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Welcome to Budget Crunch. In this ongoing series, we’re covering project budgets and estimates and the challenges that come along with them. Big or small, there’s a story behind every budget, and we’re bringing you these stories to help you solve your own budget challenges.

This edition features how Christina Sookram, a project manager in our community worked around having (almost) zero funds for a project for a high-profile software company. The project involved encouraging student developers to build apps for the company's platform.

Here's our Editor's interview with Christina: learn how she pulled the project off in spite of the budget, and get her key takeaways on working your stakeholders and setting realistic expectations around budgets.

What was the budget?

$18,000 planned, $4,000 provided.

What was the project?

College and university students are an untapped market for builders and creators.

The project I was managing involved planning and executing a campaign to grow the number of student developers creating mobile applications. This was a great project as the program I was part of had several colleges and universities as partners. 

Engagement with these partners was great. However, this project was going to be challenging as the student developer community specifically was one that had not been engaged. Relationship building was key. Was there a way to encourage more students to develop mobile apps? 

The organization that I was a part of at the time was running a competition for software developers to build apps for their platform.

My organization (and one of the senior leaders in the organization, specifically) was the project sponsor. The winners of the competition were going to be announced at their annual conference for software developers. 

As this was an amazing training and networking event, an idea was presented to the sponsor to provide registration passes to students who submitted their apps to the platform to attend the conference for free.

At the conference, students would be eligible to receive a smartphone and tablet as part of their competition prize. 

What was the challenge?

The major challenge we had was our budget. Let me rephrase that—our major challenge was that we had planned the project with a budget in mind, but then found out after our planning was completed that we had to drastically reduce our budget. We had little to no funds available to use to execute this project.

What? No budget? What do you mean—how can you have a project with no budget?

Well, here’s where things get complicated. The organization I was part of was going through a very difficult (and public) organizational restructuring program. Funding for portfolios, programs, projects, and initiatives was being limited (or eliminated) across the organization. 

When we put the budget together, we based it off of a budget for a similar project from the previous year. Based on travel costs at the time and the cost for some of our items, we felt that the budget was sufficient and realistic for the scope we were given.

We made an assumption that we would be permitted to execute the project with the budget we had planned. Originally, the project had the following budget:

Student Developer Conference Registration passes5 passes @ $900 each = $4,500To encourage students to dev, passes to a conference would be given
Exhibit booth at developer conference$2,000Includes booth and swag
Tablets and smartphones for prizes$5,000Internal costs for hardware devices used (not external retail prices)
Travel for 2 staff to developer conference in San Francisco$6,000Includes flight, hotel, and ground transport
Contingency reserve amount$500Because you should always have a buffer in a budget
Total$18,000Prices/costs are circa 2010 when the project was initiated and scheduled

$18,000 is a lot of money for a company that is looking to eliminate costs and is going through a restructuring. We were asked to reduce this budget and eliminate any non-essentials.

As the budget was already lean (and realistic in the opinion of the project team), I communicated my concerns with our sponsor. They were also feeling the pressure to reduce other operational costs for projects within our larger program. While they understood our concern, they encouraged the team to look for innovative solutions. 

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What was your solution?

Desperate times call for desperate measures. In this case, we decided to adopt the ‘beg, borrow, or steal’ strategy to see if we could get some internal help from our sponsor and stakeholders.

Remember, project stakeholders are impacted by your project positively or negatively. They have an interest in seeing the project be successful. As such, project managers should not be afraid to communicate with their stakeholders and ask if they can help.

How did you have to get creative in planning or delivering the project?

The ‘beg, borrow, and steal’ strategy might sound good in theory, but most of us can probably recognize that most likely this is not a great idea to do within a professional working environment. 

A project manager should set an example to their team and others within an organization to conduct themselves in an ethical manner. Likewise, engaging in behavior and activities that may harm relationships and create mistrust should probably be avoided.

This is where a project manager needs to rely on their diplomatic negotiation skills and their ability to persuade others to give up something they have for mutual benefit.

To do this, I had to identify what stakeholders had that I needed and what I could give them in return for their benefit (while spending the least amount of money).

Based on my budget, I created the following matrix to prepare for meetings with stakeholders:

What do I need?Who Has It? (Which Stakeholder Should be Engaged?)What Can I Offer?How does Stakeholder Benefit?
Conference registration passes for studentsEvents TeamTry to encourage professors/instructors to attend the conference with their students at the full registration rateEvents team still gets people registering for the event. Possibility to have a few professors from schools attend
Exhibit Booth ConferenceSales & Marketing TeamDon’t necessarily need a full booth (a desk within larger exhibit would work to draw students/faculty members to larger exhibit)Increase in overall traffic to the main exhibit booth and some cost sharing
Tablets & smartphonesDeveloper Experience TeamCommitted developers (students) who will use hardware to create mobile apps for the platformMore mobile apps for the platform and exposure to a new and untapped developer community
Travel Costs for StaffThe SponsorStaff members can assist with other tasks/support the Events Team when neededExtra help onsite at the Conference reduces need to hire local temp help
Contingency FundThe SponsorNothing really to offer in exchange. This is an item that should be used if neededRemoves involvement from sponsor to review change request (saves sponsor time)

Armed with this matrix, I set up meetings with each of the stakeholder groups to ask them if they could provide to us at no cost the items we needed (or to split the costs with us to reduce our budget). 

Did you complete the project on time & on budget?

While I was not Secretary General of the United Nations, I did have to use my diplomatic influencing skills as a project manager with the stakeholders to ask and persuade them to try and give us the things we needed for free. 

Apart from my negotiation skills, this also required other important skills for project managerslistening and empathy.

By meeting with each of the stakeholder teams individually, I was able to learn more about their goals and the one goal we all had in common was that we wanted to increase the number of mobile app developers on the platform. 

My team had access to an untapped market (students) and influencers (college/university instructors). After negotiating with our stakeholders, this is what we were able to reduce our budget to:

ItemInitial BudgetUpdated BudgetComment/Notes
Student Developer Conference Registration passes5 passes @ $900 each = $4,500$0Conference passes for 5 students was provided by the Events Team
Exhibit booth at developer conference$2,000$500The Sales and Marketing Team were able to give us some space in the main exhibit. The $500 covers the swag costs.
Tablets and smartphones for prizes$5,000$0The Developer Experience team kindly donated the hardware as they agreed that students need hardware for development and testing.
Travel for 2 staff to developer conference in San Francisco$6,000$3,000The sponsor agreed to provide more funding to cover the cost of one of the staff members which helped reduce the travel budget
Contingency reserve amount$500$500Kept the contingency reserve amount
Total$18,000$4,000Cost savings of $14,000 (around 78% cost reduction)

We weren’t able to reduce our budget to $0, but a 78% reduction by simply talking to our stakeholders certainly helped.

Also, by engaging with the Events Team, we were also able to secure a registration discount if any colleges and universities wanted to send a group of students and instructors (which was an incentive for faculty members to encourage more students).

We were able to complete the project on time with some great results (tangible in the form of student developed apps, but also intangible like providing networking opportunities for students). 

Were there any parts of the project or specific challenges that kept you up at night?

Yes! The whole project! 😑

More specifically though, it was the challenge of running a project like this (that had a goal to ultimately grow a business and connect with an untapped market) while the organization is going through a significant downsizing. 

While our sponsor remained committed to the project, we were very aware that someone else (and more senior) in the organization could easily decide that this project was not a priority and cancel it.

Managing projects with limited budgets and resources is a reality that many project managers face at some point in their career, but trying to execute while facing the threat of possible cancellation is something quite different.

Likewise, there was always the fear that stakeholders wouldn’t see the benefits of our project and ultimately wouldn’t provide any support. You should always ask for help, but there’s no guarantee that people will provide it.

Looking back, is there anything you would do differently (aside from changing the constraints of the project)?

In retrospect, I think I would have had a more brutally honest chat with our sponsor about how much money and support we actually had for the project. If we were required to complete this project with very little resources, was the project in fact a priority for the business?

Do you have any regrets about how the project went down?

None. We did what we had to do under some very difficult circumstances and were able to come up with some excellent results.

It’s unfortunate that the business was going through a restructuring (that my project team and I) had no influence over, but we were still able to meet our goals.

Also, as we had to engage our stakeholders, we also had to build some strong relationships that ended up developing into friendships. This is something I definitely do not regret about this project. 

What are the most effective methodologies & tools in dealing with this kind of challenge?

As we had to engage with our stakeholders, our stakeholder engagement plan (particularly our stakeholder registry and RACI chart) came in very handy. Likewise, having an agile mindset and being open to change also was key in delivering this project successfully. 

What advice would you give to another PM who encountered the same problem?

Two pieces of advice I would give other project managers facing a similar situation is:

1. Don’t be afraid to ask for help 

We took a chance asking our stakeholders if they could help us. They could have easily said no.

Putting in some prep work to prepare exactly what you're asking for and having a good response for when someone asks, ‘what’s in it for me’, will go a long way to helping you obtain things for your project that you may not have been able to obtain. You never know unless you ask.

2. Have an honest talk with your sponsor about budget expectations 

You can’t expect champagne with a Kool-Aid budget. Likewise, the sponsor and other stakeholders cannot expect a project to be executed and meet its goals if sufficient resources are not available. Your sponsor may be able to provide additional support (or ask others to help). 

In the worst case scenario, your sponsor may make a decision that the project cannot be done with the resources available and cancel it before it even begins. As harsh as that may be, at least you and your project team will know what you have to work with, what support you have available, and the priority of your project. 

Want to contribute a sticky budget situation of your own? Get in touch with the Editor here.

Read more about project budgets and estimates here.

Christina Sookram
By Christina Sookram

With over 15 years of corporate experience as a project manager, Christina Sookram is an experienced project leader and educator. She has provided project leadership experience at some of Canada's largest technology companies. She has subject matter expertise in both waterfall and agile project delivery and product management functions with a focus on Scrum, Kanban, and SAFe® agile methodologies. A successful entrepreneur, Christina founded CNS Project Consulting Inc in 2020 to help clients in the IT, education and Web3 industries. Christina is also an instructor at Wilfrid Laurier University and OCAD University where she enjoys sharing her love of all things project management with students.