Introduction: Resource Allocation 101

By Joe Weller | November 13, 2016 (updated January 30, 2023)

Resource allocation is a critical part of managing any project. If you have a task, project or program to accomplish, you’re going to need resources allocated to your project to help you get it done. You’ll need skilled professionals (e.g.,creatives, writers, developers, construction workers), tools (e.g., software, hardware, meeting rooms), and time to get everything done. In virtually every type of industry, effective resource allocation is key to delivering projects on time and on budget. 

For the purposes of this article, we will focus on how creative agencies handle resource allocation, but the challenges of resource allocation and the advice our experts share here are relevant to all industries. We’ll explain resource allocation, what types of resources might need to be allocated to a project, and how to manage changes in scope or schedule. We will also hear from top project managers on how they view resource allocation, and the best way to achieve results for your client and your company.

Definitions: What Is Resource Allocation and How Does It Work?

Virtually every project, product launch, website makeover, and anything else an organization might create or update needs resources allocated to it. After all, without the right resources, how would anything get done? First, let’s take a look at the basic types of resources you might need or encounter in managing a project:


  1. People – These resources are writers, editors, user experience (UX) designers, art directors, account people, traffic managers, freelance or contract resources, developers, testers — the people with the skills you need to get your project done.
  2. Time – This is the total amount of time (days, weeks, months, years) you have to bring your project over the finish line. While the end date of the project may already be decided, you can divide increments of time in that period to ensure your project stays on track.
  3. Tools and capital – If your project team needs a dedicated “war room,” let’s say, or access to specific equipment to create special features or products, these will have to be planned for during the resource allocation phase of project management and allocated appropriately.

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Who Is Involved in Resource Allocation?

On the most granular level, a project or program manager is responsible for resource allocation. The project manager needs to assess what types of people, time, and tools will be needed throughout a project’s schedule. However, in most organizations, project managers don’t have resource staff who report to them. They need to work with department heads in development, IT, creative, content, and others whose direct reports will be asked to contribute to the project.
Some companies and agencies have a traffic or resource manager who can take a high-level view on who in which department is doing what during the time frame in question. That person would  act as a go-between with the department head (the person who is doing the work’s actual manager) and the project manager to help coordinate the allocation of resources.
In smaller organizations, a project manager might  speak informally with a potential resource – let’s say a copywriter – and say, “How does your workload look next week? We got a request for eight to ten hours of copywriting and editing four web pages.” That writer could say if he or she had time available, then the project manager would have to get formal approval from their manager, and mark the resourcing in in the company’s tracker.
Occasionally, over the course of a long project where the creative people are working closely with clients or internal stakeholders, a creative resource might be asked for by name. If a project needs a mini campaign of, say, banner ads, and the client knows a specific writer has skill in that area, the client might request that specific writer to be allocated to the project. Whether that can be accommodated depends upon that resource’s other commitments and other business factors. The project manager would typically have the final say over which resources are allocated to a project.


5 Critical Factors That Can Affect Resource Allocation

There are several factors that can affect resource allocation, whether you are in an agency-client situation or working on an in-house project. Here are five factors that can pose a challenge to resource allocation or lead to resources needing to be re-allocated:

1: Changes in Timeline or Project Scope
High-level executives and clients tend to want everything as soon as possible, even within an agreed-upon schedule timeline. And what’s more, the scope of a project can shift as the client’s needs change. For example, a small project may arise while your team is working on a bigger project for the same client, and the client would like the smaller project completed in three days. The project manager must find out who on staff may have time to work on the new project, and, if no one does, quickly find a contractor to do the job.
2: Resource Availability
Say your agency’s gotten a request for a UX project, but your best UX designer is out on vacation for three weeks. The agency’s only other full-time UX person is already working part-time on another important project. The project manager needs to decide if that person can handle the UX project in the time allotted, or if a contractor or another resource needs to be found. Another alternative might be that the staff UX person and a contractor could split the work. The project manager works with the head of UX to find out how to get the appropriate UX resource selected for and allocated to the project.

One challenge that often arises is being able to select specific resources. Lynn Kenning, a Chicago-based program and project management expert, says “Project managers don’t often get to pick who the resources are. Resource people don’t report to them. There’s typically a pool of the type of resources – developers, designers – and you will be assigned one.”

3: Project Dependencies
In most projects, there are stages of work that depend on other work being completed before they can begin. In a typical digital project, for instance, a group of developers might need to write code or a script for certain functionality before any creative or content work can be done. 

“If the development slips,” Kenning says, “then that will affect when the writers or UX people can start — and that timing change could affect who is available as well.” Project managers need to be aware of these dependencies and how they might affect their projects so they can allocate resources for the right piece of the project. 
4: Uncertain Timing of Deliverables


“Resource allocation is part science and part art,” says Kimberley Kelly, an Atlanta-based marketing expert and principal at MasonKelly. “A lot of times, decisions need to be made to get a project off the ground, when the timing of certain deliverables isn’t yet known,” she notes.

For instance, let’s say a six-month project has 60 copywriting hours assigned. The copywriter needs to attend the kickoff and other meetings to begin working on content strategy, but the website wireframes need to be built and content models created before the bulk of the copywriting can begin. 

In some situations, a project manager might allocate five hours per week to a writer over 12 weeks, taking his best guess on when that writing might happen. In the early weeks of a project, the likelihood of that writer needing to create actual copy is probably fairly low. “It can be a balancing act,” Kenning says, because that writer may not get to dive in until later in the project, and then need to dedicate two 30-hour work weeks to be able to focus on and write the copy.
5. Urgency Compared with Other Projects
In many agencies, the most important clients and projects will often trump smaller requests (or at least push them back on the schedule). A smaller, quick-turn design ask is not likely to be something for which you would pull your lead designer off a months-long product launch project. The project manager and department heads need to weigh the urgency and importance of each project, and allocate resources accordingly. In the case of smaller projects with quick turnaround times, contractors can be a good solution.

Starting Out: Assigning and Allocating the Right Resources

A project manager will typically work with department heads to estimate how many hours a project will require. The departments the project manager confers with can include creative, UX, content creation, design, development, testing, quality assurance (QA), and others. Each department head will designate the appropriate resources for the project, and approximate timing based on what the project manager has created.

To define a timeline, the project manager starts with the final deliverable date and creates a work-back schedule on the stages and phases of the project to start figuring out where people and tools will be needed.
“Mature organizations should have some kind of time-tracking system that allows project managers to have visibility into the workloads of different types of staff members,” says Kenning. Younger organizations may still assign projects in an ad-hoc way, she adds, but the ideal setup is to have visibility into available resources and how many hours they are already allocated, and where they might have time.
“This helps at the strategic level,” Kenning mentions. “The resource pool can be very complex, so the more visibility we project managers have into what people are doing, the better we can be.”
The dependencies mentioned above need to be built in during the planning phase. A critical component that also needs to be built in, says MasonKelly’s Kelly, are rounds of internal and client reviews. “You will need senior-level project people to review all the deliverables, and to factor in revisions from the client. A lot of projects go off track because you haven’t factored this in. And don’t forget meetings and other things that can take up resources. A good project manager will clearly spell out all these factors to the clients at the beginning of a project.”

How to Spot Risks and Address Them in Resource Allocation

The success of any project relies on successful resource allocation, which includes the ability to be flexible and re-allocate resources as needed. “The only thing you can say for sure in any resource allocation conversation is that change will happen,” says Kelly. “There will always be competition for resources, and ‘curveballs’ are the norm.”
The best-laid plans at the beginning of a project will likely need to change, and that, of course, will affect resource allocation. Some of the factors that can shift allocated resources include:


  • Client reviews: Clients may take longer in their reviews than allocated in the project plan, which may mean projects take longer to complete. Sometimes that can mean a planned resource will no longer be available. A project manager should “always have contingency plans in place,” Kelly says, “including backup people to tap if necessary.”
  • Delay in creating elements of a project: With certain deliverables, especially those that require technical functionality, there’s no way to say that developing a certain app will take precisely X hours of development time. Only when the developers begin to build the app and test it will they and the project manager realize how long it will take. 
    Occasionally, some part of the workload will take fewer hours, resulting in over-allocation of hours. More often, something will take more time, resulting in under-allocation of hours. In both cases, a project manager needs to course correct, and appropriately adjust the hours individuals and teams are needed to work on the project.
  • Personal emergencies: If a resource that has been allocated has a medical emergency and will be out unexpectedly, a backup resource will need to be allocated.  
  • Competing projects: As noted above, bigger and more prominent projects often take precedence. “Project managers aren’t always told what people are working on,” says Henning, “so they may plan on a resource that suddenly needs to be reallocated to the bigger product launch project.”

In all of these cases, Kelly and Henning agree, clients and upper management need to be kept in the loop. Changes happen and Plans C and D may need to become Plan A. It’s the project manager’s job to keep management, clients, and the people working on the projects updated.

Considerations of Resource Allocation

When Kelly needs a contractor for a big content project, she already has her plan in place. “If I need complicated copy written from scratch, or a disorganized copy deck from a client redone from top to bottom, I have one or two resources front and center in mind,” she says. “If the first person can’t do it, I immediately contact the second one.”
If Kelly needs a linking strategy, that would be a third person; a thorough proofreading of a document that’s already fairly clean, a fourth. “You need to have all your people lined up and be willing to pivot if you need to,” advises Kelly.
For Henning, a strong project manager is critical, especially at larger companies. “If your job is to get something done in two weeks, you need to figure out how to do that. That means negotiating with department heads. It also sometimes means robbing Peter to pay Paul, but you have to know that both Peter and Paul are going to be at the same party.” In other words, allocating resources from a finite pool means creative deployment—and flexibility.
“Something else to consider is the level of resource you might need. For instance, if you allocate two senior people to a project, that will cost you more money,” Henning suggests. “Ask, ‘Can I get this done with one senior person and one junior one?’”


Educational Opportunities for Resource Management

Resource management is typically taught in any good project or program management discipline at business schools and universities. Anyone who desires to be a manager in a business should have at least working knowledge of resource allocation—a director of content at a marketing agency, for instance, absolutely needs to understand how his direct reports should and will be utilized.
You can also check out The Project Management Institute (PMI). Founded in 1969, PMI is the recognized leader in specialized business certification programs, including Project Management Professional (PMP) ® and Program Management Professional (PgMP) ®. The institute requires several thousand hours’ work in project or program management before you can take the accreditation exam. Resource allocation is covered in-depth in its program.


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