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How Pie Charts, Mr. Spock and the Big Picture Can Optimise Your Projects

~ By ExecutiveBrief

3D colorful pie chart set on a white background

What's the best way to allocate resources across projects? How can you ensure you stay on budget and meet established deadlines? Read up on the latest tools designed to make your job easier!

Some days IT executives earn their salaries and then some: multiple deadlines for simultaneous projects, staff with different skills, competing schedules and priorities, and multiple unforeseen variables.

The question each day is which project gets which resources to make sure all projects get completed on time and within budget.

The challenge of maximising resource allocation is often the most daunting task that executives face. If you don't staff and equip projects appropriately, the odds of completing them on-time and within budget are low, leading to reduced profitability and potential customer dissatisfaction. That is why some companies and researchers have dedicated themselves to finding solutions specifically geared to putting people, time and energy in the right place.

While resource allocation can be challenging, there are a few key elements of project management managers can focus on to make resource allocation in software development and implementation run smoothly and effectively:

  • Highly organised information available at a glance
  • The use of scientific research data to guide decision-making
  • Awareness of the broad context surrounding the project

Simple Graphics Create an Easy Way to Read Information to Make Complex Decisions

I think the challenge is, How do you create research allocation solutions that are very powerful but very simple on the front end, said Rodney Brim, CEO of California-based Performance Solutions Technology that offers ManagePro, a software program designed for those charged with estimating and overseeing project completion.

The program provides detailed information regarding who's assigned to what, and when, but with as much emphasis on convenience as possible, going so far as to function side-by-side with Microsoft Outlook email.

Our experience is even though you can do all the complex stuff with calculations, most people want something simpler, he said. There's nothing quite like a very simple graphic.

Brim tailors the design of the ManagePro interface to provide information that's pertinent, compartmentalised and readable at a glance, with colour-coded graphics and pop-up info boxes.

Maybe You Should Add Mr. Spock to Your Team, The Logical Approach to Resource Allocation

Simplicity is not necessarily the aim of Mark Harman, a software engineering professor at King's College in London. He works to find new ways to estimate maximal resource allocation using mathematical and statistical analysis.

Researchers like Harman take situations companies often face and experiment with a variety of different approaches and outcomes, trying to find correlations between certain sorts of decisions and results.

The goal of these undertakings, he says, is to arm executives with another tool they can use to help make decisions. It's rather like having Mr. Spock on the team. These algorithms are very logical, he said.

But Brim isn't so sure successful ship captains are willing to bring such components on board. People are really pressed for time, he said. I find they don't have time to take on new algorithms.

One misconception many companies have, Harman said, is if they utilise such research the numbers will have too great an impact on decision-making. But the human element is just as important.

There's nearly always something that the manager knows that's implicit, Harman said. He believes businesses are often intimidated not by the data itself, but by the inherent risks of experimentation. I tend to meet people at conferences who are into estimates and testing, but they can't get their bosses to buy into it, Harman said. The scenario he's found they most often fear is that once sensitive data is given to independent researchers, trade secrets will be disclosed on the open market. Companies often imagine things, he said.

Harman, with whom such tech giants as Sony and Motorola have trusted their data, said that when it comes to resource allocation in particular, the information academics want doesn't have to be too specific. We only need to know basic numerical figures, he said. We know it as work package 49. We don't need to know what it's about.

Harman and his teams are using the raw numbers they get from Sony, Motorola and others to come up with quantifiable answers to the kind of questions that have traditionally been difficult for those in charge of allocation to answer, such as Whom should I assign to a project and How much time will the team need to finish what they're doing?

One of the ways he's doing this is by using what's known as a Pareto front, an idea borne of economic research in which one charts a set of options and assigns numerical values to all the possible outcomes with the intent of narrowing the field to only the most efficient choices.

Harman compares the idea of Darwinian evolution to the notion that there are a myriad of potential solutions to a problem but only one answer, or set of answers, that is a fit solution. It allows us to look at the trade-off between certainty and risk, he said. What you want to find is the sweet spots in that trade-off space.

We create an environment in which we breed solutions to problems, he said. We take the best bits of each project plan.

Zeroing in on the right answer is also the aim of research allocation tools. The key is to manage all of the variables surrounding a specific project.

Understanding the Big Picture Supports Sound Business Decisions

For us the contextual information is as important if not more so than the actual number, Brim said. What is the cost of not finishing on time, and how real is that? I've worked on projects where you lose a million dollars in revenue a day. I've worked on other projects where there was almost no apparent cost, Brim said.

Executives concerned with the bottom line and middle managers allocating human resources address the variables of people being overloaded with tasks, vendors altering the products the company uses to help create its software and end-user demand or indifference.

The manager's question is 'Who do I have available?' 'Where do I find the resources?' 'How much have I overbooked this person?' Brim said. The executive questions tend to be 'Are we going to get it done, on-time and on budget?'

The challenge is to create tools that communicate how far along a company is on a project and when they have to get it done, as well as how high all the potential hurdles are. You need a simple way to get a good estimate, Brim said.

Convenience saves not only time, Brim said, but lessens the chance that a component may slip through the cracks, causing an unforeseen delay in production. You create a heads-up so you don't get surprised, he said.

Academics, too, recognise certainty is a commodity at the executive level. The thing they seem to care about most is managing risk, Harman said.

Part of the challenge Harman faces in convincing business leaders to go along with his research is not just relieving them of concern but showing them a cost benefit as well.

What I can say is that we've proved with real data how this research can be very beneficial, Harman said. It can also be very beneficial to be seen to be working with thought leaders.

Brim believes research that can result in new technology will be of the greatest utility moving forward. I think we're going to go to more and more smart systems, and the ability to calculate what's happening and make real-time adjustments.

Whatever advances take place will be dependent on the means of communication between research scientists and industry leaders, said Harman, who believes talk amongst colleagues does little to alter the landscape. Academic journals are not the place, he said. There needs to be this middle ground.

Regardless, the most important task for a software executive in charge of resource allocation may well be keeping an ear to the ground, not just inside the company, not just as it relates to the project, but for breakthroughs that can make the tough calls of prioritising projects and matching resources easy.

ExecutiveBrief, the technology management resource for business leaders, offers proven tips, techniques, and action plans that companies can use to better manage people, processes and tools - the keys to improving their business performance. To learn more, please visit: SoftServe United Blog

© ExecutiveBrief 2008


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