Be it because you are managing a set of interrelated projects or you’re assigned to several different projects, managing multiple projects is an integral part of every Project Manager’s life, so mastering it is tremendously useful.
Multitasking isn’t something that comes naturally. Most people prefer focusing on one thing in order to do it at their best. However, modern age imposes the need to optimise our time. This means juggling tasks, deadlines and issues related to several different projects at the same time.
Since the only certainties in Project Management are dictated by Murphy’s law, you must be ready to have issues from different projects popping up at the same time. I’ve seen some good friends and colleagues experience problems due to the stressfulness of managing multiple projects simultaneously. Let me be clear, it’s not about how you handle stress related to the project activities or if you are taking more work that you can handle, it’s about avoiding creating more tension or workload than necessary.
I dare to say that most of Project Managers don’t really care about some extra work and having to handle some crisis. I think it’s part of the job description! Most of the stress we are handling is due to unclear, sometimes unnecessary situations that are forced on us. This also applies to team members. The more you change their planning, the more the stress level rises.
The secret is to try to keep your activities as well as those of your team in check, no matter the situation.
Best Practices to Simplify Your Life
Regardless of the number of projects you are handling, here is something you should always be doing:
1) Plan 80% of your time ahead
A good practice is trying to plan one or two weeks ahead, keeping the equivalent of one day free. This will allow you to handle unexpected situations or extra workload. Best case scenario – you will have the time to do some learning.
2) Balance team and individual activities
Whenever possible, try to separate in your schedule the activities you have to do with your team and those you can handle on your own. For example, if you have a two-hour meeting in the morning, book the other two hours to write a report, read documentation or handle other tasks you must do by yourself. Why? Team activities are more difficult to reschedule than personal ones – if you receive an urgent call during your meeting, you will be able to tend to that as soon as you finish the meeting, during the time you scheduled for your individual tasks. Like this, you can fit unpredictable events into your schedule without rescheduling a meeting that involves several persons.
3) Know what to do tomorrow
As I’ve already mentioned before, you should plan your agenda a couple of weeks ahead. Surely you’ll have to make some adjustments. There is no rule, but I usually check next week’s agenda on Fridays; also, I adjust plans for each day the night before.
On a psychological level, not having to decide what to do or how to fit a task in the middle of the working day is very important. Of course, keep in mind that this applies also to your team. This is why Daily Scrum Meetings are popular among Team Leaders and Project Managers.
Not having a set list of tasks and a timeline is a good way to get into trouble. If you will be managing multiple projects at the same time, success will elude you until you start only doing the things that count.
You must always have a clear overview of the tasks ahead and their importance. Dodging a task by doing a lot of other activities may give you the illusion of efficiency and provide mental satisfaction, but if you miss that ONE activity that needs to be done, you will still be in trouble. You can read more about Time Management and how to prioritise tasks right here, on P3MO Team blog.
Managing Multiple Projects
What we’ve just discussed applies to any situation. Now, let’s concentrate on how’s, do’s and don’ts of managing multiple projects.
The main difference between managing multiple projects and focusing all your energy on a single project is the amount of time you can dedicate to each of them. Also, managing multiple projects requires harmonising relations with all stakeholders. Saying something like “I must cancel this meeting because I must attend another one related to the other project” could leave an impression that you are favouring one project over others, leaving some of your stakeholders feeling neglected.
Also, you will have several teams to manage, meaning you will probably not be in touch with them as much as you would be if you were fully dedicated to the project. In the case of a national or international project, you may never meet face to face your team members or the final users. Language and time zone barriers may appear in the latter as well.
So let’s get to the point!
Ignore the Pressure
It’s common to receive pressure, especially from those who don’t have any authority on the project.
Usually, people think that the one shouting the loudest is the one who gets served first. Enabling this will drive you into Last In-First Out mindset, which completely disregards the Priority Management. You should push back any change in your priorities you disagree with.
If there is one thing from this article you should remember, it’s this: you are in charge, you see the overall picture. You decide where to allocate the resources and what are the priorities. The others only see their part of the puzzle. Have them take the long road by escalating you.
Of course, there is always the possibility that your decision is overruled or challenged, but most of the time it won’t happen – barking dogs seldom bite. Even if overruled, you should not feel defeated, this would only mean that you must adapt to new priorities since the Board has an even bigger picture than you.
Learn to Delegate
You will not be able to control everything. The more projects you have and the more complicated they are, the more you need to rely on Team Leaders or Project Managers (in case you act as Program Manager). Let them have the insight into day-to-day activities and customer/users communication. You must see yourself as a coach more than a manager. Help them grow into the role.
Of course, you must always be aware of the project’s progress and anything that may influence it. But again, you must teach your team to provide you with the correct information. You might find RACI models quite helpful for this.
As I mentioned previously, you may find yourself working with teams spread across the country or even the world. You cannot just ask a question at the coffee machine.
Mails are informal and may distort the intended tone of the sender. Sometimes you just don’t know if they are congratulating or complaining. Adding language and the cultural barrier makes it even more complex.
How can you avoid this? We would all love to have the onsite meeting, especially when the project is in Rio or Paris. Having a 6h travel to attend a 2-hour meeting is, you must agree, not very practical.
This is why in the early stage, we should try to use video conferences and/or telephone, as much as we can. Avoid mail for assigning tasks to people you never spoke to, it always leaves them feeling bossed around. Once the ice is broken, you may go back to a more swift way of communication by going back to emails or chats.
In complex international projects, people are always anxious about not receiving all the information or not being included in the decision-making. Address this with scheduled meetings and distributing as much information as you are allowed to.
Managing multiple projects leaves no space for errors. Having to divert your attention, or the resources, to handle a situation may have an impact on other projects. As I mentioned before, you will probably be working with different stakeholders and they won’t really care about what is happening in another project. This means that in all your activities and planning you must include a buffer.
This is crucial for your agenda. We already discussed scheduling 80% of your time, but it must be done carefully.
One of the most common mistakes is to line up activities one after the other. If I have a status call from 10:00 to 11:00 it would be very risky to have a kick-off with another team at 11:00. I would probably get late for the second meeting since meetings usually don’t end in the expected time.
As discussed before, I could plan some time to do administrative work or to write a meeting report, so in case the first call lasts more than expected, it will impact only my solo activities.
Also, don’t be afraid to cut a meeting that is lasting more than planned. If you have scheduled 60 minutes you should start calling for the conclusions after 45 minutes. From my experience, I can say that in the beginning, this practice will create some distress, but in the long run, it will generate shorter and more productive meetings.
While Managing Multiple Projects is still within the area of project management, it requires a different skill set. It’s like going from handcraft to mass production. It does not mean that your product will lose quality, it only means that you would be paying more attention to the standardisation and productivity. Handmade suits, made by an expert tailor, are exceptional, most of us are not willing to spend the money they cost. This does not mean that we cannot buy a very good suit built in a mass production process.