There’s an old joke about IBM I heard many years ago that goes something like this:

“What is the difference between IBM and Microsoft.  On a 10 person project team IBM has 9 managers and one programmer and microsoft has 9 programmers and 1 manager.”

Having worked at IBM I know that the joke is definitely an exaggeration that is meant to provoke a reaction than offer a real point of comparison.  However in my experience the challenge of having top heavy project teams, especially on IT projects has been a real one that I’ve had to deal with throughout my career.

One of the ways that organizations attempt to diffuse risk early in the project cycle on mission critical/important projects is to build large teams that represent a significant portion of the stakeholder community.  On an IT project in a cross functional organization one might find literally every department represented, not to mention the IT professionals (part of the “perform organization”) who are tasked with carrying out the development work.

The issue in these situations is not one where the project is under staffed but rather that it is over staffed and most likely with the wrong skill-set.  So when the project manager goes through the beginning phases of the planning process and complains that there are not enough team members, management usually comes back with statistics quoting how many individuals are assigned to the project.  It is a legitimate concern on both parties in the sense that the organization is making a significant resource commitment and investment on the one hand, while the project manager has to deliver a project that is understaffed by the right skill-set.

In these instances it is incumbent upon the project manager to play the role of not only the chief advocate for the project but an educator of sorts to help management understand this gap in skill-set and resources.  While it might look impressive on customer projects for instance to walk into the client site with 20 resources, that really does little to help deliver the project if the majority of these individuals are “managers” in some form or another.

I’ve discussed in previous posts the challenges that small and medium sized organizations have due to under-staffing and the fact that most resources have to wear multiple hats.  In essence the problem I’m discussing here is almost on the other end of the spectrum.  The issue however is just as serious as it is likely going to cause delays and inabilities in meeting client requirements.

As part of the kickoff activities the project manager must develop a solid resource matrix that is compared to the stakeholder matrix, requirements documents, and the skills list so as to understand where the gaps are and plan appropriately.  It is much easier to educate the organization and management as to the challenges early on rather than wait until the project is in the delivery cycle.

The is particularly challenging for project management practitioners who are new to organizations or who are inexperienced because in most instances they are not able to decipher the data on stakeholders, requirements, skills, and resources.  This is why the role of the executive sponsor is so important, especially early on in the project, to help the project manager in analyzing the situation accurately and support in the decision making process.