A Beginner's Guide to Resource Leveling

Every project is constrained by resources, whether time, staff, or materials. Resource leveling helps managers maximize a project’s efficiency and outcomes. Use this guide to get started.

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Have you ever hosted a conference call where a participant hurriedly warns at the start that they’ll have to jump off early for another call? Or have you managed a project where one team member seems perpetually swamped while another searches for enough work to fill the day? If so, it’s time to introduce yourself to the world of resource leveling project management.

In this article, we’ll cover what resource leveling is, when you should use it, and how to incorporate the strategy into your projects using best practices.


Overview: What is resource leveling?

Before we can talk about a level resource, we need to define what we mean by a resource. We use two types of resources in project management: tangible and intangible.

Think of tangible resources as things you can physically use or see. For example, your project may require special paper to print your reports on. That paper is a tangible resource. Other examples include project management software, office space, and cash reserves.

Intangible resources, on the other hand, are the non-physical items that add value to your project or company. For example, your ability to produce your report depends on the number of hours your staff have available to work on it. Those hours are an intangible resource. Other examples include brand recognition, intellectual property, and employee skills.

Resource leveling is a project management technique you can use if you find you’re either over-allocating or under-allocating a resource, which we’ll cover in more detail in the next section.

Resource leveling helps teams make course corrections in a project. It’s also a useful strategy to consider before starting a project. It helps you anticipate exactly which and how many resources you’ll need throughout the task. This resource balancing is key to reaching your project goals efficiently and effectively.


When is resource leveling necessary?

Let’s return to what it means to over-allocate or under-allocate a resource. We’ll use an example where you’re a nonprofit developing your year-end annual report.

You want to send your nonprofit annual report to 100 major donors. You realize you only have enough paper to print 80 copies because another project also uses that resource. This is an example of under-allocating a resource, where you haven’t planned to have enough report paper available to complete your task as planned.

You’ll use resource leveling techniques to determine priority levels and timelines for each project requiring the special paper. Based on that analysis, you can shift your process to meet your organization’s most critical needs first.

But let’s say you’ve assigned your copy editor, Martha, to review your report. You’ve given Martha a week to complete the task, but she’s actually able to complete it in two days. This is an example of over-allocating a resource.

In this case, the resource is Martha’s time, and you’ve planned to have her spend too much of it on this review. You’ll use resource leveling to shift your timelines to complete your report sooner and keep Martha engaged with other work.

If your time, staff skills, materials, or other resources are out of balance, it can threaten your project’s overall success. You may not meet deadlines or quality standards for that project. It can also have longer-term consequences for your business.

For example, if your staff are continually working 60+ hours per week to meet company needs, they’re likely to experience burnout. This can lead to high turnover rates, increased hiring costs, and negative perceptions in the eyes of prospective employees.

Luckily, resource leveling can prevent both long-term impacts of project imbalance and the short-term challenges teams often face when completing a large task.


How to level resources in project management

Resource leveling can be incorporated into all project phases. This management style allows you to prioritize your timeline to when resources will be available or consider how to limit particular resources given any constraints.

1. Make realistic resource estimates upfront

By clearly defining your project scope upfront, you set your resource-leveling efforts up for success. To make realistic estimates of project resource needs, review similar past projects, communicate with peer organizations if you’re new to the task, discuss the level of effort with your staff, and inventory your materials.

Using the previous example of writing a nonprofit annual report, some questions you may want to ask during this stage could be:

  • How many employees did we have working on this last year? Did that seem like too many, too few, or just enough?
  • What feedback did we receive from staff last year on the report? Did they say the production timeline was too short? Was there anything they said they’d want to add for future years?
  • How many hard copies do we want to produce this year? How does that compare to last year?
  • What physical materials will we need for production, and what do we have on hand?
  • What do staff vacation schedules look like over the next two months?
  • Would it be helpful to use contractors for parts of this project? How long would it take to source and bring them aboard?

Your estimates should include how many hours the project will take, what staff skills you’ll need and when, and the types and quantities of physical materials you’ll need to complete these tasks.

2. Set deadlines and float values

Your project timeline has a large impact on how you can level resources. For example, staff responsibilities for a project can look very different if they have to complete them in two days versus two weeks. So, it’s important to set a resource activity schedule.

This schedule should include when you’ll kick off the project and your target completion date. Within that time frame, you’ll set milestones for subtasks, such as when you’ll have a first draft of the report written or when it will go to the design team.

However, always plan for the unexpected — this is where float values come into play. Think of a float value as your “wiggle room” on the project. Yes, you may want the report done by January 5, for instance, but will the world fall apart if you push that to January 15? What about January 25?

Establish your target dates and wiggle room dates for each task so you know upfront just how much time can play into your resource leveling should an imbalance occur.

Screenshot of Microsoft Project’s calendar view showing the ability to block off days for tasks.

Microsoft Project is one project management software option that allows you to map out different tasks within a calendar view to set your deadlines and anticipated overall timeline. Source: microsoft.com.

3. Identify gaps in resources

After making your estimates and setting your schedule, it’s time for a little project risk management. Use what you’ve learned to identify any initial gaps in your resources. Maybe you’ve realized key staff will be out of office for half of the project timeline. Maybe that pesky paper shortage is positioning itself again to derail your printing process. This is the time to adjust your timeline or resource needs to address initial imbalances.

4. Know when and how to pivot with a priority list

Knowing which project tasks have priority helps teams pivot more easily should constraints arise on staff time or other resources. If you have to choose between two planned tasks, you’ll already know which is the higher priority one and assign the needed resources to it first.

For example, let’s say Susan is supposed to collect client testimonials for your annual report and also finalize end-of-year financials to include. She can interview a client this afternoon, but the financials have to be finalized today for approval at that evening’s board meeting. Since the client interview has a more flexible timeline, you’d reschedule that interview and prioritize the financials.

5. Assign a resource leveling or resource smoothing project management professional (PMP)

Keeping track of resources and managing when they need to be shifted to maintain the right balance takes, ahem, resources. Resource leveling doesn’t need to be yet another task to assign to a team member who is already stretched thin. Therefore, consider having a dedicated resource-leveling PMP or resource smoothing PMP on your team.

PMP is a Project Management Institute certification that draws upon the latest research on effective project management techniques to train quality project leaders. The certification’s testing includes techniques of resource leveling and resource smoothing. Resource smoothing is what happens after resource leveling, where managers move beyond balancing resources and look to optimize them.

6. Keep track of resources as they’re reallocated

During resource leveling, staff members may be shifted around to new assignments or printing schedules might shift forward a few days. You should keep track of your resources as they’re reallocated. This allows you to remember where they started in case you need to shift them back and also provides critical data to help with future project planning. Knowing where you made shifts in the past can anticipate them for the future.


4 best practices and resource leveling techniques

All resource leveling techniques involve identifying project needs and adjusting timing and resources. Below are four techniques and best practices for implementing resource leveling.

1. Critical path method

The critical path method documents the critical components for completing a project. “Critical” means any project component that would lead to the project failing if left out. For the annual report example, drafting the content in the report would be a critical component to the project’s success. Without doing this, well, there’s no report.

The critical path method plays into the prioritization step of resource leveling. By knowing the steps you must complete, you can adjust other resources around the timeline.

2. Fast tracking

If you’re working within a tight timeline, the fast-tracking technique can help you level resources. Fast tracking involves simultaneously conducting multiple tasks to finish the project faster.

So, rather than having Susan from earlier in charge of both collecting client testimonials one week and finalizing end-of-year financials another week, you’d have her working on client testimonials while Brett is finalizing the financial data. This shaves a week off of the project timeline for your annual report, getting it into donor hands faster.

3. Crashing

If one of your project tasks becomes a high priority given an impending hard deadline, you can use the project crashing technique to level your resources. This method involves flooding a high priority task with additional resources to move it quickly to completion.

If your annual report is 60 pages long and got to your copy editor Martha with only an hour before it needs to go to the press, this is probably a time to crash.

We all know Martha is a wonderful and dedicated copy editor, but expecting her to get through that many pages in that amount of time with the accuracy level you need is a lot to throw on her at the last minute. You should pull in additional staff and divvy up the pages for proofing to get it done within the timeframe.

4. Project management software

Using project management software can help you keep track of your resources as well as when and how they’ve been reallocated. Keeping resource leveling tracked within this type of software leads to a much more organized and stress-free approach than trying to remember everything, dig through your notebooks, or track down the right spreadsheet.

Microsoft Project and Mavenlink are just two of the software options that let you track resources.

Mavenlink's budget tracking line graph showing month-by-month costs for different categories.

The budget projection tool within Mavenlink project management software lets you gauge financial resources over time. Source: Mavenlink software.


Keep your projects on track and your staff happy with resource leveling

Resource leveling is key for meeting your project goals and timelines in the most efficient and effective manner possible. It’s also critical for employee wellness. By implementing resource leveling into your project management, you can both meet your targets and create a positive work environment that makes staff want to stay.

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