Scrum 101: Capacity Planning

Ryan Erickson

Without people, the work within any project will fail. Planning the right amount of people-hours to get the tasks done is imperative to success. 

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Welcome to the first of several forthcoming posts covering the Agile framework of Scrum project management. The specific word, Scrum, is notorious for being considered a software-only project management method. However, I’m of the camp that it’s not- it’s an excellent tool for almost any project. The great thing about it is that it’s rooted in Agile, which itself means to be malleable. By extension, Scrum is also malleable and can be shaped to fit any situation (within reason, that is).

This first Scrum 101 article is about capacity planning and why we need it. However, I’ll give you an upfront hint: the work doesn’t get done without people. Go!

Capacity planning is the process of determining the potential needs of your project. You’ll usually see this only applied to your people-hours in terms of a project. But it can be put to any tangible item such as renting a tractor, using specific amounts of computer power, or needing a conference room (the one with the excellent camera, next to the snack room).

I found this to be a great explanation,

Capacity planning focuses on the supply and demand of your resources. The idea is that a strong capacity plan can forecast when you’ll have an increase in demand for more resources so you can anticipate that gap.¹

The “How to” Part

The capacity planning process can vary from company to company, but there are a few core steps that happen in every process:

  1. Forecast your anticipated demand: If you know you have a new project coming up, make an educated estimate (this is the “forecast” part) on what work needs to be done for the associated tasks. Doing this can be challenging if you’ve never worked on “this” particular type of project. The key here, you’re never alone in the project management world. Ask your peers, your team, or check out PM-related forums (i.e., /r/projectmanagement) regarding their thoughts on what/who’s needed. The preparation will give you an idea of the resources you’ll need to complete the project, and you can compare that to the resources you have on hand.
  2. Determine required capacity: Based on your initial estimates, approximate the capacity* you’ll need to complete the work you forecasted in the previous step. Using a standard measurement — like hours — or a project estimation tool — like t-shirt sizing², to work out how long it would take for team members to complete the given work. For example, a python developer may estimate capacity planning according to the number of hours needed to complete a code section.
  3. Calculate the resource capacity of your current team: If you’re (or your boss) adding another project to your team’s plate, you want to make sure they can handle it so they don’t burn out (Your whole existence as the project manager — even before the necessity to complete the project — is to protect your team. Don’t let them burn out.). If the average person can do approximately 30 hours a week of direct project work and currently have projects they are working on, see how much capacity they have in a week by subtracting their current workload in hours. 
  4. Measure the gap between current and required capacity: Based on the capacity needed for a project, measure how your existing resources compare to the anticipated demand. Remember to account for all team members and all tasks. If this is your first time doing this, might I recommend you add some extra time to your estimates? If the team/task finishes early, it’s a win. If late, it’s a learning experience.  
  5. Align capacity with demand: Looking at the previous gap in capacity, optimize the two so it balances out. If your team is currently at capacity and can’t take on additional work to complete the project, add more team members in the short term to get the task done. Keep your Product Owner and Stakeholders (if they’ve requested this type of update) apprised of this shift in your regular communications with them. If you have more resources than needed, consider shifting your open resources to another task. Work with your Product Owner in flushing out the Backlog to match the capacity. 

Concerning this last bullet, you must work closely with your Product Owner to align your team’s capacity with the necessary work. Have a task at the ready if you have an open resource. Don’t oversell your team’s ability, but also be prepared to make them look awesome by allowing them to move forward if able.

As always, if you’ve got questions, please reach out.

Merriam-Webster defines capacity, in part, as:

the maximum amount or number that can be contained or accommodated

¹Asana

²Agile Tools & Processes @ p5.pm/agile

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A full-time Program Manager with over 15 years experience running high-profile projects. I’m here to share my success and failures to help you become the best PM you can. I also manage a weekly Project Management Newsletter (free) at erickson.pm.

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