were successfully project managing via excel, but now given that our workload has increased by a magnitude and become more dynamic to boot, excel is no longer able to help us very much.

What is the best way to project manage the sub-projects in order to maintain feasibility of work allocation for each team member and timelines for each sub-project?

  • Noted! Edited accordingly - methodology advice would be very welcome as well – Shisa Sep 11 '17 at 15:30
  • Are your sub projects related, i.e., same client? – David Espina Sep 11 '17 at 16:46
  • Yep. Same team, same primary client, but each individual subproject also has different stakeholder. Primary client tells us which subprojects to pick up, but the actual details of each subproject comes from completely different folks (who don't talk to each other) – Shisa Sep 11 '17 at 18:05
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It sounds like you're operating in chaos, with purposeful loose change control. I am not sure a tool or method is the right solution but rather resetting expectations on what you are able to forecast and promise by way of delivery. If you are in constant flux in terms of your timeline and cost accrual against specific projects, there is no way you can reliably measure progress and forecast from there, no matter the tool you try to deploy.

You have two utilization issues: 1) your planned utilization against the projects and 2) actual utilization.

Your planned utilization should be easy to track as project demand and prioritization change. New project comes in, simply reallocate utilization values against each resource until it equals the utilization value you want, e.g., 100% or 110% per resource. Since you have repeating tasks, I would suspect those utilization values never change except when you true them up with actuals.

Your actual utilization would be available for reconciliation if you are using different charge codes for each project. Based on those charge codes, you would be able to report out activity on each of those projects, and what those actions cost for each project. This does not tell you, however, progress made.

Regarding progress made, since you are in a dynamic environment, you are not able to reliably forecast when tasks or projects can be completed. No method will help you because your work can constantly be reprioritized, including work in progress. This is the tough conversation you HAVE to have, in that you need to be relieved of any type of pressure that you are held to some sort of milestone or deadline date for delivery. Estimating remaining work on any project will have a high degree of uncertainty with no reliable or valid numbers to back you. You're stuck with, 'maybe we can finish by....' So, if a chaotic input is what you're stuck with, then a chaotic output is the result. And if you're required to some how cure this, you're set up to fail.

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I wonder about your level of freedom to take decisions. I understand that your staff level is fixed. So you will need to be able to delay sub-projects, reduce their scope or even reject some of them if you don't have enough resources.

We have seen similar situations in the past with an SAP department that got a lot of "spontaneous" projects directly by the CEO as part of new business initiatives or mergers. In this case the "solution" was to show the CEO visually the level of (over-) assignment at the moment when he tried to add a new project. The department manager was able to show that there was no slack in his team, he could show the list of ongoing projects, and he could demonstrate the delay that all projects would suffer if a new one would be accepted with high priority.

As a result, the CEO meetings changed, and the CEO would take decisions to delay some projects or to add freelancers to others. But most important, the CEO's decision could be communicated to the stakeholders of the delayed projects, easing the pressure on the department head.

  • I do have fair amount of freedom. However at this point team is fixed, because we already successfully negotiated an increase in numbers. (Unf this was taken as '2 more team members, give them 2 times the about of work!) And indeed, the visualisation for bosses to aid pushback is part of why I want to do the mapping of tasks and timelines. – Shisa Sep 13 '17 at 1:40
  • I'm part of the team of ]project-open[, an open-source PM system. Please contact me at frank.bergmann@project-open.com, and we can arrange a demo of the visualization, – fraber Sep 14 '17 at 6:59
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I've had this situation come up once or twice. I'm not happy with my solution, but it is the best I've been able to create.

I build two project management systems.

  • The top level (portfolio view) shows all the sub projects but only goes down to the level of the gate review. (the fixed milestones to which you refer).

  • The bottom level (project view) is used to manage each sub-project and includes much more granular dates.

I don't need to manage work allocation (I'm lucky). If I did, I'd track the work allocation on the project level and report only conflicts & summaries at the portfolio level.

I use excel, but I freely admit that the excel sheets have become so complex that I don't think anyone other than myself could manage them successfully. Excel is not a self documenting programming language.

I've tried doing this in MS-Project several times, but the edifice became very fragile and I spent more time verifying that the tool hadn't broken than I did analyzing the real schedule data.

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As you mentioned, you have two different natures of work for the same capacity, the known tasks and the unknown tasks.

  • Known is anything you have some capacity to guesstimate how much it'll cost you, so you can 1) forecast the work and 2) the level of confidence when setting deadlines are acceptable
  • Unknown is anything unexpected that could cost an... unknown amount of effort

I work in a similar environment - and our current motto is time is a matter of priority.

For the known activities, we have some capacity primarily dedicated to these activities, to reduce the continuous shifting of actions.

For the unknown activities, however, you need to

  1. make sure you have clear what are the activities each person is working with (some sort of task tracking tool is highly welcome)
  2. make sure the priorities of the work being done is according to the client demand
  3. make sure your client understand minimally the Triple Constraints of Project Management.

It usually boils down to "Can X be done? Of course, which one of these activities (which you'll check based on the item #1) you want to park / put at risk?"


A special addendum on the "we're struggling to maintain visibility into all that the team is working on at any given point":

If you have problems on tracking the new requirements, it's yet another reason to ensure all the requests are using the standardized model of task tracking. If you rely on mails or any other sort of communication to track requests, you're going to have a bad time.

The key here is that the task list must be:

  • Transparent, anyone can see the worklog (and the backlog)
  • Collaborative, anyone can add up or update items at any given time
  • Easy to use, this way anyone can raise requests

So, at this stage, I'd no longer rely on a single Excel to track all this work - the Excel can be used to obtain a high level view, but this view needs to be derived from the actual tasks the team is working with.

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