Managing multiple small projects

Abstract

As a project manager of small projects, you are aware of the importance of using a methodology and tools to manage a single project. However, managing multiple small projects requires more control. By using a methodology for managing multiple projects, the project manager will be able to efficiently plan and control project activities. By grouping projects, the project manager will be able to see schedule impacts across projects and report progress across the entire project portfolio.

Introduction

As a project manager of small projects, you are aware of the importance of using a methodology and tools to manage a single project. You have achieved a level of success with managing small projects and have been awarded the opportunity to manage more projects simultaneously. At the beginning, the single-project methodology applied over a few projects appears to work. After a short time, however, you become concerned. Some of your concerns are as follows:

  • Common resources are assigned to multiple projects
  • Many of your project team members are part-time resources to the project
  • Team members are juggling priorities---they're working on multiple projects and also responsible for performing operational activities

You know that you need to manage time and resources more efficiently. Because time is of the essence, you need to report project progress and manage issues and risks more efficiently, also. You notice that several of your resources are shared among several of your projects and realize that you need to monitor project interdependencies better to ensure that your key resources are available when needed.

What should you do? You need to be more efficient. You need more control. And you need a tool to communicate project interdependencies. The time has come to use a project management process designed to manage multiple small projects.

Small Project Definition

Before we begin our discussion on managing multiple small projects, it will serve us well to have a common understanding of what small projects are.

It is generally agreed that small projects are relatively easy to manage, but other than this there is no one way to define what makes a project a small project. In some cases, small could be defined on the basis of cost, such as costing less than $1million. Cost is relative, however, and depends on the income of the organization. Parth uses two indicators. The first indicator of a small project is its impact on the company's bottom line. If a company loses a large project, it may have a significant detrimental impact to the company's future. If a company loses a small project, or even several of them, the impact to profits may be negligible. Parth uses whether or not the project has dedicated resources as the second indicator. Small projects typically don't have dedicated resources---the project personnel may be working on multiple projects in various stages of completion at the same time (Parth, 1998, p. 1). Small could also be defined on the basis of time---for example, as taking less than 6 months to complete. For the purpose of this paper, we will use the guidelines suggested in Project Management for Small Projects to define small projects (Rowe, 2007, p. 6). Therefore, a project may generally be considered a small project when it is has the following characteristics:

  • Is short in duration, typically lasting less than 6 months, and usually part-time in effort hours
  • Has 10 or fewer team members
  • Involves a small number of skill areas
  • Has a single objective and a solution that is readily achievable
  • Has a narrowly defined scope and definition
  • Affects a single business unit and has a single decision maker
  • Has access to project information and will not require automated solutions from external project sources
  • Uses the project manager as the primary source for leadership and decision-making
  • Has no political implications with respect to proceeding or not proceeding
  • Produces straightforward deliverables with few interdependencies among skill areas
  • Costs less than $75,000 and has available funding

If the project involves a few skill areas but the deliverables are complex, it is not a small project. If the scope is broad, the project usually involves more skill areas, and so it would not be considered a small project.

Most small projects center on changes in organizational processes. Other examples of small projects include:

  • Developing a training course
  • Implementing a project office
  • Implementing a purchased software application
  • Enhancing an existing information system
  • Developing a website
  • Developing a strategy
  • Developing a project proposal

Many assignments can also be treated as small projects, even if only one person is involved. For example, improving your filing system or planning a department social activity may require the efforts of a single resource for a few weeks, but can still benefit from a simplified form of project management. Treating assignments as projects allows more effort to be carried out in an efficient manner with better use of resources (Kallman, & Williamson, 2002, p. 1). Treating assignments as projects provides you with the opportunity to define the goal and expectations clearly at the onset, thereby eliminating the frustration of wasted effort and unnecessary rework.

Small Project Portfolios

A portfolio is a collection of projects or programs and other work that are grouped together to facilitate effective management of that work to meet strategic business objectives. The projects or programs of the portfolio may not necessarily be interdependent or directly related (PMI, 2006, p. 78). Although the projects within a portfolio can be related or unrelated, it is important to understand the relationship of the portfolios and the projects of the portfolio so that they can be managed effectively.

Portfolio of Related Projects

A portfolio of related projects consists of projects of a similar type, organization, or subject matter---for example, small maintenance and enhancement projects, business process reengineering projects, or preproject efforts for requesting, estimating, and approving projects. These projects often share resources and are formally managed by a project portfolio manager.

Portfolio of Unrelated Projects

A portfolio of unrelated projects consists of multiple projects assigned to the project manager. These projects may consist of some related projects in addition to ad hoc projects and assignments. The project manager can combine these projects and assignments. The project manager can combine these projects into a portfolio, giving the project manager the tools to plan, monitor, and control project activities more efficiently.

Portfolio management is centralized management of one or more portfolios, which includes identifying, prioritizing, authorizing, managing, and controlling projects, programs, and other related work, to achieve specific strategic business objectives (PMI, 2006, p. 78). Managing a portfolio of small projects, whether they are related or unrelated, is a worthwhile challenge that should not be taken lightly.

Project Management Process for Multiple Small Projects

Multiple projects often present multiple challenges. To be successful in a multiple-project environment, you must first have a process for managing single projects and use it consistently. A project management process, as described in the PMBOK® Guide, describes, organizes, and completes the work of the project, and is organized into five groups: initiating, planning, executing, controlling, and closing. A process specifically designed for small projects should be scalable and adaptable (PMI, 2004). It should be scalable in that the level of complexity of the process, the time in using the process, and the focus of the process, all fit the needs of the project. It should be adaptable in the sense that it is known how much process is required for an individual project. It is important for the project manager to know what portion of the tools to apply. When the full set is applied, productivity and profitability may suffer; when no controls are applied, the project may be a failure (Fuezery, 1998). Process and tool usage becomes even more important in the multiple-project environment.

To gain efficiencies, use a multiple-project management process. The following multiple-project management process has three steps:

  1. Develop a single project plan for each individual project
  2. Incorporate individual project plans into a multiple-project plan
  3. Execute and control the multiple-project plan.

Step 1: Develop a Single Project Plan for Each Individual Project

Planning is a major challenge for small projects. We know that it is important to plan. When planning is not done, you start out thinking the project is small and end up hoping that the project is really small. However, getting the right people together at the right time to discuss the project details can be painful. And even more painful than discussing the project details is taking the time to document the plan. The project manager can easily create a project plan for an individual project by using templates designed for managing small projects. Below is a description of key project management documents.

Project Charter

The project charter provides the project manager with the authority to apply organizational resources to project activities and also identifies the project objective and defines the project scope. The project charter is used as a reference throughout the project to ensure that the project scope does not change. The project charter includes the following: project roles and responsibilities (project sponsor, project manager, other project stakeholders, core team members), project description (background information, project objectives, project scope, project budget), project information (high-level deliverables, assumptions, constraints, dependencies with other projects, risk or opportunities) and supporting information (business process impact and acceptance criteria).

For even smaller projects, an abbreviated project charter or project charter “lite” can be used. The project charter “lite” consists of project objectives, stakeholders, project scope, major deliverables, assumptions, constraints, risk factors, dependencies with other projects, and acceptance criteria. At an absolute minimum, you should always develop a fully defined scope statement.

Work Breakdown Structure

The work breakdown structure (WBS) is a tool for breaking a project down into its component parts. As stated in the PMBOK® Guide---Third Edition, a WBS is a deliverable-oriented grouping of project elements that organizes and defines the total work scope of the project (PMI, 2004). It is a top-down decomposition of deliverables, where each descending level represents an increasingly detailed definition of the project work.

The WBS can be a simple hierarchy showing only major deliverables or high-level deliverables, or it can be more detailed and contain lower-level deliverables. The intent is not to become too detailed but to make sure all of the project components are included.

Deliverable List and Task List

The deliverable and task list is an outline of the deliverables and the associated tasks. The task, the lowest level on the list, indicates the steps or actions required to complete the work. This document can also show who is responsible for completing the deliverable or task. This document can be used as a simple checklist to track progress, or start and end dates can be included for more control. Depending on the needs of the project, the deliverable list, which includes only the deliverables, may be all that is required.

Project Schedule

Scheduling involves converting the work into sequenced tasks. Developing a project schedule can become a burdensome task. Small projects may benefit from a simplified version of a project schedule. The schedule can be managed at a high level by including only deliverables or, if needed, key tasks associated with each deliverable. The project manager needs to decide what information will be shown on the project schedule---for example, whether it is necessary to show hours.

Risk Register

PMBOK® Guid Third Edition defines risk is an uncertain event or condition that, if it occurs, has a positive or negative effect on a project objective. Positive effects of risk are considered opportunities. For small projects these new opportunities are usually handled as a separate project. Therefore, we will focus on the negative effects of risk.

Even for small projects, it is important to be prepared for what could go wrong. A simplified risk register is recommended. The risk register should include the risk category, risk event, probability, impact, priority, risk response, and risk owner.

All projects should have a project charter or project charter lite. The project plan or planning deliverables should be prepared based on the needs of the project. However, the planning deliverables must be prepared with process and tool consistency among projects to allow for easy integration into the multiple-project process. After the project plan or planning deliverables are developed for the individual projects, additional planning is required to obtain multiple-project process efficiencies.

Step 2: Incorporate Individual Project Plans into a Multiple-Project Plan

After individual plans are developed, they should be consolidated for project monitoring and control. This will allow the project manager to see the results in a single document and also to see impacts across projects.

Multiple--Small Project Summary

The multiple-project summary is a spreadsheet view of high-level project information. Summary information is obtained from the project charter and project plan. The multiple-project summary is a good communication tool, but its value comes from the project manager's knowing what is in his or her portfolio. The spreadsheet can be sorted or filtered based on reporting requirements. Additional categories can be added for more reporting control. Suggested information to include on the multiple-project summary is as follows: project I.D., project name, priority, category, type, objectives, budget, estimated completion date, high-level deliverables, project dependencies, and status.

 

Multiple-- Small Project Risk Register

Small projects are considered low risk; however, after projects are combined using the multiple-project process, the project manager might uncover additional project risks. Risk factors common in the multiple-project environment include the following:

  • Project manager trying to manage too many projects
  • Too many active small projects sharing the same resources
  • Interproject dependencies from high-risk projects
  • Key resources being shared among projects
  • Poor planning in any project in the project manager's portfolio
  • Loss of control in any project in the project manager's portfolio

After the risk assessment is completed for the single project, the project manager should develop a portfolio risk register. The portfolio risk register consolidates the project risks for integrated monitoring and control. Sometimes a single project risk may have a low priority, but, when viewed across multiple projects, this same risk could have a higher priority. The multiple-project risk register should include risk number, project name, status, category, risk event, probability, impact, priority, risk response, and owner.

The project manager now has a consolidated view of the project risks and can determine if any of the priorities need to be adjusted due to other project risks. If project risk priorities need to be adjusted, the project manager should also update the individual project risk register.

Consolidated Project Schedule

The consolidated project schedule is a high-level Gantt view of the projects. This information can be displayed at the project level, project phase level, major activity level, or any combination of these levels. The multiple-project schedule is a good communication tool. It also makes it easier to control key project activities.

The multiple-project schedule has two important components: interproject dependencies and duration. Interproject dependencies or logical relationships among projects, phases, or activities should be identified with the appropriate links. Any time that a deliverable from one project (regardless of the level---project, phase, or activity) affects the completion of another project, it should be identified on the multiple-project schedule. If a project that is not within your control has a deliverable that affects one of your projects or if one of your projects has a deliverable that affects someone else's project, that dependency should also be identified and shown on the multiple-project schedule.

Even if there are no project dependences (all the projects are independent), the multiple-project schedule allows the project manager to see the time-frame for project activities that could affect resource allocation. A single resource might be assigned to multiple projects that require the resource's involvement at the same time. Being aware of this condition early on allows the project manager to negotiate for resources before either project's completion is in jeopardy. In addition, the project manager is aware of the project management activities required for specific time-frames and will know whether the project management components of the project are in jeopardy.

Step 3: Execute and Control the Multiple-Project Plan

Projects should be monitored, executed, and controlled using the methods defined during the planning process. The multiple-project schedule and risk log should be updated with actual data. Status information should be summarized into one document.

In addition to these standard documents, it is also helpful to produce a multiple-small project calendar. the multiple small project calendar is a month-at-a-glance calendar which displays project milestones and key project activities. The same calendar should be used to record the information for all projects. This document provides a quick, easy-to-read, consolidated view of key project activities. For additional clarity, the project manager can color-code the projects and record project information by project color.

Leadership Skills for Managing Multiple Projects

To lead is to go before or with and show others the way. It is to guide in direction, course, action, and opinion. A good leader has the ability to motivate others to accomplish an objective. The project manager must command authority and be able to inspire and motivate others. The project manager sets the general direction of the project and allows team members to provide input along the way. During difficult times, the project manager must remain calm and be able to provide solutions to get things back on track. Being a leader is not about having a title; it is about having followers. People will follow you sometimes because they are required to but other times because they want to. A common leadership proverb states: if you think you are leading and no one is following you, then you are only taking a walk. In reality, most project managers of small project have to lead based on influence, not authority. And influence is the ability to get others to participate. The ability to lead small projects successfully will greatly enhance your ability to leads multiple small projects successfully.

Leading by Influence

So what must you do to increase your ability to lead by influence in the multiple-project environment? At first glance you must:

  • Know yourself and become proficient at performing your project responsibilities. Look for solutions, become a problem solver.
  • Get to know people. Work to build good relations. Develop good communications and respond rapidly to project stakeholders.
  • Know how to juggle priorities and understand what it takes to succeed in a multiple-project environment.

However; if we go a step further, we can see the importance of character, focus and time management.

Character

A project manager must earn the respect of his or her team members. One way to start is by having good character. Character is the inward motivation to do what is right in every situation. An effective leader has good character. Character development takes place every day. Your character determines who you are. Who you are determines what you see. What you see determines what you do (Maxwell, 1999, p. 4). And what you do determines your ability to influence others.

“Character First!” defines character as the qualities built into a person's life that determine his or her response, regardless of circumstances. “Character First!” was developed in 1991 by Tom Hill, and includes 49 character qualities to assist with the development of good character. Some key leadership character qualities are:

  • Availability: Making your schedule and priorities secondary to the needs of the project team
  • Creativity: Approaching a need, a task, or an idea from a new perspective
  • Determination: Intending to accomplish project goals at the right time, regardless of the opposition
  • Decisiveness: Having the ability to recognize key factors and finalize difficult decisions
  • Flexibility: Being willing to change plans or ideas according to the direction of key project stakeholders
  • Forgiveness: Clearing the record of those who have wronged you and not holding a grudge
  • Integrity: Adhering to moral and ethical principles
  • Orderliness: Arranging yourself and your surroundings to achieve greater efficiency
  • Patience: Accepting a difficult situation without giving a deadline to remove it.
  • Respect: Showing regard or consideration for a person or position.
  • Responsibility: Knowing and doing what is expected.
  • Self-control: Rejecting wrong desires and doing what is right.
  • Tolerance: Realizing that others are at varying levels of character development.
  • Truthfulness: Earning future trust by accurately reporting past facts.
  • Wisdom: Seeing and responding to project situations from a perspective that transcends your current situation.

Focus

Focus affects your perception and performance. It provides clarity and helps you to stay on track. It is easy to lose sight of a project goal when you are shifting among projects throughout the day. It is important to focus on the activities that will help you to achieve your project objectives.

The key to managing multiple projects is to maintain a clear and separate focus so that when you are working on Project 1, Project 1 is the only thing on your mind, and likewise when you are working on Project 2 (Alpha-Penguin Group, 2002, p. 1052).

Time Management

Time management requires discipline. Time management requires you to write down what you want to accomplish, create lists, and set priorities. Brian Tracy uses this vivid analogy when it comes to focusing on priorities. He says, “if the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long. Your ‘frog’ is your biggest, most important task, the one you are most likely to procrastinate on if you don't do something about it now” (Tracy, 2001, p. 2). Whenever possible, you should do the most difficult task first. Conquer procrastination. Getting behind on one project can be problematic, but getting behind on multiple projects could be catastrophic.

The following are five time management activities to consider when managing multiple projects:

  1. Set priorities---create monthly, weekly and daily priority lists
  2. Plan every day in advance
  3. Organize your work space
  4. Use a document management system
  5. Understand the outcomes of multitasking

Final Words

To manage multiple projects effectively, you must first have a process and tools in place to manage individual projects. After consistency is achieved with individual projects, these projects can be grouped and managed together to obtain greater control and more efficiency. To achieve sustained success in the multiple-project environment, you should:

  • Use the process and tools consistently for individual projects
  • Take the initiative to develop an individual portfolio for unrelated projects
  • Ensure that risk planning occurs twice---first while planning the individual project, and then again during multiple-project planning
  • Incorporate more discipline to increase your chances for success.

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Fuezery, G. 1998. Managing small projects. PM Network, 12(7), 33-36.

Hill, T. Character First! 49 Character Qualities. Retrieved June 19, 2007 from http://www.characterfirst.com/aboutus/qualities/

Källman, A., & Williamson, D. (2002, October). Everything's a project! PMI Annual Seminars & Symposium, San Antonio, Texas, USA.

Maxwell, J. (1993). Developing the leader within you. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Maxwell, J. (1998). The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Maxwell, J. (1999). The 21 indispensable qualities of a leader. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Parth, F. (1998, October). Categorization of small projects. PMI Annual Seminars & Symposium, Long Beach, California, USA.

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Rowe, S. (2007, October). Managing and leading small projects. PMI Global Congress 2007---Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

Snead, G., & Wycoff, J. (1997). To do, doing, done! A creative approach to managing projects and effectively finishing what matters most. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Tracy, B. (2001). Eat that frog!: 21 great ways to stop procrastinating and get more done in less time. San Francisco:Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

©2008, Sandra F. Rowe, PMP, MBA, MSCIS
Originally published as part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Denver, Colorado, USA

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