• AgileXperts

IN 2021, WE NEED TO BUILD MORE HEADROOM INTO OUR PROJECT PLANNING

If 2020 was anything of an example for workforce and project planning, we should be looking at 2021 as the year to give our teams more space to think, reflect and refine.





Many projects, particularly payroll and workforce management projects, have a very thin margin of error to begin with. AgileExperts Client Engagement Director, Steve Keenaghan explains in this article why it is important to factor in headroom and downtime into your project planning.


“With the C-Suite and Programme Office expecting project estimation to be an exact science, and project team members to be at 100% utilisation at all time, minor events throughout the project lifecycle can have a major impact on project cost, schedule and team motivation.”

What are some of the common factors that create project planning errors that we see?


Building in margin for risk, but no margin for error


Good estimation assesses the level of known risk attached to a project. In a complex project, such as a payroll or workforce management project, this is determined by a variety of factors including governance, team maturity, third party involvement, technology, integration of business departments and requirements definition. The higher the risk, the greater the contingency i.e. the effort/cost margin added to the hours and price to deal with the uncertainty deriving from risk.

Projects are usually estimated and scoped up with the ‘minimum cost to deliver’ framework in mind. This is frugal, and looked at favourably by the C-Suite, however, this approach intentionally minimises acceptable risk margin and does not provide any headroom for mistakes or rework.


The project risk factor in estimates is based on the experience of the individual or organisation, and these risks factors are designed to cater for the ‘known unknowns”. If the project encounters a black swan event, i.e., “an unknown unknown”, or realignment of priorities is required, there is little room to manoeuvre to ensure delivery on time as the margin for error is too small.


"We know that good project planning tries to capture these events as risks or key assumption in the project plan to cover some of these eventualities, but the key point is that all estimates are just that, they are estimates only and are usually wrong, unless you are using stochastic estimating in conjunction with Monte Carlo modelling."

If we accept that all estimates are usually wrong, we need to plan the project and take this into account, we need to be agile, pragmatic and flexible by building in some headroom to our plan.


Crucially this headroom also enables the project team to accelerate at certain times, such as key milestone events without reliance on teams working harder not smarter.


Scheduling your resources at less than 100% utilisation


Estimates of resources required for a project, in terms of utilisation, typically build from the scope of known tasks or milestones. These are then broken down into ‘hours to achieve’ and allotted to a dedicated resource, often a full-time equivalent (FTEs).


How the number of FTEs converts into a project team is a product of a ‘target’ deadline and/or an estimation of the development lifecycle e.g. scope, build, test, deploy. Often these ‘target’ deadlines are scheduled with the FTEs being at 100% utilisation, excluding public holidays and personal leave. This introduces a risk to the project as it does not account for personal downtime, stress leave, team events, administrative tasks, competing priorities, SME assistance to other teams, conferences, speaking events, documentation reviews, approval cycles, creating variations and other BAU activity. Not to mention project dependencies, interdependencies, deadlock and competing project priorities.


Scheduling your FTEs at less than 100% capacity when planning the project gives you some wiggle room in project delivery and accommodates for unexpected project or resource issues in the project. It also gives you a buffer of budget, so you can avoid going ‘cap in hand’ to the LT or Program Office asking for more. An additional benefit is that it gives your team the ability to ramp-up or speed up closer to delivery date – this is because they’re not strung out, exhausted or demotivated from being overworked.


“Executives often work to the mandate that once an estimate is given, then it is cast in concrete and cannot be amended without significant effort. The most experienced Project Managers are always planning for the unexpected and looking out for their team by adding in a little extra time for delays, conflicts, staff attrition, personal time and unexpected roadblocks." Steve concludes.

Having a bit of headroom creates ease with project team members, gives them time to reflect and apply quality of work, and speed up if and when they need to and still delivering quality within scope, schedule and budget identified in the plan. For more information about our project estimate and scoping services, please book an initial consult with our team here