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Managing several projects at once

Where are we?

Projects never run in isolation and often come in groups. If you’ve made a good job of your first simple project, more will inevitably follow. You will probably end up running multiple projects within the normal working environment, which will include:

  • A number of packages of work clearly identified as ‘projects’

  • A large number of bits and pieces of work, not clearly identified as anything.

  • Staff management work: recruitment, appraisals (both conducting and receiving), training planning, training delivery, informal coaching, counselling, discipline, writing procedures and guidelines.

  • Reviewing other people’s work: either formally (in a quality review) or informally (“just have a quick look at this, will you, before I send it out”)

  • Company business: weekly/monthly management meetings, annual meetings, road shows, open days.

  • Company social: sports and social events, work experience schemes, sponsorship and charity events

  • Social intercourse: just talking to people, getting coffee, fixing up a tennis match, buying someone’s birthday present over the Internet.

  • Company administration: timesheets, progress reports, expenses, holiday requests, purchase orders

  • The ‘Day Job’: the project manager’s ‘own job’, whatever this might be, projects are often assigned alongside a full-time day job, which must not be disturbed by the project

So against this background of working life we have to introduce projects. We may be really interested in the projects and feel that we want to take them on but if we don’t do something about making some time for the projects then we will let people down.

 

How much time can you spare?

Project managers approach this question in a variety of ways:

  • Ignore it: just go for it, and hope for the best

  • Be ‘realistic’: you may need to take some work home in order to catch up.

  • Try to measure it: not difficult but not very macho either!

Project managers are notorious for not knowing (or not wanting to know) exactly where their time goes.

It may seem feeble and defeatist, but without some facts and figures about your workload you will never be able to manage yourself (and certainly never be able to challenge your workload with the boss).

So, how about keeping a personal timesheet for a couple of weeks? Analyse the results, and discuss it with the boss. It may be that your timesheet tells you that you are spending your time in exactly the way the boss wants. Conversely, you may find that your working patterns are not as expected and don’t leave any sensible time for taking on new projects. Just because you want to run a project doesn’t mean that you will have the time to do it. The road to hell is paved with good intentions!

It is better for all parties if you can face up to reality in terms of your workload and try to manage within it, rather than subscribe to the macho ‘go for it’ work ethic that often precedes a great deal of pain. If your personal baseline (the amount of work that you must carry out each day or week) is close to your feasible daily/weekly limit then this must be discussed with your boss before you take on any extra project assignments.

Another fact of life to face up to before you start to control this portfolio of work is the one of prioritisation. When projects come head to head with your day job it is usually the day job that has higher priority. Most bosses will feel that keeping the main engines running is more important than splashing on a new coat of paint. You might not like this (projects are often more exciting that the dull old routine) but it is vital to identify the relative priorities of all the elements of your portfolio.

 

Overall principles

Managing a group of projects alongside other work is more of a time management problem than anything else. Write down:

  • All the fixed activities that you must carry out (e.g. monthly management meetings, progress reporting to the sponsor etc.).

  • All the staff management activities you must carry out and which you cannot delegate (appraisals, etc.).

  • All the milestones from your various project plans.

  • All the project activities that are allocated to you.

 

What does such a plan look like?

Each individual project will have its own plan, even if this is nothing more than a milestone list. The overall consolidated plan, containing all of your assignments, will look more like a diary or wall-planner, as you will be trying to understand how all of your commitments fit into our working week.

In fact a monthly wall-planning chart, photocopied and placed on your desk, makes an excellent working plan or perhaps you have an application like Outlook on your computer.

 

Now you can analyse the situation

Look for the following:

  • Resource overloading where, most probably, you will be the resource in question.

  • Obvious clashes, with too many events happening on the same day. Look for the less obvious ones, with undeclared but essential preparation or planning activity causing time problems.

  • Portfolio risks: although each piece of work may be unrelated to the next in your personal portfolio of work, they all share a common resource (you), and so there may be dependencies between them. A problem on one piece of work may have a knock-on effect elsewhere that would have been difficult to spot without this type of consolidation.

 

What can you do about it?

In terms of resolving resource overloads the options are:

  • Challenge your baseline: is it right that you should be spending your time allocated in the manner indicated by your consolidated plan?

  • Delegate: once the overall picture emerges you will be able to identify those activities which you can (and should) delegate.

  • Defer: put something off until a later date. With the big picture and your portfolio risk assessment you will be in a strong position to choose the most appropriate activity to defer, as opposed to just putting off something and hoping that you can pick it up later.

  • Delete: consider whether you really need to do the activity at all - a radical approach, but very satisfying.

The consolidated plan will change on a regular, rapid and repeated basis. Once you’ve drawn it you must keep it up to date, to reflect the movement of your own commitments. Many of the changes you wish to make will affect individual project plans so make sure you reflect the changes at the detailed level as well.

 

Summary

Creating a consolidated personal plan needs a large degree of realism. You must start with the things you cannot avoid, and only put projects into any time that is left over.
Be aware that not all the time ‘left over’ is fully available for projects. You must leave some time for:

  • Routine administration that falls into your daily base workload.
  • Emergency, unplanned or unforeseen activities.
  • New activities delegates to you by your boss or your customer.

 

Thanks to Mike Watson of Obsideo for providing this book

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Managing several projects at once

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