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Go To Where The Puck Is Going, Not Where It Has Been

bondale Oct9Winter is coming, and in many parts of North America, sports fans thoughts turn to the drop of the puck which signals the start of the hockey season.  I am reminded of Walter Gretzky’s advice to his son when considering the challenge companies face when attempting to match internal skills and capacity against future project demand.

With a traditional approach to annual planning, project requests are solicited, reviewed and analyzed.  The resource requirements to deliver those projects are estimated at a high level and aggregated.  These totals are then mapped against available capacity of required skills to determine how many projects can be completed.  Invariably, demand exceeds supply so either resource augmentation is initiated in those companies which can afford to bring on additional staff or (more commonly) the project wish-list is culled through subjective selection and prioritization methods. 

In companies which have adopted more dynamic planning approaches, while there is a better ability to shift resources away from projects which are not expected to deliver desired outcomes, there is still likely to be a variance between skills and capacity supply and demand.

Introducing consistent, objective project selection and prioritization practices can partially help to reduce supply-side gaps as low value projects are less likely to be initiated and hence will not consume valuable skills.  Furthermore, by improving project tracking, reporting and evaluation processes, project health is likely to be scrutinized regularly which reduces the likelihood of projects metamorphosing into resource-consuming zombies.

Unfortunately, neither of these project portfolio management capability improvements fully addresses the issue as their focus is on modifying demand-side behaviors. 

Two of the more common causes of supply-side shortages include:

  1.  Professional development investments rarely align with the company’s strategic needs.  In most organizations, training decisions are made by employees or their reporting managers.  Training budget restrictions will usually result in there being some scrutiny on requests, but rarely is strategic alignment a significant input into this due diligence activity.
  2. Formal training is only one component of a skills development strategy.  On-the-job training, job rotation, and job shadowing are other key approaches to developing required skills.  Unfortunately, none of these activities are free and while most companies recognize the need to provide junior staff with such development opportunities, rarely will they do the same for more experienced staff, usually because those staff are required to satisfy current project or operational demands.

    Fundamentally, supply-side shortages are the outcome of short-term thinking.  Unfortunately, in publicly traded companies or those which operate under significant external influence such as public sector agencies, it can be extremely difficult to take a longer term view, but this is crucial to sustainably address skill gaps.  Instead the temptation many companies succumb to is to focus on hiring or developing sufficient skills to satisfy current gaps without addressing future needs. 

    So what needs to change?  While this is not an issue which can be resolved overnight, the following steps can position a company well for achieving longer term improvement.

  3. Define strategy and develop a plan to achieve that strategy.  As Lewis Carroll said “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there”.  It’s pretty difficult to develop future skills if you don’t know what skills will be required to get you there and to sustain you once you are there.  This strategy and supporting plan shouldn’t be carved in stone, but neither should it change each day.
  4. Identify which skills are going to be critical to future success and then formulate and execute a plan to develop these skills through a combination of formal training, on-the-job training and job shadowing or doubling-up staff on aligned projects and activities.  While this means that your company may need to initiate less concurrent projects while such skills are being developed, it will also result in greater throughput or reduced project costs in the future.
  5. Include strategic alignment as a key criterion for both demand and supply-side decision making.  For example, if your company determines that a particular skill set is critical today but will be unnecessary a couple of years out, reduce ongoing development investments in that skill set and it may even be worth assessing whether it is a good candidate for strategic outsourcing.  Skills which are in limited need today, but likely to be crucial a year or two out should be formally added to the development plans for enough staff making allowance for attrition.

Emulate the Great One by implementing strategic supply-side practices and avoid behaving like novice players who chase each other to the puck’s last position without attempting to determine its speed and trajectory.

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