Project Management Tetris

I loved Tetris as a kid. I played the gameboy version for hours. I now have it on my phone and iPad and find myself playing it when I’m on a flight, or bored, waiting for something to happen (which is never these days). Whether I’m playing the game a lot or not, the idea of making tiny boxes fit in neatly and clearing out rows of work in ingrained in my brain. It’s what I do on a daily basis when sorting out who will work on what; it’s what we often call “resourcing.” And it’s one of my biggest project management challenges, for sure.

The biggest difference between resourcing and Tetris?  The team members we’re trying to assign tasks to aren’t blocks. They’re human beings, and they need to be treated as such. To be honest, the term “resourcing” makes me cringe a little. We’re really just staffing projects or assigning tasks. We’re not using people to JUST get things done; We’re asking them to solve challenges that are presented in our projects. The thing is, even with a small team, you have to sort out who will do what when you have more than a few projects running concurrently. Everyone can’t be responsible for everything, and many people specialize in some tasks.

LEVEL 1: Easy

So, how do I approach the challenge of making sure the team is busy and working on tasks, or not completely overbooked? It’s not fun, and I have yet to find the perfect tool to help me forecast hours. So, a couple of years back we put together a little spreadsheet that lists team members’ names, and the projects they’re on.

A couple of notes:

  •  The final cell tallies the hours for you. Snappy Excel or Numbers work!
  • You can track Actual hours if you’re like. It could help with future estimating. (Just pull that time out of your time tracking tool, if you have one.)
  • Check your estimates with your team to make sure that the hours actually align with their assessment of the task (This might help with avoiding that red number!)
  • Communicate these hours to the entire team each week. Making sure everyone “is in the know” will help on ANY project.

Here’s the thing: it’s not just about numbers. I mean, really. If you’re a project manager who thinks your estimates are always dead on or even realistic at all times, you should read some other articles then come back to this. The issue that makes estimating a team’s project hours is that  everyone works differently. There is no way to standardize the human factor here, and that’s what makes it tough. Forget the fact that none of your team is a robot and they all work at their own pace. Think about sick days, vacations, client delays, changes on projects, etc. It’s a never-ending flow of shapes that must fit into the box that is a project.

LEVEL 2: IT’S GETTING FASTER!

It’s not easy to do, but  you need to consider these things when trying to staff your projects:

Interests: If you have a team member who loves beer, why not put that person on the beer design site? Maybe you have multiple people who want to be on the project, but they are all busy on other projects. These are the breaks. You’ve gotta do what is right for the company and your budget. If you can put interests first, it’s awesome. We try to do it, but it doesn’t always work that way.

Skill sets: It’s as simple as getting to know each and every team members’ work. Some people are meant to create specific types of designs or experiences. It not only has to do with interests, it has to do with strengths within those tasks. Sure, I may love beer, but that doesn’t mean that I am meant to design the site that caters to the audience the client is trying to reach.

Moving schedules: Projects will always change. One week you know you’re working against a firm deadline, and the next, that has changed due to the clients, the needs of the project, or some other reason someone conjured up. IT’s tough to know when that change will happen, but when it does, how you’ll fill someone’s time should be high on your check list.

Holidays: People always extend them. Plan for that!

Vacations: It’s great to know in advance. Be sure you know your company’s policies around that. I never ever want to be the guy who says “well, you have a deadline on X date and that will conflict with your cruise, so, um…no.” I’d rather plan ahead and make it work. Everyone would.

Illness: God forbid someone get sick! You’ve always got to be ready for a back up plan with clients. It shouldn’t fall on the clients to make up time, but sometimes it has to. Or, sometimes you need to look for someone to pitch in on intermediate tasks to keep thinks on track while your “rock star” or “ninja” is getting better.

LEVEL 3: OMG THEY’RE STACKING UP!

So, what about when you’re considering new projects that will put you over your team’s capacity?  Planning your resource hours out to the end of your most recent project makes a lot of sense. But, if you’ve got a sales pipeline to consider, it can get tricky. The best thing to do, in my opinion, is to be flexible, chat with your team about options, and handle the issues as they come to you. You might have to consider freelancers, or possibly bringing up the need to hire someone.

At the end of the day, making sure that we’re staffed at the right levels all the time is probably one of my biggest challenges. I think there are some solid ways to make sure we’re 90% of the way there, but it can be tough. Want to share your thoughts? Your highest scores in Tetris? Post a comment below. I’d love to hear from you.

4 thoughts on “Project Management Tetris

  1. Great read! Here’s what I tend to struggle with, no matter how much I plan and re-allocate and modify, our projects (for various reasons) always seem to end up on similar schedules, making work loads harder and harder to manage. I swear, it’s some crazy phenomenon or something. Projects that get kicked off at completely different times end up launching uncomfortably close to each other!! Many times this is due to clients, and honestly content, but I know that’s a whole other blog post :) Does anyone else deal with this “phenomenon”?

    • Thanks Crystal. I agree. Every project is constantly a moving target. Staffing can get really difficult, especially if you work in a small shop. One thing we do to make sure that our clients understand the impacts of their delays is to let them know that a two day delay on their part doesn’t mean a two delay on our part. Depending on other work, it could be a few days or a week. Either way, it’s hard to work out and keep everyone happy!

      Your comment about content is spot on. Everyone’s dealing with that issue, I think!

  2. This post hits on a key understated role of a PM; we’re dealing with people, not resources. Both team and client. It’s the fine art of communication. Managing expectations, conflict, sickness and the unpredictable. You need a deep understanding of individuals motivations, strengths and weaknesses. One developer’s skills are never the same as another and can’t be traded equally.

    Great post Brett. Be interested in your feedback on http://www.floatschedule.com as to how it addresses your challenges.

  3. Pingback: What’s your set up? | Brett Harned – Adventures in project management

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