The mantra “less is more” is not always the best policy for project management teams.  Many companies operate under the assumption that in order to save money, more projects must be accomplished with fewer people.  The fundamental issue is that under-staffed projects often lead to costly delays or failure – quickly eliminating labor savings.  

All too often, a failed, under-staffed project is attributed to a single person or source, but the true underlying cause is much more difficult to root out.  Modern corporations are incredibly complex, and it takes the correct approach to accurately diagnose the issue and implement successful changes. By focusing on systematic deficiencies over individual error, a PMO can correctly identify the cause of failures and implement a cost-effective strategy that allocates sufficient resources before beginning projects.  

System Dynamics

In 1956, MIT Professor Jay W. Forrester, created System Dynamics.  This model utilizes theory, methods, and philosophy to analyze the behavior of every day systems.  Through evaluating principles of systems, economic and industrial dynamics, and policy analysis, individuals can understand what influences change throughout the life of a project.  Systems thinking is exceptionally useful at the project level because it helps project managers (PMs) identify internal feedback loops and time delays that can impact success.   

It is easy to point fingers and attribute a disastrous outcome to a single person, but if foundational systems are not properly designed, it does not matter who is involved, as the team will be systematically doomed for failure.  System Dynamics takes this into account and focuses on the entirety of relationships involved in an organizational system.      

Diagnosing Issues

By identify the key variables of a project and studying how they interact, PMs can determine the positive and negative consequences resulting from integrating certain components.  When evaluating a project from a System Dynamics perspective, it is necessary to create a structure to accurately diagnose issues. While this may be challenging due to the sheer volume of variables, there are a few issues that occur commonly, providing some predictability and a great starting point.

Less is not more. Companies regularly attempt to save money in the short term by scaling back labor, but they often do so without taking into consideration the long-term ramifications.  Staffing projects with fewer people can lead to employee burnout, stress, and overall fatigue. Consequently, the cost-savings plan backfires when PMs are left scrambling to fill labor gaps, expending additional money and time to get previously uninvolved parties up to speed.  This can be especially problematic in later project stages because team productivity will be brought to a grinding halt while new individuals are filled in on previously completed components. In order to avoid this situation, PMs need to create realistic resource plans prior to commencing a project and ensure that resource gatekeepers are on board with their strategy.

Prioritization. In addition to regular responsibilities, employees are often assigned to special projects that fall outside of their day-to-day activities.  It is highly problematic if managers are not fully informed about a project, including its importance and timeline, as they will often prioritize familiar tasks while ignoring projects.  Consequently, this creates a problematic trickle-down effect and inevitably leads to failure. To deter competing interests, make sure that managers have signed off on projects and that they fully understand their scope and importance.  Additionally, provide incentives to encourage PMs to actively support and move forward progression. 

Accountability.  It is difficult to internally diagnose systematic problems, as there is typically a delay between cause and effect, or employees are too involved in the project to address concerns.  To alleviate this issue, create a quality assurance (QA) strategy. At the onset of a major project, designate a QA employee or department to review progress. A dedicated team can increase the likelihood of issues being identified and remedied faster.  Additionally, incentivize team members to report problems instead of covering up or avoiding them.

Feedback.  Development in long-term projects is usually incremental, and team members may not be able to see immediate progress.  If proper training and feedback is foregone, employees can feel frustrated, have a lack of understanding of their role, and lack a sense of purpose.  To increase morale and maximize productivity, it is important to provide team members with feedback and to stress the importance of their individual contributions.  By implementing a well-developed communication and training plan, you can meet the needs of individual team members while improving your chance of success.  

Understanding that project pain points hinge on underlying systems, rather than single individuals, is key to implementing successful change.  By examining how systemic variables interact and influence each other, a PM will be able to avoid costly pitfalls and capitalize on counter-intuitive elements that can be integral to success.