27 March, 2023

Here are My 12 Secret Strategies to Manage Multiple Projects Effectively

As your experience as a Project Manager grows, you will be increasingly called upon to manage multiple projects. And this does not just apply to full-time Project managers… Over the years, I have been asked about this by a lot of managers and professionals. They have been tasked with two or more projects to manage, on top of their day-to-day job.

The Number one Strategy that will help you Manage Multiple Projects

Managing multiple projects at the same time is impossible. That’s just a fact. Well, I suppose you can do it, but never well. The reason is simple: human beings can only multi-task when a maximum of one of the things you are doing at once is mentally demanding. As soon as you try to do a second demanding task while still doing the first, your brain will fail to cope.

So what we do instead, is mono-task. If you want to manage multiple projects, you can’t do them at the same time. So what you must do is what I call ‘serial mono-tasking’. You must manage one project, put it down, and move on to another. Serial mono-tasking is the essential strategy. All of the others amount to strategies to do this effectively and efficiently.

Serial mono-tasking is the essential strategy for managing multiple #projects #PM Share on X

The Principle of Mono-Tasking

I explain this principle in a short video:

12 Practical Tips to Manage Multiple Projects Effectively

Here are My 12 Secret Strategies to Manage Multiple Projects Effectively

The bulk of this article needs to asses practical approaches that you can take, and how they work.

So, I will look at:

  1. The Project Hats Principle
  2. Understand the Cycle Time for each Project
  3. The  ‘Commander’s Intent’ Approach
  4. Large-Scale Timing of Your Projects
  5. Focus on the Highest Value Activities
  6. Focus on Exceptions
  7. How to Prioritize
  8. Block out Periods of Time on a Weekly Basis
  9. Reduce Transition Times and Delays
  10. Be Scrupulous about Admin and Project Control
  11. Learn how to Handle Overwhelm
  12. Practice Saying No

I will close with a short discussion of:

Prefer Video?

We’ve summarized the content of this article in our video…

1. The Project Hats Principle

You need to make dedicated time to manage each project, one at a time. It is equally important, therefore, that you are clear about which project you are managing at any time. So imagine you have a different hat for each project, and always know which one you are wearing now.

2. Understand the Cycle Time for each Project

Every project has its own characteristic ‘cycle time’. This is the time within which things will typically change significantly. For some projects, it may be a day; for others, maybe only an hour or two. Some projects have cycle times of several days or even weeks. To make your multi-project management most efficient and effective, check-in with each project just inside its cycle time.

If you don’t check-in with a project soon enough, too much will happen. You won’t be in control of events. This is not effective leadership. If you check on a project too soon, nothing much will happen, and it won’t need your attention. That is not efficient.

If the cycle time is faster than your return time, then you will need someone standing in for you while you are not focusing on the project… A Number Two, or Deputy Project Manager. This is someone who can keep on top of progress, shifts, and changes. Critically, they can alert you if the Project needs your attention before you have scheduled to check-in.

Some will say you should always stay in touch with each project daily. Instead, I suggest you stay in touch with your deputy daily. A series of short one-to-one meetings or calls will help you check whether your agenda for the day is still appropriate, or if you need to re-prioritize.

3. The  ‘Commander’s Intent’ Approach

This is an idea that is widely used in modern militaries. And it is best exemplified by Nelson’s instructions to his captains ahead of the Battle of Trafalgar. Then, he gathered his captains together and outlined his general plan. He told them what he was trying to achieve, and the underlying principles, so that everyone could understand his intent.

Recognizing that he may not be able to stay in touch throughout the battle, he then gave his basic instruction for what each officer should try to achieve, if they got no further instructions from him. This was his ‘commander’s intent’.

4. Large-Scale Timing of Your Projects

If you have to manage multiple projects, the least you can do is to try to avoid having them all reach a critical juncture at the same time! Create an over-arching portfolio plan.

Use this to stagger them, with some starting, while others are in the planning stage. At the same time, have others delivering, while others are in testing mode, and others are at the close-down stage. This will give you balance in your day-to-day workload.

It will also balance out the amount of attention each needs. More strategically, however, it sets you up for a sustainable pattern of long-term multiple-project management.

5. Focus on the Highest Value Activities

When you check in on a project, focus your attention on the highest-value things you can do.  These are likely to be things like:

  • Facilitating problem-solving
  • Making key decisions
  • Engaging with principal stakeholders
  • Coaching and mentoring team members

Any other approach is just a way of wasting your time. But incidentally, it also has the effect of annoying your team, because meddling in less important matters will undermine their sense that you trust them.

6. Focus on Exceptions

If you spend your time on the simple, routine, day-to-day concerns of your projects, that is also a waste. Let your number two handle the routine and the straightforward. You should focus on the exceptions that your deputy may not have the experience or perspective to assess properly. But don’t just deal with them…

If you want to create a sustainable environment where you can refine the way you manage multiple projects, and become more efficient, this won’t work. Instead, use each new situation as a way to train, teach, and develop your more senior team members. This way, those same situations won’t be exceptions the next time. And if that’s the case, then you won’t need to handle them yourself. Result!

7. How to Prioritize

Of course, it goes without saying that you should prioritize your projects, when you decide how much time to allocate to each one. Obviously, when you do this, things like scale, complexity, value, risk, and urgency will be important. You could easily draw up a matrix! But your job is also to support team members. I could argue that that job is to support team members. That way, they deliver your project, and you succeed.

So consider how much support your team needs at each stage of project, and use this as the basis for prioritizing. This means that your prioritization among projects will shift as they proceed through their life cycles.

By the way, you may like our short video, Avoid Sunflower Bias: Critical PM Priority.

8. Block out Periods of Time on a Weekly Basis

I suggest you schedule the time you will allocate to each project once a week. I recommend doing this on Friday afternoon. Review this each morning, once you have had a short check-in with each of your deputies. When you do your scheduling, leave gaps for thinking and reviewing, for over-runs of meetings, and to give you time to attend to unexpected opportunities or issues. And a schedule that has no float will create too much risk… And too much stress!

A schedule that has no float will create too much risk... And too much stress! #PM Share on X

9. Reduce Transition Times and Delays

One of the biggest drains on your time, if you are trying to manage multiple projects, is a delay in finding project documents. So get yourself highly organized in your filing. This may mean good systems for your online document storage, or a great personal paper filing system. That’s up to you. I think some form of tagging system is valuable, so you can easily sort for access to resources that are common to more than one project. Here are some tactics:

Make a Sensible Investment Project Management Software

By making the right choice of software, and by investing in learning to use it well, you can swap projects with nearly zero friction.

For more on Project Management software, here is a round-up of our resources.

Project Summaries

I like to make myself an easily accessible one-page summary of the key facts for each project. I can then keep these with me. Although it’s simple to put them onto a laptop, tablet, or smartphone, I do also like to have hard copies in my notebook. This brings me neatly onto…

A multi-part notebook

Whether you:

  • Buy a purpose-made multi-part notebook, with summaries at the start of each section (like this, or this, or this)
  • Use a suitable app like OneNote or Evernote
  • Add tabs to your ordinary notebook

… you can easily start each section with your project summary, and organize the rest as you choose. In a common area, you can also add some…

Simple Visualization Tools

These are ways to give yourself an overview of all the projects you manage. Examples might be a table, a strategy chart, a linear responsibility chart, or a Kanban board.

10. Be Scrupulous about Admin and Project Control

Get the basics right. Isn’t that always the rule? If you are scrupulous about keeping up-to-date with your admin and your project control, you will reduce your stress levels massively. But more importantly, when some event tears you away from one project, and onto another, that first project is in a sound state and can bear being left.

11. Learn how to Handle Overwhelm

Overwhelm comes when you don’t feel in control. Being a Project Manager means learning not to let a whole big, complex, nasty project overwhelm you. But when it comes time to manage multiple projects, the whole problem just multiplies. Here are some of the tactics that I use.

  1. Allocate a weekly slot of Thinking Time that helps you review your portfolio, and feel in control of it.
  2. Practice good delegation. Develop team members to accept roles, and learn the skills to delegate well.
  3. Develop an overwhelm routine, which gives you a quick way out of the feeling of being overwhelmed.
  4. Put aside adequate relaxation time each day and each week.
  5. Read our article: ‘What to do if you are Feeling Overwhelmed by Your Project’.

12. Practice Saying No

Practice saying no to even more requests on your time. Once you have a portfolio that allows you to manage multiple projects smoothly and effectively, but that also fills your time, say No to any further distractions. If you do have spare capacity, that’s great. But use it to accommodate new opportunities that you select carefully. They need to fit into your portfolio in a way that reduces the potential for clashes that could disrupt the effectiveness of your process.

Do take a look at our popular video, Noble Objection: Top 10 Ways to Say NO.

Portfolio Management vs Multiple Project Management

Murali Kulathumani is the author of two books on Portfolio Management. In an interview on my YouTube channel with Murali, one of the things he talks about is the ‘third wave’ of Project Management:

‘Projects for Everything’

Portfolio Management

Murali points out that many Project Managers have multiple projects on their daily agendas. And he makes a compelling case that we can adopt ideas from Portfolio Management to help us stay on top of them. Murali recommends ‘The New Dynamic of Portfolio Management’ as the place to start. His other book, ‘Breakthrough Project Portfolio Management’ is more advanced.

Multiple Project Management

Meanwhile, over in the UK…

Murali is a US author. In the UK, Project Management blogger Elizabeth Harrin has an interesting book. The title, ‘Managing Multiple Projects’, is a precise description of its contents. And, in a mirror to Murali, Elizabeth also says we can think of multi-project management as managing a portfolio. 

I have read both books and bought the two books with my own money:

I can recommend them both.

(The links are affiliated as a way you can support these free articles)

Delight and Disappointment

Delight first…

Both books are excellent and full of insights. I have no reservations about recommending them each – or both. But they are for different audiences with different needs. You may, of course, have both needs!

Managing Multiple Projects

Elizabeth Harrin’s ‘Managing Multiple Projects’ is ideal for a day-to-day Project Manager with several projects to juggle. If you have not yet thought through how to handle this, or need more ideas, this book is a great resource. As is always the case with Elizabeth, it covers the basics, clearly, concisely, and in a practical way. Loads of great nuggets.

The New Dynamic of Portfolio Management 

Murali Kulathumani’s ‘The New Dynamic of Portfolio Management’ is written for Project Managers with control over your personal portfolio. It’s also for PMs working at that next level, where you have – or want to take – a strategic focus. It helps you build tools and capabilities for true portfolio management. It’s also perfect for PMO leaders and Portfolio Managers, dealing in these ideas daily. There is a fabulous Section IV on creating organizational infrastructure.

Now Disappointment

Outside of their books, both authors seemed to promise a fusion. A coming together of ideas and – I’d hoped – some new insights. Both Murali and Elizabeth have suggested:

Multiple Projects Management = Portfolio Management

This promise is, as yet, unfulfilled

The titles of the books are both precise. Each book delivers on its promise. Each approaches the middle ground from one direction. And each treats its subject in the ‘traditional’ way. Neither reaches any new ground in the middle.

Maybe there isn’t anything new to be gained from a fusion of these ideas

But I remain hopeful. And I shall be thinking this through for myself. In the meantime, if you want to consider this, then see what these two excellent authors have to say. And do let me know what you think of either book, or the subject in general.

Have Your Say: Over to You…

Please use the comments below to either tell us all your own tips, if you have been able to successfully manage multiple projects, or share your concerns or questions, if you are facing this challenge for the first time.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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