Juggling Multiple Projects, Written by Chuck Schad

For project managers, being tasked with managing multiple smaller projects is simply a fact of work life. We all know that most project managers are able to evaluate and scope a single project, task the project, plan the implementation, communicate with team members and stakeholders, and manage the risks. But the moment you start managing multiple projects simultaneously, the project management function takes on a new dimension. Problems arise because of an increase in responsibility (and delegation), coordination, converging schedules, and additional teamwork needed.

That said, with the right amount of planning, prioritizing, and mindfulness it is possible. Here are a few suggestions for juggling multiple projects with a high probability of successfully delivering quality products on time and within budget.

Avoid starting multiple projects simultaneously

While all phases in a project have their variants of intense insanity, there is a special place for the beginning phases of a project. In these phases – initiation and planning – you could be charting unknown territory for a few of the projects under your charge. You quite possibly may not have; a definite idea of the project scope, an idea of your options (build a new product, enhance an existing one, buy a product), defined team roles and responsibilities, and an understanding of the stakeholders and their tendencies.

Now imagine if you had to endure that for many multiple projects at the same time. I have done it but not very well. The beginning phases of a project require you to focus all of your attention (even when you are not at the office) on getting this project off the ground. It requires a bit of contemplativeness too as you ponder all the different ways you could work the project – all the variations that if put together in the right way and at the right time would ensure success.  Simply put, you have neither the time nor the mindset required to do this for multiple projects simultaneously, at least not all of them.

So, your best strategy is to meet with the stakeholders and prioritize the projects where you can. As mentioned below, this should be an ongoing process with key stakeholders and will allow you to know which projects to switch on and off of based on shifting objectives.

Prioritize the Projects

When you have multiple projects on the horizon, you need to prioritize them in concert with the project sponsors and stakeholders. This is not as difficult as it may sound. Yes, everyone thinks that their project should take top priority but business people, if nothing else, are realistic. They want their project done now but more importantly they want it done correctly.  This discussion will not be as stressful as you may think if it is framed correctly.

  • Assure the stakeholders that your top priority is to deliver them a product that suits their business needs.
  • Explain that delivering everyone their product at the same time will result in a product that is not as robust as they like with a higher probability that the quality will suffer.
  • Discuss the fact that if the projects are prioritized correctly, there is an increased chance that certain aspects of the projects can be re-used, thereby shortening the time to completion
  • Discuss the projects that are the most critical to meeting the organization’s strategic needs
  • Readjust the project timelines so that the most critical ones begin first, with less critical following at reasonable intervals.
  • Obtain consensus in writing.

 Manage your Time

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 project manager and you’ll have to start focusing on managing your time among the critical areas within your projects.

Stay Close to the Work

Regardless of the number of simultaneous projects, you have to make progress on all fronts when managing multiple projects. Don’t leave one until next week and expect positive results. Check the progress of each project on a daily basis-especially those portions of the projects where critical deliverables or milestones are located.

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 over committing yourself.

Figure A

Figure A

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 tracking all projects. Figure B below 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 assigned 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.

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.

 

 

Figure B

Figure B

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.

 

Take-Aways

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 for yourself. This gives you a better sense of what’s going on.
  • Don’t sit in your office and expect results. As a program manager, 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.

Research

  1. Westland, Jason. “The Project Management Life Cycle: A Complete Step-by-Step Methodology for Initiating, Planning, Executing & Closing a Project Successfully” Kogan Page, 1st Edition, 2007
  2. Zwikael, Ofer. “Project Management for the Creation of Organisational Value”; Springer, 1st Edition, 2011
  3. Turner, J. Rodney. “The Handbook of Project-Based Management: Leading Strategic Change in Organizations” McGraw-Hill; 3rd Edition, 2008
  4. Lewis, James P. “Project Planning, Scheduling and Control: The Ultimate Hands-On Guide to Bringing Projects in On Time and On Budget”. McGraw-Hill, 5th Edition, 2010.