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Resource Planning for Creative Agencies

By Jen Couchoud on March 4, 2014

If you work for a creative organization, you’ve probably spent  time looking for a resource planning tool.  At previous jobs I’ve held, whenever a new project manager came on board, the question “How did you do resource planning at your last job?” would invariably come up. Everyone had a different answer, but would usually add that whatever solution they had been using, the company was looking for a better one.

For resource planning, the process can range from every PM spending most of their time doing data entry (and re-entry) into an all-encompassing-mega-tool to basically “winging it” and hoping for the best. Resource planning for creative work is not the same as resource planning for a factory and comes with a lot of challenges—one being that client timelines can change daily, so whatever tool you use has to be  flexible. You also want to be able to accurately forecast a creative person’s utilization without them feeling restrained.

When I first joined Think Brownstone, the company was rushing headlong into the transition from small company to medium-sized company; from being able to manage projects through organic communication and tight-knit project teams to needing scalable tools and someone focused on project management without having to do double duty with another role.  We needed a good tool for resource planning.

Here are some features that we identified as essential to make the tool useful:

It should…

  • Show us people’s planned utilization per week, per project (in hours)
  • Filter that same information by department
  • Forecast out far enough, accurately enough, to help predict hiring needs
  • Accommodate projects in the pipeline
  • Allow multiple users to access it at one time
  • Be easy to use

Bonus points if it…

  • Ties into our time tracking system
  • Allows us to see project budget health
  • Has a reasonable price point
  • Looks great and is a great user experience

We knew that any effort to improve resource planning should start by taking a look at project plans. Maybe the resource planning tools we were using were fine, but our project plans were inaccurate. Resource planning is only as useful and accurate as the project plans that inform it. We ended up with MS Project for all our project managers, running on a Parallels / Windows solution. That gave us the tool we needed to tighten up our project plans.

We also knew that people don’t like to be called, or treated like, “resources”. We didn’t want to use a system that turned every moment of the day into a task to log and squelched the rare phenomenon we get to experience – the feeling of enough space to stretch out and be creative when working for clients.

None of the available tools seemed to check all the boxes on our requirements. What we decided to do was  modify our current Excel solution to meet our needs. We created more sheets in our workbook and used our pivot table skills to create a sheet that told us who was booked on what for how long, and when. We filtered the data by department and included pipeline projects. We used the data to forecast hiring needs. The price point was perfect and we even found a macro that allowed us to “lock” the file when someone else on Dropbox was accessing it. There is some manual input of data from our time tracking system, but otherwise it does everything we need it to do.

Below are links to all the tools we researched and ultimately did not use. None of them quite did what we needed them to do. Start with this list and maybe you’ll find what you need…or maybe you’ll do what we’ve done and run with air-tight project plans, clear team communication, and a light-weight excel workbook until you find the right solution for your company.

What are some resource planning best practices you’ve come across? Have you found the perfect resource planning solution?

Resource Planning Tools: