The Capacity Planning Trap

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Vaso Perimenis

capacity planning

HR professionals are approached daily with multiple and varied requests, most of them presented as urgent. It’s a seemingly constant barrage from colleagues and senior managers. How do we prioritize the requests and deliver the best service possible? How do we marry the supply of HR resources to the business demand and ensure we are delivering value?

You know you have a problem when:

  1. An initiative is launched without inter-department coordination
  2. Key performance indicators have not been identified
  3. There is no clearly defined goal
  4. There is no committee charged with capacity calibration
  5. Capacity calibration is not recognized as an organizational capability.

These issues are addressed by capacity planning, a management process that helps us determine if we have the sufficient resources to execute projects and requests.

Capacity planning is addressed in non-HR settings, and is one of the most necessary operational tools to run a business. It’s time to give thought to applying it to Human Resources. Given the continual move toward a service economy, the demand for talent solutions will only increase in the coming years.

READ: The Compensation Mystery

Some companies lack the structure or desire to calibrate their project/initiative portfolio. HR often feels the downstream impact of capacity imbalance and is often left to manage multiple requests without regard to available capabilities or resources.

Without addressing the capacity restraints, HR can be overwhelmed by many projects and demands that exceed resource supply. Consequently, we are stretched so thin that it becomes difficult to focus on the most strategically aligned and valuable solutions. The irony here is that consistently exceeding capacity leads to less output, not more, resulting in productivity and quality problems. Working at an unsustainable pace can lead to “brain seizing” and burnout. This impedes delivery of high-quality solutions.

Causes of Organizational Capacity Overload

Capacity Blindness

Many organizations simply do not have a line of sight into all of the initiatives to which resources have been committed.


Most departments set their priorities in isolation without understanding the impact on other departments or the draw on limited shared services. This myopic method of setting priorities results in drawing upon the same resources for support.

Cost Disequilibrium

Sometimes organizations cut people but do not recalibrate work or expectations. They want to reduce headcount with the goal of reducing expenses, but instead, induce employee burnout and turnover while reducing performance.

Pet Projects

Projects pushed by an executive that add no value whatsoever to the company can drain resources unnecessarily (monetary and human resources).

How to Manage Capacity?

In the absence of organizational capacity planning, HR can mobilize to address the excessive demands from the business. Recognizing the importance of capacity equilibrium is the first step to developing an operational model that is constantly rebalancing HR’s project portfolio. 

The model can include project/initiative prioritization at the highest level in the organization, agile project management, tracking tools to create and monitor the portfolio, initiative intake process, and the muscle to decline projects that are not necessary or valuable.

Agile Project Management

Prioritization is enhanced using the Agile method. I recently implemented capacity planning and Agile with a client. All new HR project/initiative requests go into to a backlog, which along with the business case, is reviewed during a biweekly sprint planning meeting. During the sprint meeting, the entire HR senior leadership team reviews the business cases and decides what will be added to the two-week sprint. Instead of competing for limited resources and embarking on misaligned projects, the entire HR Senior leadership team is rowing in the same direction.

Tracking Tools

Adopting tracking technology allows for a bird’s eye view into all requests in the backlog and in the active sprint. The technology also calculates demand to available supply and allows for better calibration decisions. My current client has adopted Jira as the tracking tool that includes all current and approved initiatives, their owners, and the time required to complete. Tracking tools can also measure the load across the enterprise.

To improve transparency, my client provided all HR staff with access to Jira so that at any level in the HR organization, the team is aware of all initiatives.

Project Intake

HR has traditionally taken on the role of order-taker. When the business has a problem that needs a people solution, it tells HR what it needs. However sometimes, the business does not clearly understand the problem it is trying to solve. This requires formal project intake, review, approval, and prioritization according to availability of resources.

READ: Finding a Healthy Balance for the Employer-Employee Relationship

The intake workflow for my current client includes an intake form intended to guide dialogue with the business customer. The intake form includes criteria such as:

  1. What problem is this initiative/request meant to fix?
  2. What are the facts that have brought your request to HR?
  3. Who are the key stakeholders?
  4. What is the time commitment and availability of the business and HR?
  5. What is the scope of the request (e.g., one department or the whole company)?
  6. Is this request aligned with organizational priorities?

Trade Offs and Saying “No”

Capacity planning must include decisions regarding trade-offs. This is often where capacity planning efforts fall short. Prioritization efforts can often be undermined if companies do not engage in decisions around what must stop or what must be rejected. Otherwise, we risk key contributors exiting the organization rather than experience burnout associated with long hours and overwhelming responsibilities.

No system is perfect. However, rigorous reviews and discipline on when and how Human Resources launches initiatives is a start. Having capacity equilibrium can improve creativity, mitigate employee burnout, and foster greater employee commitment to accomplish more in the most significant areas.

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