Agency Life: Resource Planning

“The art/science of fitting and shaping a schedule covering multiple staff and disciplines, through a mix of account management, project management, line-management and research demands.”

In one form or another I’ve managed schedules for 16 years across the telecommunications and digital industries. One thing doesn’t change regardless of industry, it’s all about people. In my experience people like certainty, they like to know what projects they’ll be working on, and on which days. So far I’ve found four really important characteristics of a good planning regime:

• Separate resource level and project level plans
• Start a planning ‘cycle’ and stick to it
• Set really clear rules of engagement with client facing staff
• Communicate the completed plan clearly

The above lessons have been hard won; I’ve tried a lot of approaches. Planning well is a lot like chess, 30 minutes to learn but it’ll take a lifetime to master!

Separate resource level and project level plans

We have a hierarchy of plans at Coast Digital and my resource plan sits at the top. The resource plan covers all the chargeable staff in Design and Build, and Consultancy teams, showing every day in the year. It covers bank holidays/holidays, weekends and other events (training for example). The resource schedule is my way of keeping track of the bookings we make, or to put it another way, the promises we make clients.

The project plans sit underneath the resource plan and are fed from it; project plans are often altered to take into account the availability of resources. We share project plans with our clients and they form the basis our agreements and project communication. As you can imagine it is a cardinal sin for the project management team to share project plans until they’ve been checked in accordance with the resource plan.

Get this right and projects start out on the right foot. Fail to do this with sufficient rigour and projects won’t run smoothly.

Start a planning ‘cycle’ and stick to it

To reiterate, people like certainty. Friday morning is planning morning at Coast Digital; a chance for client facing staff to reassess the week’s work and their requirements for the coming week. It also gives the development and creative teams a natural break to work towards (the weekend) and provides the Production Management team an opportunity to pause for breath, coming together to discuss project progress and think about upcoming works.

Friday is important to me as it offers the opportunity to gather requirements not already in the plan for next week and ‘massage’ the requirements into the schedule. I can only really do this if I’m able to weight up these requirements – getting a batch of requirements all at once gives me a chance to fairly do this. If requirements were routinely looked at in a piecemeal fashion I wouldn’t be able to compare them directly, being able to see all the new bookings gives me a chance to weigh up the various booking options comprehensively.

The ‘cycle’ is key. Friday is planning day. That doesn’t change, the meetings happen religiously. I take an objective and detached programme management perspective (that’s a whole other blog post) and keep good notes on progress, latest developments and next steps. The notes are always published to all of Coast Digital’s management team (ensuring people understand where projects are). On rare occasions I’m not in on Friday, we might plan a day earlier. If I’m on leave my cover always plans on Friday. The ‘cycle’ happens and people can rely on it.

At one of the sessions our ‘Head of Creative’ Jamil Shehadeh said, unprompted, that coming together to discuss projects on Friday is ‘who we are’. Now that’s an ingrained behaviour.

Set really clear rules of engagement with client facing staff

Planning is really about keeping promises to our clients. Once dates are confirmed in our resource plan and communicated, it is entirely right clients use and rely on them. Coast Digital can only schedule these dates IF we have a degree of control over our resources which includes having rules about making a resource booking. Our client facing staff are not allowed to confirm bookings with a client without ensuring the date is in the resource schedule; they need to bring the dates to a planning session and have the booking made in our resource plan.

I really do understand the pressure people feel to just say ‘yes!’ to demands. I’d rather our Account, Project and other client facing staff managed expectations initially and give our clients good information (based on our planning ‘cycle’). The alternative, unmanaged expectations and some other method of booking management (usually whomever is shouting loudest), isn’t that attractive and would lead to enormous conflict between the competing requirements. Far better to have the rules and stick to them; fair treatment for all.

Communicate the completed plan clearly

Clarity in communication is key. I want to give the business two very clear messages:

• I’m ready for planning requests – with a deadline for requests and a format in which they are to be submitted
• The plan is finished and you can find it here – the plan is finished and agreed, you can find it at the following location

I want the above messages to be extremely clear. They signal that I’m ready to receive requests and the planning process has started. At Coast Digital we call this ‘banging the schedule drum’, literally getting the message out to the team. In the past, my Head of Design and Build, has physically approached people in the business asking for bookings. Banging the schedule drum! The name just stuck. When I’ve completed the plan I also want to signal this very clearly. It’s always complete before Monday morning, people need to come into the office on Monday knowing what they are working on. Friday nights aren’t always the earliest I leave the office but our approach to planning, our ‘cycle’, makes the additional time a good investment.

I’ve often wondered if there’s a more ‘emergent’ planning philosophy we could adopt. Give the Account Management, Project Management and New Business teams direct access to developers directly. The answer is I’m always open to ideas and you’re welcome to the above. It’s taken me 16 years to learn them!