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Let’s face it, of all the resources you need to manage during a project timeline, people are probably the most unpredictable. Human beings can throw a project manager more curveballs than macroeconomic conditions that wreak havoc on your budget, extreme weather that forces you to work with a “go bag” next to your desk, and software that insists on sh*tting the bed when you need it the most. (Tech folks: Back me up here. That last one is an official term and not just an excuse to use profanity.)

People are undeniably the most important component of driving productivity in project management. Yet we call them “resources.” 

Listen, no judgment. I do it. You probably do it. It’s part of the official lexicon of project management, so what choice do we have?

But what if we could shift our mindsets, if not our vocabularies, to take a more human-centric approach? What if a small investment in the human side of resource management yielded an increase in productivity? Would that interest you? Let’s talk about how to get there.

Why Effective Resource Management Is Really People Management

Since it looks like we have at least a few more months until A.I. takes over the planet, for the time being, humans are still the driving force behind projects. And people are beautifully complex, which can create extra challenges for project managers. But all those complexities can also create opportunities for … magic

Courtney Johnston is a longtime project manager and a big proponent of “human-centered project management.” On a recent episode of The DPM Podcast, she shared this perspective:

“My hypothesis of human centered project management is really about being aware, noticing, and being a better human to the humans around you. [It’s about] trying to find the answers by including the human perspective and the human experience in all steps of whatever the process is that you're trying to solve.”

Johnston also posits that this human approach will pay off in creativity, productivity and loyalty. 

“If you bring joy into the workplace, will you get better results?” she asks. “Unequivocally, I will put all of my money on the table and I will say yes. I will say yes, a thousand percent. Because joy is one of those big, juicy, magical human emotions. 

“And if you can elicit joy from your team every single day—maybe not every single day, but for most of the time—they're going to stick around,” Johnston continues, “They are going to bring their ideas. They are going to work harder to solve something because they're happy, right?”

So how can you create some magic on your team? Let’s look at some real-world ways to take a human-centered approach to boosting productivity and profitability without blowing your timelines.

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5 Ways To Approach Resource Utilization Through a Human Lens

It’s go time. You’ve got a killer project resource management plan all ready to go in your favorite software. Rock on, project manager! But before you get rolling, do a gut check on some of these resource utilization strategies to keep those pesky, er, delightful humans from gumming up the works. 

1. Strike the right balance with resource people utilization

It can be tempting to assign the most important components of a project to your best people. But that can be a double-edged sword. All those kudos people enjoy for being the “best” often come with a healthy serving of overwork. 

On the flipside, low performers are often under-utilized. You know who I’m talking about here—those people who do juuuuust enough to not get fired but not enough to be legitimately helpful. We’ve all worked with them. 

And if you get saddled with one (and it’s not within your purview to give them their walking papers) it can be tempting to give them as little project work as possible so they don’t sabotage your deadlines. 

When you’re creating your resource allocation plan, take the time to do some additional investigating to find out what everyone is working on outside of your project. 

It’s wise to do a one-on-one check-in with your high performers to see how your project fits in with their total workload. Ask them for an honest assessment of whether they’ll be able to give your project their full attention. Even if they have the hours on paper, remember that context switching can impact productivity and cause burnout. 

If they’re on the fence about how much they can commit, ask them for their take on who else they’d recommend. They’re likely to have a good sense of who’s doing the quality of work that you’re going to need within their discipline.

As for that low performer, we’ll get back to them in a moment.

2. Use resource management software to identify bottlenecks

Most resource management tools will allow you to get a fast view of who’s working on what, as well as what stage they’re currently in. Checking this view regularly can help reveal opportunities to move forward faster. More importantly, it can help you identify bottlenecks that could completely derail your project deadline. 

Some tools also include functionality that will flag available resources and prompt you to re-allocate them so you can stay within your forecasted timeframes. 

Remember that low performer we talked about? Having a visual of where bottlenecks are happening can help you do a gut check on whether that team member is just dragging their heels or if something else is going on. 

For example, maybe their tasks always seem to stall at the same point in a project. Take that as a cue to find out why. Perhaps they’re not confident using a certain piece of software and would benefit from some more training. 

Maybe they’re suffering from imposter syndrome (aren’t we all?) and resist moving their work forward where others will see it. If that’s the case, consider pairing them up with a mentor who can help them build their skill sets.

Or, perhaps, the person is just an overall ball dropper. In that case, running reports or taking screenshots from your resource management software can help you document the problem and make a case for stronger action. 

3. Remember the 80/20 Rule

Yes, of course, every aspect of your project management plan is important! 

But is it, really?

We all know the 80/20 rule, which states that 80% of impact comes from 20% of the work. That doesn’t mean that the other 80% of the work isn’t important, but it is a good reminder to keep your eye on the ball. 

Remember that your role is not to perfectly execute a project and keep everyone in line, but rather to serve your ultimate goal: stand up a website, launch a product, build brand awareness, or what-have-you. At the end of the day, the customer doesn’t care what your project dashboard looks like, so remember that your resource management plan is a guide and not a mandate.

Identify the ultimate, top-level goal of your project and repeat it to yourself and your team all the time. State it at the beginning of every meeting. Use it as a mantra when Joelle in creative insists that the ad imagery doesn’t adhere to the mid-century modern design aesthetic he was going for. (And thank Joelle for his eye for detail and assure him that he’ll have another shot at it on the next project. He’s super talented! You want him on your side!)

When roadblocks appear—and they always do—ask yourself and the group: “How much does this impact our ultimate goal?” If the answer is “a lot,” then make it your highest priority to clear the bottleneck. If it’s not so much, find a workaround and move on. 

Find out more about managing resources in a creative setting here.

4. Lean Into Automation

Automation can be a great way to tackle those “80%” tasks that don’t show up on the deliverable but have to get done anyway. For example, time tracking functionality often includes a setting that allows you to send push notifications to remind team members to update their entries. Or you could employ time tracking software to take this task off folks’ plates altogether. (See our thoughts on 10 Best Time Tracking Software For Companies In 2023.)

There are a plethora of automation features that help maintain workflow momentum and boost productivity. One simple but effective play is to set up automatic reminders that tasks are due to ensure that key items don’t fall through the cracks. 

On the more advanced end of the spectrum, many resource management tools have automations that can trigger other actions within a workflow so you don’t deplete precious human resources on repetitive tasks. Need to insert a checklist, send an email, or trigger a new workflow? Let automation handle it.

In addition to learning how to set up automations yourself, be sure that everyone on the team knows how they work. An easy way to share this info is to make a quick video on Loom, Zoom, or a similar tool, and walkthrough the process.

Be sure to ask team members for additional thoughts on tasks that can be automated. Letting the robots focus on repetitive work while the knowledge workers focus on human work means that you allocate resources more efficiently. 

5. Build Contingency Time Into Project Schedules

A marathon runner doesn’t run at the same speed throughout a race. Elite athletes can’t work at full capacity all the time and neither can knowledge workers. Human beings just aren’t built that way.

Just as you build contingencies into your timelines to account for shipping delays or other things beyond your control, it’s wise to create a buffer in your timeline for unexpected “people problems.” Kids get sick. People lose family members. It’s Tuesday afternoon and Galen is distracted by his lack of cupcakes. Things happen.

When doing your resource planning, it’s a good idea to approach it through two different lenses:

  1. Timeline if everything goes right
  2. Timeline if everything goes wrong

Then, obviously, dump your first forecast because that will never happen. Instead, split the difference between the two to get a better sense of reality. 

Once your project gets moving, you’re likely to find out that the real-time completion of certain phases is faster than you estimated for some things and slower for others. With some buffer time in place, you can more easily make adjustments. 

Project Management Means Taking Care Of People

Want to learn more about how to take a human-centered approach to project management? Check out “Noticing Joy: Leading With Human-Centered Project Management” on the DPM Podcast.

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Trish Sammer
By Trish Sammer

Trish Sammer is a former Senior Editor of The Digital Project Manager. Trish got her start in publishing as a B2B journalist reporting on U.S. labor regulations and employment law. She has been covering technology since 2013. Prior to joining DPM, Trish led project management content for Atlassian's Work Life and Trello blogs.