Can You Afford to Split People Between Projects?

1999 Product Development Management Columns

Many product development managers say that they want to get their new products to market faster. Yet, they avoid applying one of the most powerful tools for compressing development effort—and thus time. This tool is simply assigning people to the project full time. Of course, given the constrained resources of most businesses today, dedicating key individuals to a project full time until it is complete is easier said than done. But because this is a powerful technique for accelerating projects, I will provide you here with some reasons to do it on your projects.

In most organizations labor seems expensive and scarce. Consequently, we staff development projects to make best use of the labor available, which often means splitting critical individuals between projects to make fullest use of any gaps in their workload. If the expense of labor is indeed what should be driving the decisions on this specific project, then having an individual working on two projects simultaneously makes fullest use of their time. However, if time to market is the critical driver, then dedicated staffing will help you get there. (Chapter 2 of Developing Products in Half the Time details how to calculate which of these two conflicting approaches you should be taking.)

The figure below illustrates these two opposing objectives. The upper graph  comes from a multiyear study at a major electronics company involving about 10,000 engineers. It shows that if one wants to maximize the value added for the labor expense involved, then an engineer should be assigned two projects. Then the second project can fill any slack time in the first one. However, the lower graph looks at the same data from a cycle-time perspective: assigning only one project per engineer allows far more effort (value added) to be concentrated on this project, driving it toward completion faster. The conclusion: first calculate the time-versus-expense trade-off for this specific project, then act accordingly by choosing either dedicated staffing or splitting engineers between two (no more) projects.

Beyond these mathematical ones, there are some other powerful advantages of dedicated staffing. First, it places a spotlight on individual accountability. When an individual works on just one project, the reasons for not being able to make progress on this project simply evaporate. We have had engineers tell us that they disliked working on a single project, because it forced them to be accountable! Also, when developers are dedicated to projects, commitment and communication among team members increase dramatically. Dedicated staffing also makes it feasible to locate the team together physically, which further enhances communication.

I have concentrated on the engineering members of the team because the data in the figure happen to come from an engineering study. However, many companies already exploit the power of dedicated engineers. Their current weak link is that they do not dedicate others—especially those in marketing and manufacturing—so their projects fall behind in these areas due to lack of accountability, commitment, and communication outside of engineering.

(c) Copyright 2013 Preston G. Smith. All Rights Reserved.