The one thing you can’t get wrong when you cost a (research) project

A key risk faced by many projects is they didn’t make sure that they had enough staff to deliver what they promised.

I’ll tell you why this is such a big deal to funders and managers, and how you can change your approach to better manage this risk.

Don’t set the alarm bells ringing.

There are lots of things that can turn out to be wrong when you plan a programme and estimate how much a project will cost to deliver.

Priorities change once you actually start delivering things. People change. Emphasis changes. Context changes. Policies change. Plans change. Strategies Change. Costs aren’t what you expected. Different planning/management/delivery skills are needed.  And so on.

There’s one thing that’s always a red flag to boards and to funders: adding more staff once you’ve started.

  1. Reducing staff costs is invariably seen as a sign of good management (irrespective of whether this is actually true and whether this is good for the project).
  2. Changing staffing structures is fairly normal, particularly in a long-term programmes as emphasis/context changes.
  3. But adding additional staff – particularly if you have to move money away from delivery to fund new staff – almost always raises a red flag. Funders will ask why these staffing costs weren’t right – while they often don’t question other substantive finance/budget/planning changes – and may push back on you.

So there are two pieces of advice I can give you:

  1. Don’t skimp on staff – make sure you have enough people to deliver what you promised. There is nothing worse than promising to deliver a plan when you know you don’t/won’t have the resources to delivery it – or if you expect people to work 50 hours a week but only pay 35.
  2. If you don’t hire all the staff you budgeted for (or if you don’t spend all your staff budget), and you move these savings into additional/improved service delivery, you will be well thought of – and it’s unlikely anyone will ask you why your initial staffing costs were over-generous.

Suprisingly, hiring contractors if you don’t have enough staff or staff with the right skills is often looked on kindly. If there’s anything I can do to help you deliver your projects, please get in touch.