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Straight Talk on Project Management

Guide to a good night sleep

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The IT Project Manager’s guide to a good night sleep – how to manage multiple projects

Almost six out of ten project managers are managing between 2 and 5 projects (59%), according to recent research. 11% run 6 to 10 projects, and 15% are running more than 10 at a time – that sounds about right, although, I recall a PM friend once juggling 17 projects at once!

Some find managing multiple projects ‘second nature’, some make it look effortless (even if it isn’t), and some find the whole thing a total stress-fest … some even go from one of these extremes to the other in the course of an afternoon!  

Chatting with a bunch of industry friends and colleagues, managing multiple projects can be a source of great satisfaction but also a cause of stress and can even lead to sleepless nights.

As one put it to me, “David, have you ever driven past a professional dog walker? Maybe eight dogs, all under control, all on leads, a Springer Spaniel, a Westie, a Cavvie, a Border Collie, a Dachshund, a Shih Tzu, a Jack Russell and a Staffie all happily walking along. That lady who advertises her services on the town’s Facebook page or the post office window, she is US. Perfect. Idyllic. What can go wrong? Now, imagine one of the dogs gets spooked by the sirens on a passing fire engine, another two want to chase off after a cat, three of the other dogs’ leads become tangled … this is what managing multiple IT Projects can be like. No matter how good, experienced, and prepared you are, the more dogs you manage, the greater your chance of getting bitten!!”

Gosh! Maybe, rather than asking how to manage multiple projects, we should be asking ourselves “why” we do! Actually, joking apart, that IS a really good question.

HOW TO MANAGE MULTIPLE PROJECTS – FIRST ASK ‘WHY?’

OK, some great tips on ‘how-to’ coming up, but first – have you ever asked why?

Why are you managing multiple projects?

Very few do ask. To be honest, many of us are that boiling frog analogy made flesh. We didn’t start managing a handful projects on day one (like the frog, thrust into a pan of boiling water we’d probably have jumped out and legged it), instead we tend to evolve into the people who routinely manage multiple projects (we’re the frog sat in cold water as the temperature slowly gets raised and before you know it your workload has simmered into a large portfolio).

Thing is … we’re all really good at it. We crack on. Get the job done!!  BUT asking ‘why am I’ or ‘why are my team manging multiple projects can be an eye opener.  

On two levels:

Your Organisation

At an operational level, it can be useful to step back and view your teams’ workloads. Most project managers are hard wired to want to deliver projects, rarely will they tell you that their workload is too heavy, they’ll just keep accepting more and more.

As a culture are you overstretching teams by expecting them to deliver multiple projects? Do you lack in certain competencies and skillsets? Do you have talent gaps and shortages? Are individuals taking on too much? Is there a risk of burn-out, stress and demotivation for key team members? Do you risk talent churn as your best people leave for a quieter life?

If managing multiple projects is a necessity and not a choice because of resourcing challenges, Stoneseed’s Project Management as a Service (PMaaS) can help.

Individuals

On a personal level, as an individual managing multiple projects, a little introspection goes a long way.

Why are you managing multiple projects and, crucially, are you ok with it? My sample of project pros reported a 75/25 ratio of feeling cool/not cool about their workload

Among the reasons for managing multiple projects were: “if I don’t, who will?”; “victim of my own success – want something doing, give it to a busy person”; “resource issues”; “it’s always been this way”: etc.

No-one told me that they manage multiple projects out of choice, although after I made this observation, most did talk about the buzz that comes from working this way and most agreed that being busy helps the days pass faster.

A friend recently attended a project management refresher session where multi-tasking was really frowned upon, he looked at his colleagues and they all smiled knowing that if they didn’t multi-task, the multiple tasks, and projects they had to deliver would not get done!!

So, there are negative “whys” (like talent shortages) and positive “whys” (like you rock at this and get a buzz juggling a handful of transformational projects). Work out your “whys” and if they’re negative – take action!    

5 TOP TIPS TO HELP MANAGE MULTIPLE PROJECTS

1 – LIMIT WORK IN PROGRESS

You can limit work in progress whilst managing multiple projects – but it can take a sensei level of concentration and discipline to achieve!

Limiting work in progress, IS a pillar of Kanban! Kanban WIP limits help teams gatekeep workflow, ensuring that you start only as much work as you finish across your organisation, preventing accumulation of unfinished work flooding your processes.

In a Forbes article, limiting WIP was first on the list of IT Project Management Best Practices. SwipeGuide’s Sue Li citing it “an essential practice for any Agile software development project. Finishing what’s in progress first before starting new tasks allows teams to deliver value faster without exceeding capacity. Setting WIP limits helps reveal bottlenecks in the process, prevents context switching and improves focus.”

Logically it makes sense, the less stuff to do you have, the better the attention you’ll give each task, mitigating the risk of messing something up. In the real world, in the current project landscape – it can be hard!

Many teams are operating with talent gaps and shortages, shorter lead times, tighter budgets, more projects are reactive and not proactive causing an unprecedented need to tweak scope, outcomes, and deliverables along the way.

2 – FULLY RESOURCE YOUR TEAM!

When managing multiple projects, addressing any resource bottlenecks is essential.

Regular readers will know I like a football metaphor, managing multiple projects is like a football team going for the Premier League, Champions League, FA Cup and League Cup in a season – the key to success is depth of the squad. If you’re going for the project equivalent of the club quadruple, eliminate any talent gaps. Stoneseed’s Project Management as a Service (PMaaS) is a game changing, flexible and economically savvy way to do this.

Stoneseed’s team of Project Management and Technical Professionals deliver services through a flexible, on-demand resourcing model. All Stoneseed’s PMaaS services including Project Managers, Business Analysts, Technical Advisory and PMO experts are available onsite or remote. In fact, we are experts in remote access Project Management, offering rapid response resources. You can align resources as and when you need it, on a cost effective, full-time, or part-time basis.

We flex to support your needs, so don’t stress it = PMaaS it!

3 – FOSTER GREAT SPONSOR/STAKEHOLDER RELATIONSHIPS.

Having 2 to 5 (or even seventeen projects) means that you also have 2 to 5 (or 17) sponsors! To each, their project is the most important priority. You’re like a bird with a nest of seventeen hungry chicks, seventeen beaks emerging expecting to be fed every time you open your laptop.

The better your relationship is with sponsors, the more likely you’ll be to have an understanding ear should something go AWOL or if you need to push back on a stakeholder request!

Regular calls, emails, newsletters … DO great comms, great engagement, and great relationships!

4 – BE YOUR OWN TIME MANAGEMENT BOSS

In my experience, the best Multiple Project Managers are very particular about how they allocate their time. The beauty of project management is that it is scalable, i.e., you don’t have to reinvent the wheel for each project you’re managing.

PM friend Mel told me, “If you can run the PMBok guide and deliver one beautifully streamlined project, you can stack simultaneous projects on top of one another, do the same task for multiple projects in the same time window. So, rather than get in on Monday and do Tasks A to Z for Project One and then repeat for Project Two on Tuesday, you set aside Monday mornings for task A for all your projects, Tuesdays for task B, try doing all your sponsor meetings on, say, a Friday, etc.”

Concentrating on one task for all projects creates huge momentum, like an athlete, you’re ‘warmed up’ and more efficient.

Mel’s epiphany came during maternity leave, “I was making bottles of formula milk for overnight and the next morning. Doing one at a time, I’d often forget how many scoops I’d put in the bottle and have to start again. I realised I’d ‘stacked’ the task of sterilising the bottles, I wasn’t doing that one at a time! So, Instead I lined them up on the worktop, and I put the first scoop in each bottle, then a second scoop across the row and so on, poured hot water in each, gave them a good shake, and finally added the teats and the lids – and bingo! All done! I thought, ‘I’m so taking this into project management’, it’s so simple but it works.”    

Let’s be honest. If you can parent, you can cope with anything an IT Project can throw at you.  

5 – BE AN IDEA SPONGE – BUT CHOOSE PROCESSES AND SYSTEMS THAT WORK FOR YOU!

Have you identified the systems and processes that REALLY work for you?

The more comfortable you are with YOUR processes, the more effortlessly you’ll be able to manage multiple projects. If you can manage one, you can manage more than one.

As well as an army of project managers I know using monday.com, Wrike or ClickUp, etc, I have a PM friend who relies on a wall full of post-it notes; another uses clear plastic folders to move work-in-progress and tasks through the process; even Elizabeth Harrin, the author of the book “Managing Multiple Projects”, recently told Cornelius Fichtner’s PM Podcast that she’s a paper-over-digital kind of PM; another chap I know won’t move away from spreadsheets (to be fair he is a spreadsheet wizard – there’s nothing he cannot make a spreadsheet do!!); and I know a PM who is a software geek (she loves all the cutting edge apps) .. and so on. Horses for courses!

I am a firm believer in choosing processes, methodologies and systems that work for you, your team, and your projects (but also in having an open mind to new ideas!) If you do bring in resources ‘as a Service’ … ensure that the way, they operate is compatible with how you do business!

6 – BE KIND TO YOURSELF

Managing multiple projects isn’t easy, however good you are. Reward yourself with breaks, treats and a good work-life balance. Mel (the baby bottle PM) works Monday to Friday but occasionally has to pull a Saturday shift to get ahead, she tells me that when that happens, where possible, she finishes early during the following week to rebalance work/family life.

I often hear of complementary bottom-less boxes of chocolates for teams to help themselves to, one team has a pot of freshly ground “posh” coffee always on the go, another organisation buys McDonalds Breakfasts for anyone who needs to be in early in order to manage multiple projects (or takeaway dinner if working later).

Your well-being matters. When managing multiple projects be kind to and look after yourself!

So, in conclusion, you totally can manage multiple projects at once. Most of us have to!!

Be sure “why” you are doing it though… address the negative “whys” (talent gaps, etc) and leverage the positive “whys” (ride the wave of that buzz!). 

I mentioned it just now, the book “Managing Multiple Projects” by Elizabeth Harrin is a great read, it has been a great source of inspiration and validation as I’ve written this. Thanks Elizabeth!

If you have any other top tips for juggling multiple projects, I’d love to hear them, and if Stoneseed can help you turn those “negative whys” into “problem solved” – get in touch.