There is a scientific theory called Boyle’s Law, which states that a gas will expand to fill the size of the container that it’s in.

For many years I have felt that staff in organisations – performing their day-to-day operational activities – behave in much the same way. One often hears if increased workloads on individuals when overall staff numbers are reduced through restructure or redundancy, but one hardly every hears staff complain when there is too little work. They seem to take what work there is, and have it expand to the point where they appear fully occupied or even overloaded.

As of late, I am beginning to see projects (i.e. non-operational activities) display the same characteristics. While it’s important to ensure that projects are staffed with the right skills, it’s also important to ensure that they do not introduce inefficiency into the organisation, by over resourcing.

It seems that regardless of the amount of resources allocated to a project, the work will grow to consume all the time available and keep these people busy.  Whether or not the work is productive or adds value to the project and organisation is debateable.

I suspect that the biggest culprit here is poor project planning – and while this may seem like an obvious cause, I think it deserves closer investigation. There are a number of schools of thought when it comes to project planning methodology and approach and debating these can become an endless conversation.

Many managers become too focused on the task driven approach to project planning, so while they may have their eye on the end goal or desired outcome of the project, the steps to get there are sometimes unrelated to the effort required to achieve this. This also means that there is no clear view of the project deliverables that are required to ensure a successful project. This is especially important when the desired project outcome is not a tangible deliverable, but rather a benefit or number of benefits brought about by successful delivery of a collection of  tangible outputs along the way.

Unfortunately this means that both project managers and project team members become task driven rather than deliverable driven, which then results in the inefficiencies mentioned earlier in this article.

Project management methodologies such as PRINCE2 ( advocate a product based approach to planning. This means that the products required (for instance a set of foundations for a building or a business requirements document for a software application) to ensure successful delivery of the project are defined before any tasks. These products or deliverables are first scoped and sized, their dependencies determined, and necessary skills to deliver them identified. Only once this is done, can the project manager determine that activities required to deliver these projects, and hence the project.

Once projects are up and running, they should be subject to regular reviews. Traditionally if projects are adhering to budget, they continue in a ‘business as usual’ fashion. Instead, the questions should be asked; are these resources still contributing to delivery of the defined products? Have they completed their work and are now been side-tracked elsewhere to help complete non-critical project work? Can they better utilised elsewhere are on the project? Or should they be released from the project?

One of the biggest dangers is when a project assumes ‘a life of its own’ and becomes like a lethargic oil tanker, unable to change direction. Instead of delivering the value to the business as originally intended it becomes a self-serving system that consumes resources and destroys value.

PRINCE II advocates regular business case reviews and project boundaries reports and reviews – part of this should be a project resource review. Just because the budget light is green, doesn’t mean it can’t be done more efficiently.