Betting on efficiency: How I manage multiple projects
Many people believe that an effective project manager (PM) must manage only one project at a time. Is this true? First, let’s look at the reverse: several PMs assigned to a single project. I know of cases where multiple project managers have worked on a single project; if they speak the same language or are responsible for different aspects, the project may go smoothly – but overlapping competencies is a sure path to a major flop.
It can lead to internal competition (e.g. for employees) and inconsistent communication with contractors. As a result, both the supplier and the client are on the losing end.
What if we reverse the situation and assign a few projects to one person? Can this prevent damage?
The first issue to be considered is multitasking itself, or actually the lack of it. Research seems to prove that multitasking is a somewhat illusory skill that’s more likely to lessen the quality of our work than provide any benefits.
This doesn’t mean one person cannot efficiently run several projects. With good organization, a PM can allocate enough time and attention to two or more projects. And all this can be accomplished without resorting to (in)famous multitasking. Furthermore, such a model offers benefits to the client as well as to the project itself.
How to start working on multiple projects?
Asking this question is like trying to find out how many tasks you can juggle. Have you ever tried brushing your teeth, reading a book, and running on a treadmill – at the same time? I have! It is doable … but in reality, nothing is done well.
Research shows that multitasking is inefficient because as we split our attention over two or more tasks, our brains devote less focus to each of them. It is easier to focus as we complete tasks one by one or alternate between tasks. The same rule holds true for running projects.
If the right conditions are ensured, we can perform each task from beginning to end in the predetermined scope, on budget and on schedule. That is why I start all my projects by figuring out my time management, communication plan, and priorities.
When I finally realized that doing several things at once makes my work inefficient, I started focusing 100% of my attention on doing one task at a time. At the end of the day, I was able to cross more items off my to-do list than ever before. How did I do it? By using some time-honored practices.
I actively use my paper and digital calendars. Every morning, I write my to-do list for that day in the paper calendar, prioritizing tasks into must-dos and nice-haves. It is really reassuring when I look at the end of the day and see that I have covered all the points and done them well.
I also use Google Calendar to manage my appointments. At the end of the week, I set aside half an hour to put my appointments into blocks. This way, they flow into each other, without unnecessary and distracting breaks. I am a visual person, so I mark calendar events with four colors:
- Red - My attendance is necessary,
- Blue - Good to attend,
- Green - My own work,
- Yellow – Non-business activities.
I enter everything into my calendar, including breaks and non-business activities. I also inform others in advance when I’ll be busy. Don’t hesitate to tell your team you have no time to talk at a given moment, but make sure you get back to them later.
Communication is key
In managing multiple projects, I collaborate with a dozen or even a few dozen people. All of them have different personalities, temperaments, and competencies. That is why daily communication with your team – listening to what individual people have to say or do and giving mutual feedback – is such an important thing.
Communication is a two-way street. In our meetings, I share the client’s side of the project with the team. I communicate how our work is perceived, whether there are any further developments, and any plans for the after-the-project phase. Everyone feels much more secure when they know the perspective for the next few weeks or months. It makes them active participants in the process and encourages accountability.
Running many projects can mean that multiple duties and overlapping deadlines feel overwhelming. Realizing that change is around the corner and we have to brace up for it can also be stressful. In such situations, regular communication with upper management is essential. When they know the stage of each of your projects, they can trust the situation is under control and understand that you will always lend a hand and offer advice if needed.
What is also amazing about good communication is that, when we’re talking about a problem, someone often comes up with a solution.
And what about ensuring our clients' security? First of all, from the very start we should make sure about their presence in the project. Irrelevant of the project management methodology, the client is the business owner of the delivered product. A client who has been cut off from the project and receives a ready-made solution after a few months is very often dissatisfied. This is particularly true in IT, where things are continuously changing. On the other hand, when we share our tools and knowledge with the client, we become a lot more transparent and will be perceived as a more trustworthy partner.
I highly recommend holding weekly meetings with your clients. In such status meetings, we discuss project progress, recent achievements, and potential obstacles. We talk about how these will affect the timeline, budget, and scope. I also schedule some time after the meeting to write down all the arrangements made, as this info can slip away among my many ongoing tasks.
It’s impossible to overvalue communication in all of these areas. Don’t worry about being judged for asking questions, whether it’s to your team, your boss, or your client. People who communicate a lot rarely get their direction wrong.
I personally prefer face-to-face meetings, but they are not always possible. Our e-point team is increasingly using remote work options. In this case, tools like Slack, Teams, or Hangouts are helpful; thanks to them, we can easily hold conferences, status meetings, and other appointments.
Managing expectations and priorities
Efficient multiple project management also requires us to establish expectations. These might differ depending on who you ask. Thus, before starting a project, ask the team, the client, and your boss(es) about their expectations. To ensure the promised deliverables, understanding everyone's expectations is vital.
Talking to the team about a preferred project methodology or how often to hold meetings might be a good idea. Also, ask the client and your supervisor(s) what they intend to achieve with the project implementation.
Obtaining such information in advance means we can avoid misunderstandings and prevent inefficiency. One major advantage of having such knowledge is setting a point of reference for project satisfaction; this will allow us to make informed decisions about project improvements. That is why expectations are worth setting at the very start of the project.
Our company's standard practice is to prepare a document that outlines key project parameters (budget, scope, and timetable) and specifies the client’s expectations for our team. IT projects are a never-ending flurry of changes, so having at least one consistent point of reference for everyone involved is extremely valuable.
Remember, we cannot possibly have all items as number one in our to-do list. We need to set priorities. This takes us back to the crucial role of communication in our project, specifically the importance of questions concerning what our bosses want us to focus on or what application functionality is key for our client. After having determined our high-level priorities, we should move on to more specific planning.
Using project management tools
Preparing a comprehensive plan of projects conducted – in the form of a Gantt chart with specific milestones – is crucial for me. Thanks to that, I always know when I must focus on a given project and how shifts in one area will affect another. I can, if needed, move people from one project to another in a way that benefits all projects.
Using project management software is also a great help. Such programs are highly useful for project managers, stakeholders, and the entire team. They help everyone to easily visualize tasks and the complete product concept.
Project management tools may save the lives of those who take part in many projects at once. They usually have calendar extensions, which help schedule tasks and subtasks and increase the transparency of results achieved by other team members. Moreover, these tools allow us to create daily and weekly reports on team and individual progress.
Managing multiple projects serves all parties
Having one project manager simultaneously oversee multiple projects brings various benefits to all parties. For example, we’ve all worked on a project where things slowed down for a space – and meanwhile, our colleagues down the hall were swamped. When we’re running multiple projects at once, we can reassign employees from slower projects to busier projects. This allows the project manager to make the most efficient use of their team’s time and competencies.
This is also a great way to promote a positive team atmosphere; we can avoid situations where some team members slack off while others are snowed under. And it helps the team avoid boring ruts: employees get the opportunity to deliver on more challenging tasks or to learn new technologies and solutions. For the client, this approach means the project is being done by highly motivated and qualified specialists who stay up to date with cutting edge solutions. It’s an all-around win.