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Secret Strategies to Manage Multiple Projects

Secret Strategies to Manage Multiple Projects

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.

So what are the secret strategies that experienced Project Managers use to manage multiple projects? In this article, I’ll share all of my best advice.PMI Talent Triangle - Technical Project Management

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 onto another. Serial mono-tasking is the essential strategy. All of the others amount to strategies to do this effectively and efficiently.

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Secret Strategies to Manage Multiple Projects

Secret Strategies to Manage Multiple Projects

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 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.

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.

Use the  ‘Commander’s Intent’ Approach.

This is an idea that is widely used in modern militaries, and 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’.

Work on the 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 at the close down stage. This will give you balance in tyour 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.

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.

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!

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, urgency will be important. You could easily draw up a matrix! But your job is also to support team members. I could argue 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 you prioritization among projects will shift as they proceed through their life cycles.

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 Click To Tweet

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 organised 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.

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 onlto a laptop, tablet, or smartphone, I do also like to have hard copies in my notebook. Which brings me neatly onto…

A multi-part notebook

Whether you:

  • Buy a purpose made multi-part notebook, with summaries at 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.

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 important, 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.

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 do it 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’.

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.

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.

About the Author Mike Clayton

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 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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