The acquisition of project staff for a major IT project is a daunting and complex task. Whether you work for an IT provider whose sole purpose is to provide contracted services for clients, or for an IT organization that is internal to a corporation, resourcing a project is not for the faint of heart.
Prior to establishing my own consulting practice, I was fortunate to work for IT providers that maintained pools of skilled staff (often referred to as human resources – an impersonal term which I object to, but nevertheless continue to use as it is a common term). Whenever we bid on new work, we would go to the pool to staff our proposals. The pool would expand or contract depending on the amount of work we were in the process of bidding or had under contract.
When do you acquire staff?
After we won the project and it was underway, the task of acquiring staff continued. Whether we were ramping up for the next project phase, or replacing staff that left the project or the firm, or plugging staffing holes that were the result of poor estimation, resource acquisition was a full-time effort.
Much of staffing complexity stems from the fact that project resources (for the most part) are not plug-and-play widgets. Resources must be matched to open project positions based on knowledge, skill levels, and experience. Gone are the days of the “bait-and-switch” tactics where IT providers would propose a highly skilled resource to get the job, then upon winning, substitute a less experienced resource. Gone are the days when IT providers would propose analysts skilled and knowledgeable in one industry for a project in a different industry, rationalizing that analysts are analysts regardless of the domain. Today’s clients are more sophisticated, demanding project resources that have the requisite technical skills and are knowledgeable in their business areas as well.
Add the fact that resources, even within the same discipline, come at varying costs based on the knowledge, skill, and experience of the individuals. This adds an additional challenge for the Project Manager to hire the most skilled and experienced staff member for each position while staying within the project budget.
This seems to be a constant juggling act – and it is. The most successful Project Managers I have known had a finely tuned anticipation meter, and were rarely caught off-guard with staffing challenges. It is incumbent on the Project Manager to keep these various requirements in mind when recruiting staff for any project position at any time during project execution.
What factors should you consider when acquiring staff?
As noted earlier, client organizations are becoming more sophisticated in their project staffing requirement. They are aware they cannot dictate exact requirements for every position on the project. However, they have been burned often enough with the “bait-and-switch” tactics of earlier times, that they are much more demanding of the skills, experience, and knowledge of project staff, especially key project staff. Their contracts require that staff approved for key positions cannot be substituted once the project is awarded.
The Project Manager must be diligent in staffing the project. She should consider the following factors:
- Availability of resources. Before bringing on staff that are proposed for the project (key positions excepted), or before acquiring additional project staff, the Project Manager must check on the resources’ availability against the timeframe they are required for the project. Any number of situations may have transpired since the resource was originally proposed or recruited: extended vacation or illness, a previous assignment that goes beyond its original schedule, resignation/termination, and others.
If a resource is in high demand, the Project Manager must be able to employ her skills as a negotiator, problem solver, and/or “horse trader” to acquire the needed team members. She must be flexible in working with their availability while taking care not to disrupt her own project.
- Cost of resources. As noted earlier, different experience levels come at different costs, whether from within the organization or from a subcontracting company. The Project Manager must be adept at obtaining maximum skills and experience while remaining within budget.
- Skills and experience. So often the exact skills and experience are not available or may not even exist within the organization. The Project Manager must know the requirements of her project so well that she is able to fulfill the staffing needs with other options. For example, she may bring on less experienced staff early and train them in areas in which they fall short. She may staff with a more experienced individual and extend his capabilities to other areas in which he is also skilled.
- Attitude and fit. Projects are comprised of many staff with complementary skills all working together to satisfy the objectives of a common client.
Not every experienced resource with superior skills will have the right attitude or temperament for the project. Not every resource will be a good fit. The Project Manager must know her client and her team so well that she considers factors beyond just skills and experience.
To understand what additional team interaction skills to consider when recruiting project staff, refer to my previous two articles on the topic, “Why the Resource Management Plan Must Include People Aspects” and “5 Essential Skills to be Addressed in the Resource Management Plan.”
What tools and techniques should you use to acquire project staff?
There are myriads of options for an IT provider or internal IT department to use when acquiring staff for any project. For example:
- Pre-assign project staff. I mentioned earlier that the firms I worked for in my early years had pools of skilled staff from which team members were selected. We went to the pool for every project on which we bid, checking skill levels, experience, availability, and overall fit for the proposed project roles. If the right resource wasn’t available, we would task our Human Resources Department to recruit the position in advance of potentially winning the business. By pre-assigning the staff (recall that for key positions we had no option but to pre-assign), we could be assured that they would be available.
- Use contracted resources. In addition to maintaining pools of skilled staff, these firms also had strong agreements with companies that specialized in IT staff augmentation. In many situations, these companies could supply highly skilled technicians at a lower cost than we could hire these same staff. The biggest advantage to contracting for certain resources, was that the staff augmentation companies would bear much of the risk of maintaining their own pools of resources, thus relieving us of having to put employees “on the bench” between projects.
- Negotiate with other managers. Earlier I mentioned that the Project Manager should develop her negotiating skills. Whether recruiting the skills of a resource currently assigned to another project, or requesting unfunded training for an assigned resource, or striking a compromise among her own team leads, a skilled negotiator will benefit her project while at the same time look out for the needs of other organizational initiatives.
This becomes even more challenging in a matrixed organization where many corporate initiatives intertwine and depend on staff to execute them. For example, at one point in my career, I reported to (1) the executive responsible for the projects I worked on, (2) the executive responsible to build the business within the industry niche to which I was assigned, (3) the executive responsible to manage the service line to which I reported, (4) the executive in charge of the physical office to which I reported, and (5) the executive responsible for developing business in the geographical region to which I was assigned. That’s a lot of Type-A personalities to report to while also juggling the day-to-day responsibilities of project life. Negotiation skills and the ability to “manage my manager(s)” become huge assets in this type of organization.
- Negotiate with client stakeholder(s). This is often an underutilized source for acquiring project staff. While client organizations are understanding of project needs for their own staff, staff who will eventually become end-users of the new system, they seldom give it much thought beyond carving out snippets of staff time to answer questions or participate in certain project tasks and activities.
In my own experience, I have had to negotiate for the brightest and best team members that the client had to offer. I had a Vice President once tell me that if the client manager had tears in his eyes when I requested a certain individual to come onto the project, I knew I had his star performer. If he offered up an individual willingly, he or she was expendable and therefore not a good fit for mine.
Additionally, I have negotiated for full-time commitment of staff. What good is it if one end-user team provides subject matter expertise for requirements definition and a different set of individuals performs user acceptance testing? Continuity of understanding from project inception to implementation serves the client organization best.
Yes, the prospect of staffing projects is daunting and complex. But with the right processes in place, and by considering the people aspects of staff acquisition (after all, this is a people-centric activity), daunting and complex soon give way to accomplishment and success.
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