The Do’s & Don’ts of Resource Planning in Agile Organizations

Tasked with agile resource planning, but don't know where to start? Here are some tips for agile organizations.
Nicole Tiefensee

Resource planning, in general, is a critical lever in any organization’s growth regardless of the project management methods in use.

However, typically, resource planning is a concept that connects at the hip with deterministic bottom-up approaches. So what does it have to do with agile project management?

The truth is, when it comes to agile projects, resource planning is still very important.

“Agile organizations rely on an innovative mix of stable and dynamic elements to bring planning up to speed with their fast-paced needs”, says Santiago Comella-Dorda from McKinsey.

This is to say that being Agile does not necessarily mean that there is no upfront planning made as such or that it is guided by arbitrary decisions. Instead, agile organizations use the management techniques that have been in circulation for decades now, only they adjust them to match the pace agile teams work with. This ‘element of stability in Agile’ helps you make more accurate capacity planning and resource allocation decisions and gives ways to manage resources better for all the people involved to get deployed productively.

What’s more, Agile resource management gives you insights into resource-related risks, which are inherent in any type of project, let alone one that is ‘flexible’. With resource planning strategies in place, Agile teams can predict and prevent potential risks before they make the project stagnate or derail it altogether.

So how does one bridge the gap between human resource planning and agile development? Here's a guide to get started.

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What is agile resource planning?

Resource planning (resources = people, in this context) as such has a part to play no matter the type of project management you adopt, Waterfall or Agile. But since the two methodologies differ in the way you approach scheduling and management, they also differ in their resource planning guidelines.

Agile resource planning can be best described as low-resolution planning months in advance and high-resolution planning a Sprint ahead.

Essentially, you’ve got to have an idea of what resources the project will require to support business growth and avoid any misunderstanding with the client. This is what we call low-resolution planning. Knowing what roles to source for the projects will give you an idea about the budget and feasible time frame for the project to be delivered. High-resolution planning, however, will be more detailed and less forward-looking.

An important thing to remember about working with Agile is that the focus falls on the product you need to deliver, not on the project. This, in turn, means that you shouldn’t chase execution of the project as your primary goal, but prioritize the interests of product development.

Due to this product focus, people work in Sprints, these 2-week iterations that help you finish one milestone after another. This, however, doesn't mean you need to re-plan resources every two weeks, but you have to rethink and tweak the approach to resource planning altogether. Agile is known for its flexibility. And that flexibility also translates into the way you do resource planning: working in short cycles.

So, how do you get started? Here’s all you need to know.

How to make resource planning work in agile teams

Begin with an Agile resource planning strategy and reliable resource planning software.

A resource plan in an Agile environment should be dynamic and static, flexible and fixed at the same time. You need to find the golden middle for your teams to be flexible enough to deliver the work even in case of unexpected change or ‘missing skills’ midway.

“Whether it’s design thinking or Agile, organizations must take a strategic approach to incorporating new processes”, Viviane de Paula, PMP and project manager from Brazil, told the PMI.

Here are a few tips that could guide your strategy building process.

Keep it simple

One of the traps you want to avoid with Agile resource planning is making it too complex. By nature, resource planning can easily get tangled, especially if you are looking at multiple projects or Sprints at the same time. Establishing this minimalistic approach where you remove all the project management clutter and keep the things that are integral to reaching your goals is key.

This is something Ilter Gunasti, Manager at Deloitte, highlights too:

“In my opinion, in an agile project, resource planning should be rather simplified as it is the team who owns the stories, not the individuals.”

Build dedicated project teams

When doing resource planning in an Agile environment, as hard as it might be, you need to try to assemble teams that don’t change throughout the whole project journey.

Furthermore, try to assign each team member to one project, instead of scattering their attention across different projects.  

Nicolas Frei, a certified Scrum Master is in favor of building dedicated teams in Agile:

“A team is not much of a team if its members keep changing. That is just a bunch of random people”

Rahul Dewan, Managing Director at Srijan Technologies also supports team consistency:

“On the occasions when resources are shifted from one product to another, managers should keep team members together whenever possible to ensure the benefits of team consistency.”

Prioritize collaboration

To make an Agile team or teams effective, you need to think about efficient communication among all of them. It is actually quite common to rely on dedicated cross-functional teams in such environments.

A cross-functional team is a little bit of everything — there is a representative from each company department and all of them form a team to independently finish a single unit of work or a Sprint. As a project manager, you need to think ahead for the resources to face no obstacles when collaborating internally or with other teams, especially if there are some dependencies between your Sprints or resources.  

Bring in complementary and multi-functional skill sets

When planning an effective Agile team, there are some things you need to look for in your resources:

  1. Fast learners who are eager to gain new technical skills
  2. Flexible team members who are interested in making an individual contribution to the project but, if need be, can put on a supervisor’s cape too.

More often than not, projects stagnate and Sprints fail because you suddenly discover that you’re missing a key skill on the team. But accounting for this threat ahead and assembling a team that can ‘fill in the gaps’ can save the day in case of a force majeure.

Let the teams do the planning

Autonomy and accountability are two distinctive features of Agile teams. Giving your resources this freedom to schedule their own vacations, holidays, and days off will not just give them independence, but will also raise their sense of responsibility and motivation to finish each Sprint they get assigned to.

Your team will then decide what volume of work is doable and what isn’t, without having to agree on everything with higher standing managers or wasting hours trying to explain their plan of action.

This is like sharing responsibility. Your team will not just do execution, but planning too, which means that being sloppy with it and watching their own strategy fail is not in their best interests.

Don’t apply rigid staffing procedures

Aaron De Smet from McKinsey explains that “small, multidisciplinary teams of agile organizations can respond swiftly and promptly to rapidly changing market opportunities and customer demands.”

And this is where one of the main perks of the Agile methodology and Sprints come in handy: these 2-week iterations work as demos, in a way.

You set out to deliver a product or a project with a specific milestone to reach within that short time frame. After the first sprint, or the second, or even the third, you will know if your resource plan worked or not; if the overall management process worked or not. If it didn’t, you can rearrange your resources or add the lacking ones, and save the company a lot of financing. This is why rigid staffing procedures might be a waste of time— you need to leave some room for a potential resource adjustment. But keep in mind that it’s best to avoid that — adding extra people to a late project makes it later, according to Brook’s law.

Don’t focus on roles — pick skills and capabilities instead

This is another reason to step away from the rigid resource planning you would usually follow in Waterfall. You need to have resource planning laws, but they should not be iron laws. In Agile, they are not beneficial.

When planning a team, instead of focusing on roles and titles, first consider the skills and capabilities you need to have a project delivered and compare them to the ones you have in the resource pool. See if your resources have some skills that cover the areas that go beyond their main roles. For example, developers who can also do some testing.

Your main goal here is to create a small team that can take on a Sprint and finish it end to end independently.

Final thoughts

Planning resources in Agile can be a controversial journey, resembling tightrope walking at times. But if there is a sure way to get from one side of the rope to the other it’s this: having good visibility over your resources, their capacity and availability.

With all the necessary data at hand, you can make informed decisions when planning your teams and building realistic expectations. Runn can give you accurate insights into your resource capacity, availability, utilization, management, scheduling, and more. Book a demo now to see how you can upgrade your resource planning experience.

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