BY TEGAN JONES
With fiscal conservatism the maxim for companies large and small, project teams are forced to do more with less—literally. That often means project managers are confronted with a long list of tasks, all screaming for attention.
With fewer hands on deck, both project managers and their teams have to learn to juggle several tasks at once.
Despite the inevitable distractions, project managers must resist the urge to solve problems in the order they occur, says Regina Moucka, Ph.D., PMP, a project manager and independent consultant based in Edinburgh, Scotland.
One way to do this is by updating your list of priorities at the end of every day and sticking to it as much as possible, she says. That way, you can get a running start in the morning without having to go back and see where you left off the night before.
In the end, however, minor tactical variations alone won’t help project managers take on the additional demands bequeathed by the economic slowdown. The growing reality is that project managers and their teams must not only learn how to multitask—they must re-examine what it means to multitask well.
We as project managers need to realize we do not have to do everything, but we have to make sure everything is done.
—Daniel Luna, PMP, PgMP, Alcatel-Lucent, Lima, Peru
SWITCH IT UP
To be the best taskmaster you can be, you first have to realize the limits of multitasking.
Many project managers rely on simultaneous multitasking—such as taking a call while answering e-mails— but it’s not the most effective way to function, Dr. Moucka says. Because the mind can only focus on one item at a time, it’s forced to flip between tasks at a rapid pace.
“Simultaneous cognitive multitasking in its strict definition doesn’t exist—try writing a project plan and doing your taxes at the same time,” she explains. “You can only work on one or the other, or keep switching between them.”
Instead, project managers should focus on tasks and activities that are on the critical path and bundle related ones together to tackle in a single session. So-called sequential multitasking allows them to focus on one subject area at a time, cutting the time required to move between disparate efforts.
For example, because project managers are often responsible for several projects at the same time, it may be more efficient to conduct all of the budget or financial reviews for all of your projects in one day, Dr. Moucka explains.
How tasks are grouped will vary by an individual’s preference, she says, but the ability to prioritize deliverables and move between pieces of a project is a prized skill.
“Multitasking is a key reason why companies hire project managers—to make sure all and only the tasks that are needed to deliver the project on time and within budget are done,” Dr. Moucka says.
WANTED: EXPERT JUGGLERS
Project managers obviously can’t do it alone. They’re going to need a team of multitasking experts as well.
And the best way to do that is to make sure you’re getting the right people in the door, says Chris Waldron, PMP, project manager at xwave, an IT services division of telecom company Bell Aliant, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
In many cases, it appears that the truly great multitaskers are born, not made.
“I tend to believe that multitasking skills are brought to the table, as opposed to being taught,” Mr. Waldron says.
Although the necessary skills can vary by industry, it’s smart to look for team members who possess a broad range of experiences, such as working in both IT and administrative fields, he says.
The benefit of finding these Renaissance workers is two-fold: It makes your team more flexible and increases its value to key stakeholders.
“As budgets start to become tighter, if you can acquire a team that is able to juggle multiple roles, it means your bid for a particular project becomes more competitive,” he says.
To that end, Mr. Waldron suggests ferreting out clues in a candidate’s personality and interview style.
“We tend to look for an extroverted individual with a real go-getter attitude,” says Mr. Waldron. “We tend to set the expectations up front by asking questions like, ‘Are you comfortable wearing many hats? Would you feel comfortable juggling both analyst and project management roles?’”
Dr. Moucka suggests keeping an eye out for team members who can quickly switch their focus between different tasks and activities, while also retaining good judgment about when they need to prioritize a single task.
And the best way to gauge that is with a trial case.
“Figure out how they think,” she says. “Take a real-life example and ask them how they would manage it. What would be their immediate steps and why?”
Even when project leaders have created a dream team of multitasking machines, they may still be able to do more with technology.
Because effective multitasking relies on monitoring tasks and deliverables, using basic project tracking tools can help the team ramp up productivity without letting quality drop, says Saurabh Garg, PMP, IT delivery manager at Tech Mahindra Ltd., Noida, India.
“Multitasking is best managed by project management tools where you can check the critical path and variance for all activities, and prevent any slippage,” he says. “With these tools, activities and tasks going in the red can be seen well in advance, and proper action can be taken.”
At global telecom giant Alcatel-Lucent, team members are encouraged to frequently update documents on the company’s intranet portal, says Daniel Luna, PMP, PgMP, program manager at the Lima, Peru office.
With all the pertinent project implementation information in one place, team members can stay up-to-date and move quickly between tasks without any fact-finding.
Collaboration tools can also help bring order to an often chaotic process, says Dr. Moucka. “If you have 15 people updating a document, it becomes tricky to know which is the latest version,” she explains.
Despite the plethora of software options, the best multitasking tool at a project manager’s disposal may be the ability to delegate, Mr. Luna says. Even with fewer resources, no project manager can be expected to tackle every task that comes along.
TIP AVOID THE E-MAIL TRAP
Although it can be tempting to read every message right when it arrives, even the most expert of multitaskers should refrain. Instead, set time aside to read and reply to groups of e-mails and then move on to the next priority on your list, says Regina Moucka, Ph.D, PMP, Edinburgh, Scotland.
“If you try to respond to every e-mail as it comes in, you’ll never get anything done,” she says. “Be sure to block time when you need to focus without calls or distractions.”
Dr. Moucka also recommends creating a protocol that asks team members to mark e-mails “urgent” if the issue really can’t wait.
“We as project managers need to realize we do not have to do everything, but we have to make sure everything is done,” Mr. Luna says. “If we try to do all of the things by ourselves, we are planning to fail.” PM
As budgets become tighter, if you can acquire a team that is able to juggle multiple roles, your bid for a particular project becomes more competitive.
—Chris Waldron, PMP, xwave, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
PM NETWORK SEPTEMBER 2009 WWW.PMI.ORG