Straight from the Project Management Institute’s web site (and the PMBoK) is this definition of a Project:
It’s a temporary group activity designed to produce a unique product, service or result.A project is temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources.
And a project is unique in that it is not a routine operation, but a specific set of operations designed to accomplish a singular goal. So a project team often includes people who don’t usually work together – sometimes from different organizations and across multiple geographies.
Unfortunately, very often, projects are assessed by using metrics that are not about identifying unique & temproary activities. Rather, persistent, on-going measures such as average weekly costs or hours worked or material dollars spent are used to determine if a project is running as it should.
Unfortunately, these sort of measurements are more attuned to understanding operations because they establish linear costs over time. Project have peaks and valleys, spikes and low points, periods of tremendous activity and periods when they have very little at all. Whether or not they should is a different question – there’s certainly plenty of room for levelling out the workload in projects and avoiding these ups and downs on the individual person, however, there are still times in the life of a project when you may have multiple people working simultaneously on different sub-projects, and times when only 1 or 2 activities need to be going on.
As such, run rates for a project are erratic, as they should be. Attempting to smooth costs on the entire project is dangerous. It leads to people lingering on the project with little to do, just to keep the expenses constant. Individuals or the departments they report to in a matrix need to keep spending flat. Projects, however, are characterized by their temporary nature, and the ramping up and down of expenses can be considered an indication of efficency, not inefficiency.
There is, of course, much merit to the argument that bouncing people on and off a team leads to a loss of learning, mometum and flow – so it is better to have folks on the team continue to add cost, even if there is little for them to do. I agree – right up until they begin producing work just for the sake of producing it. If there is nothing of value for them to contribute, but disassembling the team creates a long-term problem, then look for learning opportunies within the project. Have people sit in on working sessions outside of their functional area. You might find people are adaptable to lots of different tasks, and this type of cross-training is invaluable when you need a pinch-hitter for an unexpected crisis.
Nonetheless, even when analyzing the cost reports for these activities, be very aware of who is doing what, such that you can distinguish between time spent adding genuine value through the transformation of work products and time spent in learning & watching. Doing so will prevent assessing projects as the outcome on-going costs and, instead, allow you to determine the specific costs that create specific results which, in turn, allows for investigations into better methods for producing the same results.