These days, few project managers are fortunate enough to manage only one project at a time. Here are pointers on successfully juggling multiple projects.
In today’s fast-paced, knowledge-based business world, it’s not uncommon to see project managers juggling as many as 10 IT projects simultaneously—with all types of complexities, durations, and sizes. Often, project managers handling multiple projects are simply overloaded or frustrated, and some wish for better days. But how successful are you when you face the juggling act? For starters, success in managing multiple IT projects (i.e., program management) requires that you look at three key strategies:
- Managing time effectively
- Leveraging group skills or dynamics
- Using your individual project management skills to successfully deliver multiple projects
One person who knows how to meet the challenge of managing simultaneous projects is Mike Deutsch, who joined our organization slightly more than a year ago as a project manager in our western region. He immediately proved that he was capable of deploying almost any project. Name the technical skill, and he knew it. Talk about Gantt charts or scheduling, and he’d lead the way. His name was always at the top of the list when new project assignments were being handed out. But what made Mike really stand out was his ability to manage multiple IT projects. This was evident when one of our clients—a major film studio—needed a project manager to manage three critical projects. “They weren’t the biggest of projects but they were equally complicated,” Mike recalls. Today, Mike leads the western region when it comes to project delivery. As our client stated, “Mike raised the bar for any new guy coming in. He could juggle 20 things at once.” This article focuses on the tried-and-true recipe Mike uses to keep the balls in the air.
We all know that most project managers are able to evaluate and scope a single project, plan the implementation, communicate with team members, and manage the risks. But the moment you start managing multiple projects simultaneously, the PM's job takes on a new dimension. Problems arise because of an increase in responsibility, coordination, and additional teamwork needed. Here are some of the key challenges you face when managing multiple projects.
Challenges of managing multiple projects
Managing multiple IT projects within the enterprise can be a daunting task. It’s stressful and takes someone special to even begin managing a project portfolio. In fact, many project managers say that they would gladly scale back to only one or two projects vs. managing multiple projects. The reason is simple. Managing multiple projects is not suited for all. Experience counts! When looking at the single-project concept, the roles and responsibilities prove themselves substantially simpler than for larger projects. However, the larger the project, the more coordination and tracking are needed to ensure that project deliverables are met. You’ll undoubtedly have on average three to five team members on each project. If you have five projects going at once, you will have to manage 15–25 team members. This doesn’t even include the interaction between you and the client. The challenges here include:
- Not enough visibility on the detail being performed by project teams (i.e., developers, testers, etc.).
- Not enough time to attend to meetings and still track tasks and milestones (i.e., tight deadlines).
- Managing multiple risks and resolving multiple issues.
- Lack of experience in juggling multiple tasks and meetings (e.g., gets too crazy).
- Limited resources within the resource pool.
- Conflicting priorities among projects.
- Integration of all projects and their target dates not always clear.
- Communications among too many people affecting performance.
Techniques for managing multiple projects
Here are some of the techniques to try when managing multiple projects:
- Time management: Many times project managers who are overloaded seem to be constantly fighting one crisis after the other. It just doesn’t seem to stop. You need to quickly determine what to do when and how much time you have. You cannot micromanage every single task as a program manager, and you’ll have to start focusing on managing your time among all your projects.
- Checklist for managing multiple projects: You should create a portfolio checklist for managing multiple projects. You could use a life-cycle checklist to help (e.g., Have I received all the specs? Have I involved QA on each project team?).
- Prioritization of projects: You need to determine which projects are more important than the others. When faced with multiple projects, it’s important to decide what to do and in which order it gets done. It’s no use simply selecting any project you like and paying attention to that project alone. Careful analysis is needed to ensure that each project meets your company’s strategic objectives and that you are aware of target dates.
- Categorize your work: This strategy reduces complexity. You have to make progress on all fronts when managing multiple projects. Don’t leave one until next week and expect results. Check the progress of each project on a daily basis.
- Sequence work tasks: Ensure that for every project the tasks have been properly sequenced and that they make sense. I have seen managers run from project to project, grabbing at straws. It’s imperative that each project be clearly broken down into manageable tasks and that they be correctly sequenced.
- Create a dashboard: Use a digital dashboard to effectively capture and report on all the projects within your portfolio.
Do you often find yourself running from meeting to meeting, having one status report to do after another, and your progress really has a life of its own? Chances are you’re overloaded or just overwhelmed. If you’ve been allocated a few IT projects, it would be useful to first review what percentage of time you’ll actually be spending on each project. The estimate doesn’t have to be super accurate, merely a ballpark figure you and your project director or PMO manager can discuss. Figure A shows how you can easily determine the time allocated for each project. It’s a simple spreadsheet, which tells you if you’re overcommitting yourself.
A recommended process
If you really want to make an impact when managing a portfolio of projects, you’ll need a method of prioritizing and categorizing all projects. Figure B illustrates a process for managing multiple projects, and I’ve found that it works rather well. Based upon your available time and your current workload, prioritize each new project handed to you. This prioritization allows you to determine exactly when to start the project and how it affects your other project timelines. Assuming all is okay, you proceed to categorize the project tasks into categories (A, B, and C), which assist you in figuring out which tasks are more important than the others. Please note that other valuable techniques such as network diagrams or PERT charts could also be used, but I’ve found that a simpler way is most effective when managing multiple projects. These tasks are then captured into a centralized enterprise project tool such as these:
- Kidasa Milestones Professional
- Pacific Edge
- Project Arena
These are a few of the great tools to use for to use for tracking and coordination. After all, if a task does slip, you want it to be visible so you can inform the client about its impact to the project.
You should also:
- Determine how much time you have available for each project (use the technique in Figure A).
- Prioritize your projects according to the client’s business and IT strategies.
- Rank all project tasks into A, B, and C categories.
- Spend enough time and effort on tasks A for each project, and then proceed to categories B and C as deemed necessary (e.g., technical meetings or workshops).
- Notify the client if you cannot meet a deadline or complete a task.
- Capture all issues and risks into a centralized project database for efficient reporting.
Here are some of the key lessons we have learned:
- Determine whether you are overloaded or overwhelmed. If you are, the chances are likely that any new project you take on will fail.
- Habitually and constantly prioritize project tasks.
- Ensure that you have committed enough time for each task or milestone.
- Learn to delegate and work as a team.
- Be able to track multiple tasks at the same time.
- Create a master project calendar with a timeline for each project—identifying the major project milestones and their dates. You will then be able to determine which projects’ milestones to concentrate on.
- Don’t use different reporting formats for each project. Use an integrated project-reporting tool, which allows you to capture and report using one standard.
- Create a single master project schedule (e.g., using MS Project, Primavera, Artemis, etc.) for yourself. This gives you a better sense of what’s going on.
- Don’t sit in your office or cube and expect results. As program manager, start wearing sneakers, and move among your teams on a daily basis.
- Provide regular reviews of your progress to your executive team. Project priorities or other things may change, and you may want to hear the news directly from the top.
Managing multiple projects can be successful if approached correctly. Today’s emerging solution is the project dashboard—a tool to manage an entire project portfolio.