While most of the projects that we read about in the press have huge budgets, there are a lot of projects at the other end of the scale. The majority of small projects are run without a specific budget, around the edges of a manager’s day job. Any costs have to come out of the business-as-usual provision which means there is no allocated project budget.

Another scenario where you may not end up with your hands on the cash to manage your project is when you are assigned the work, but the budget is still held by the business department - most likely because there is no set amount to spend and again it has to come from business-as-usual spending.

Projects with no specific financial amount attached to them are normally expected to be delivered using just the resources available as part of a day job. That basically means drawing on the people around you to do whatever it is that needs to be done. Having a project with no budget takes away some of the financial headaches but doesn’t mean you are in for an easy ride. You will still have deadlines to meet and requirements to deliver. And, in some respects, no-budget projects are harder to deliver as you cannot throw money at a problem to make it go away nor will your team have access to overtime payments if things start to slip.

So when your project has no budget - or at least not one you have authority to spend - how can you keep the costs on track?

Talk to your project sponsor

If your sponsor or manager hands you a project and then says, ‘There’s no money available to do this,’ count to ten and try to avoid spitting out, ‘You must be joking!’ Ask them how they expect it to be achieved. An executive who is serious about a project will already have thought about what they consider to be a reasonable investment for a successful delivery. Take them through the following questions and start to work out where your boundaries are, particularly in relation to the people you have access to and the amount of time you and they can be expected to spend working on the project.

  • Am I full-time on this project? If not, what percentage of my time do you expect me to spend on this?
  • Do I have any full-time resources? If not, what percentage of their time do you expect them to spend on this project?
  • For any resources not under your control, has their manager agreed that they will be working on this project?
  • Can any costs come out of the business-as-usual budget?
  • To what limit?
  • Who will authorise this?
  • If the business-as-usual budget is not available, how do you want me to deal with unforeseen actual expenditure?
  • At what point does the project become unfeasible?
  • When does the resource investment become too much for your intended deliverables?

Set boundaries

Once you have a clear idea of where your sponsor believes your boundaries are in terms of consumable resources, both business-as-usual budget expenditure and time, you can begin to work on the project within those constraints.

Make sure any assumptions or constraints are written in your project initiation document. Not sure what to include? Here are some examples

  • The business-as-usual sales budget will cover the cost of reprinting a new edition of our catalogue;
  • The schedule has been produced assuming that no overtime is available;
  • All resources will be available as necessary;
  • The system changes can be achieved using the maintenance budget.

Tackle problems early

When you are not ‘buying’ your resources formally, and they work for someone else, there is a risk that their own day job will take priority over the project. Despite good intentions, there will be times when staff shortages, increased workloads or other short-term crises drive your team back to their normal activity. If you can, schedule contingency time to keep your resource planning flexible and always include an item in your risk log about the possibility of resources being pulled off the project. As a minimum, each time you review the log it will prompt you to look at the current situation and see if you need to take any action.

If at any time the project looks like it will have to spend real, tangible money and you don’t know where it will come from, raise this immediately with your sponsor as an urgent issue.

Overall, what you need to remember is that even if there is no specific budget is available for the project, you can clarify what your project sponsor considers to be a reasonable ‘investment’ in terms of time and once you know what they are thinking, you can manage your project work within those documented constraints. Good luck!

About the author

Elizabeth Harrin MA MBCS FAPM is a project and programme manager with a decade of experience managing IT and business change projects.

Author of Shortcuts to Success: Project Management in the Real World Elizabeth also writes the award-winning blog A Girl’s Guide to Project Management