Each week, project management veteran Tom Mochal provides valuable advice on planning and managing projects. He first describes a common scenario based on a real-life problem and then offers a solution based on practical project management practices and techniques.

Bob is an IT development manager whose major client is the finance division. It seems there’s always a reorganization going on somewhere at Blue Sky Manufacturing, and this time it’s in the finance area. This reorganization will require a lot of work from Bob’s group.

The dilemma
“Tom, it looks like this latest finance reorganization is going to generate five or six IT projects,” Bob said. “Right now, we have a number of applications that support each regional finance center around the world. Now they want to centralize many of these regional centers, and it will take work from our team to handle this complex effort.”

“I understand that it will take a lot of work,” I agreed. “But what makes you think it’s so complex?”

“There are six IT initiatives needed to facilitate the new business structure,” Bob explained. “I have project managers assigned to each of the initiatives. On the surface, none of the projects is overly complex. However, many of them need to be worked on in parallel, and the same people need to work on multiple projects.”

I began to see what Bob was talking about. “How are you coordinating the work?” I asked.

“I want to get the project managers together on a regular basis and make sure that they centrally plan everything,” Bob said. “They know the critical nature of this effort. They’re going to have to work together to utilize the fixed pool of resources and make sure the deliverables on their projects come together as needed.”

I didn’t like the sound of this situation, so I gave Bob a warning. “I’ve seen a couple of instances where the project managers were asked to coordinate multiple projects like the ones you’re proposing,” I said. “Unfortunately, this type of organization can put all of the projects at risk for failure.”

Mentor advice
It’s hard enough to manage resources and schedules for your own project. Coordinating across multiple project teams is an even bigger headache. The work that Bob’s group is undertaking requires it to run multiple projects to support multiple business initiatives. However, each project is pulling people from the same resource pool. For instance, an analyst may need to work on project A for four weeks and project B for three weeks. Both projects can’t schedule the analyst for the same time period.

As I mentioned to Bob, I’ve seen many cases in which related projects struggle to coordinate people and schedules. The problem is that each project manager gets tied up with his or her own project and doesn’t spend the time needed to coordinate schedules and resources.

Fortunately, there’s an overall umbrella structure you can use in cases like this. It’s called a program. Programs are set up to coordinate the work associated with an underlying set of related projects. Some of the projects may run simultaneously, and some may execute sequentially. The program is there to help set overall direction, help start new projects, make sure the projects are progressing as they should, help resolve resource sharing problems, and so on.

A program manager runs the program. If the entire program is large enough, there might be support staff at the program level as well. However, no project work gets delivered at the program level; all deliverables belong to the underlying projects.

In Bob’s case, he’s probably the right person for the program manager role. He needs to work with the project managers to set up their project definition documents and their work plans. He’ll then have the best view of the overall resource allocation and work coordination. He can ensure that individual schedules are solid while maximizing available resources. As the projects progress, he should track the work at the milestone level and ensure everything is proceeding on schedule. The program manager is also available to help resolve internal conflicts between the various projects.

This is not a role that Bob is used to, but I’ll help him understand what he needs to do. In my opinion, the project managers will struggle if they’re left on their own to coordinate resources and related work. Having a central program manager is the better way to go. The program will be there to help the projects, and the project managers can focus on their own work.

Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching the IS division on project management and life-cycle skills. He’s also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America and has developed a project management methodology called TenStep.