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Resource Constraints and How to Resolve Them

Learn how to identify and overcome resource constraints to ensure successful project delivery and business operations.

Keisha Card
Writer at Motion
Jan 24, 2024
Table of contents

Once, an ambitious young man started a big project without any plan or consideration of what could go wrong.

His name was Victor Frankenstein.

Long story short, his ambitious project backfired, and the monster he created murdered his entire family.

Having an ambitious project wasn’t the problem. It never is.

Victor’s problem was that he never considered his limitations, what could go wrong during the operation, and his possibilities given his particular context.

What about you? Are you aware of your limitations or constraints? Do you have a resource management plan? Would you like your project to be an example of success instead of a horror story?

This article will set you, your future projects, and your project goals up for success by explaining resource constraints, how to resolve them, and pitfalls to avoid.

What do resource constraints mean?

By resources, we mean all the valuable elements you need to run any project or business operation. Different projects have various project requirements and resources:

Human resources (people), tools, equipment, financial resources (your budget, perhaps), and time (your schedule).

These resources shape a project or business direction. Their limitations shape it just as much, because no one has unlimited resources.

Regardless of your industry, you'll always have limited resources keeping your business or project from unbridled success. The Theory of Constraints explains how, like every chain has one weakest link, every process or project has one bottleneck, or constraint. And that constraint keeps you from doing better.

Finding and fixing that bottleneck will improve performance, or output (and let you move on to find the next-in-line constraint).

Imagine your business hanging from a chain. Each link is a vital resource (your team, the equipment, your capital), and one of these links is weaker than the rest.

Unless you identify that one, the whole thing might break apart, dropping your ambitious project down into the pit. It’s your resource constraint, and if it’s not enough, you need to address it.

However, how do you know if what you considered a resource constraint isn't just a mere hunch?

Step back from the edge of the pit for a moment to consider assumptions, risks and constraints that go with each venture and every project.

Assumptions are what you believe to be true when planning a business venture project. For example, you assume that your supplier of rare raw materials will remain in business.

On the other hand, risks are potential events that are likely to affect the project’s outcome if they come true.

Constraints in project management are actual hindrances or limitations your project or business already has.

For example, a box factory produces 100 boxes per hour with 10 machines. You are constrained by the machine capacity. Your team has only two designers. Whether that’s enough or not, it’s a constraint.

Now for the box factory, let’s suppose that one of the machines breaks down during peak season. That’s a risk that could impact delivery dates and the company’s credibility. A savvy manager has anticipated that in the risk register, and the mitigation plan has a spare machine in the back room.

So an assumption is something you believe to be true, a risk is something that might happen. You anticipate and plan for it. So what’s a constraint?

A table to contrast concepts

‎A constraint is a limitation, a restriction that’s a given. It may or may not be burdensome.

What are the consequences of resource constraints?

When resource constraints are overlooked or disregarded, the consequences can be severe.

These are some of the most common consequences of the “ostrich” effect:

  1. Project delays (schedule): Insufficient time or too few resources can lead to rushed decision-making, compromised quality, and missed deadlines.
  2. Budget overruns (cost): Budgetary limitations are a common resource constraint. Ignoring budget constraints leads to overspending, financial strain, and potential project termination due to lack of ‌funds.
  3. Team burnout (human resources): Insufficient team members and missing expert skills burden your entire team. Ignoring skill constraints may result in more than burnout – also subpar performance, increased error rates, and the need for additional training or recruitment.

Consider a construction project where only two plumbers are allocated to a major plumbing overhaul for a commercial building. Four plumbers were supposed to be available for the project, but now you’ll need to extend the schedule or your entire project could be jeopardized.

Your scope, schedule, budget, and your allocated resources are all necessary constraints.

When you set unrealistic expectations for these, you impose unnecessary constraints. Those unnecessary constraints cause delays, budget overruns, and compromised deliverables that could damage your company’s reputation.

What are the factors that “cause” resource constraints?

It’s impossible to produce a simultaneously big, fast, and cheap outcome. There'll always be compromises among these factors. All projects have scope, schedule and cost constraints.

The triple constraint theory holds that any alteration to one of these elements affects the other two, creating a delicate balance in project management.

Three triangles with time, scope and cost inside

‎Understanding this dynamic helps project managers make informed decisions while considering the broader impact on the project.

For example, your restaurant spends an average of 10 minutes serving a Cordon Bleu.

A customer wants it faster; what can you do?

You could add an extra cook to reduce the average serving time to 5 minutes, increasing your cost (financial resources).

Or you could change the scope, negotiating with the customer to bring him just a plain chicken breast, no ham, swiss cheese or other gourmet touches. Less time, less cost, but it probably won’t increase your income, which is probably your project’s value.

Understanding this framework can help you become a better project planner. Following it blindly won't grant you instant success. What the project delivers in value likely means more. But it will help you spot your limitations and leverage ‌them.

Three main errors to avoid

Just as there are "good practices”, there are bad ones you can avoid to give you a head start.

So, pay attention to these three simple-to-follow no-nos to avoid catastrophe.

1. Ignore the initial scope.

As we mentioned, scope constraints are about the agreement (implicit or explicit) you have with your customer. It might be the size of the house and the number of rooms or how a Cordon Bleu is supposed to be served.

Ignoring the original scope (the original agreement) can lead to the dreaded scope creep monster. Your cost and time grow along with the scope. Scope crimp, on the other hand, will result in an unhappy client.

2. Forget about potential risks.

Risks are potential menaces (or opportunities) creeping out of their holes.

Looking away won't make them disappear. On the contrary, if you let them become real, they'll cause unexpected challenges, like team disruptions, supply issues, and resource strain.

3. Try to do everything all at once.

If you were leading a soccer team, sending all your players after the ball would be ridiculous.

You need a goalkeeper, a right fullback, and a left fullback, in addition to your offense, to stand a chance. And their interactions need to be precisely orchestrated and timed.

Resource planning requires you to act strategically.

So acquiring the right players in the right positions at the right time is the golden key. Wearing them out in the first half depletes them early, neglecting essential tasks further along the way.

How do you solve resource constraints?

Identifying the weakest link is good. Understanding how to stop overloading it is even better. But this guide wouldn't be complete if we skipped how to resolve them.

Make the most of your resources with the resource utilization rate

The resource utilization rate is a measure of individual resource efficiency.

Is the machine producing as much as it should? Is an employee overburdened with work?

You get it by dividing the number of billable (or assigned or reported) hours by the maximum number of available working hours and multiplying it by 100.

((Total billable hours) / (Available working hours)) X 100

80% is the traditionally accepted rate. However, non-project work is often not accounted for, which can lead to overestimating available time and result in overallocation or overuse of resources.

By integrating both types of work, such as administrative and project-related tasks, Motion provides a more realistic and holistic view of a resource’s availability and utilization.

Once you’ve determined the ideal resource rate, the next step is to allocate resources. This involves matching team members' skills with specific tasks, considering their availability, and aligning assignments with the overall project timeline. Motion knows your resources’ availability, and the task dependencies and deadlines, too.

Manage client expectations

Although this tip might seem obvious, a recent global assessment by the Project Management Institute stated that 31% of businesses suffered from scope creep on their recent projects.

Resource managers need to be honest about what’s possible with the client’s or sponsor’s budget and timeline. If their scope request exceeds time or finance limits, ensure they know before settling the scope.

Once the scope is settled, stick to it. (Or at least have a decent change management process).

Collaborate with stakeholders to align priorities, fostering ongoing adaptability through regular client updates and feedback sessions.

Maintain transparency and clear communication on project scope and resource allocation decisions to build trust and mitigate the risk of unmet expectations.

A well-defined project scope prevents the unnecessary allocation of project resources to tasks that fall outside the project's original objectives.

Balance utilization of resources without compromising quality

Balancing project resources during the project life cycle, without compromising project quality or team well-being is challenging.

If your lumber supplier consistently struggles to meet demand, resulting in delays, include that data into the overall delivery date (or consider diversifying your suppliers or negotiating priority delivery).

Project estimation involves breaking down tasks, considering dependencies, and factoring in potential challenges. Consulting team members and drawing from past project experiences can help project managers develop more precise estimates.

If it’s impossible to deliver the project on time without overburdening your resources, then doing something about it is essential.

Distribute work allocation as evenly as possible

Resource leveling, a technique in project management, proves valuable in this context. It often involves adjusting the project deadline to ensure project excellence and team health.

Resource smoothing is handy when some resources are underallocated while others are overallocated.

While similar to resource leveling, smoothing focuses on managing resource availability without changing the project timeline. You usually do this with additional resources. Find out more about these two resource management techniques here.

Three graphs improving while advancing

‎Use the work breakdown structure to nail the scope … and then some

The work breakdown structure (WBS) is a pivotal tool in project management for dividing project deliverables into smaller, individual tasks. It’s your guide to what to produce.

Not only that, it’s your guide to what kinds of resources are needed. For example, if you were to refine the design process in an agency, you could segment it into tasks like client consultation, concept development, design, development, revisions, and file management.

But you don’t yet know how many you need. Or when. Once you’ve drilled down far enough into the WBS, you can come up with the tasks. When you have those, you can start to determine what their sequence should be. A schedule starts to unfold.

And how much work will these tasks take? And who can do the work? That’s key to assigning resources. How much will this cost? That’s the key to the budget.

Voila! Like Frankenstein rising from the table, you have a scope, a schedule and a budget. But wait, are you right? Do you have the right people? The right equipment? Is there enough money? You have set the constraints (or someone has done it for you) – but are they so tight they could strangle success?

Maybe you could …

Create a contingency plan

In project management, a contingency plan is a safety net that secures the continuity of your project. Build contingency into your schedule and your budget.

Begin by identifying resource-related risks, such as supplier delays or budget overruns. Or imagine your best worker is out sick. Know the back-up plan for each major resource.

If there's a risk of running out of a critical material, your contingency plan could include securing alternative suppliers or allocating budget reserves for express shipping.

As bestselling author Simon Sinek said, “Always plan for the fact that no plan ever goes according to plan.”

A contingency plan gives you a set of responses for potential resource issues, taking the pressure off your team so they’re not forced to improvise when something goes out of whack.

Use project management software instead of spreadsheets

Even though you can tailor spreadsheets for your specific needs, resource management software allows you to plan, manage, and track the progress of your entire project with ease.

Once you’ve finished setting up your tasks, dependencies and target timelines, and assigned your resources, Motion will take it from there. It will serve those up to your team, along with non-project work, in a way that optimizes their available time.

Motion won’t over allocate them. It knows their availability. So your human resources don’t burn out. That’s resource management software.

‎When something changes, like an urgent new task or meeting, Motion juggles anything affected to reoptimize the schedules. If a task can’t hit its target deadline (you’ve asked it to do the impossible), it alerts you.

Write a story of success (not a horror one) with Motion

Resource constraints are unavoidable.

You’ll be facing limitations on any project you might have.

If you ignore them, you’re likely to create a monster, which may not be deadly but will undoubtedly diminish your chances of success.

Your team’s calendars will be optimized with the help of Motion’s AI, which will use tasks, assignments, available work time, priorities, dependencies, and deadlines. So you and your team won’t have to determine what’s important to work on next!

If ‌it can’t complete a task or if the task isn’t going to meet its deadline, it’ll inform you so you can address the constraint.

Become a better planner (and the protagonist of an epic story) with Motion.

Keisha Card
Keisha Card is a Senior Project Manager in the digital space who is passionate about knowledge sharing. Let's demystify all things project management and Agile!
Written by Keisha Card