To effectively manage multiple projects, project managers must understand how each fits into the organization's overall strategy and work with sponsors to prioritize them. by Karen M. Kroll

illustration by Eric Mueller

Earlier this year, Patrick Cimolini, PMP, applications project manager with the Cayman Islands Government, was overseeing two projects: developing a software program to track government loans and creating an application to record vital statistics, such as births and deaths.

Not surprisingly, both sponsors held their own initiative near and dear, and felt their project should take priority in receiving resources. With his resources fixed, however, Mr. Cimolini and his team decided to tackle the vital statistics application first, as it had a must-meet deadline of 30 June 2005. The time frame for the other application was more flexible, so he reminded the head of the loan tracking unit that the previous year, he had given her project priority. “Now, it was pay-back time,” he says.

The trend is alarming: As the pace of business quickens, more project managers are responsible for several projects at once. “The larger trend is being able to handle up to four or five projects at a time, depending on their scope and cost,” says Rick Morris, PMP, wealth management project office manager with AmSouth, a Birmingham, Ala., USA-based bank with assets of $50 billion, and vice president of programs with PMI’s Birmingham Chapter.

Several factors are behind this shift, says Charles L. Iacovou, Ph.D., assistant professor of information technology management with Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., USA. One is the scarcity of good project managers, and another is the fact that they tend to be fairly well paid. Hence, organizations try to leverage their skills as much as they can.

Charles L. Iacovou, Ph.D.,
Assistant Professor of Information
Technology Management, Wake Forest University,
Winston-Salem, N.C., USA

At the same time, more work is being developed as projects. “Business executives are recognizing that project management methodologies offer a disciplined, structured approach to tackling work,” Dr. Iacovou says.

However, the trend doesn't come without risk, as the likelihood that projects will go awry jumps when managers oversee more than a couple of projects. “They don't have the luxury of doing real-time monitoring and rescheduling,” Dr. Iacovou says.



As executives demand more, project managers must become adept at communicating with sponsors and helping to prioritize project needs.

Project managers must understand the project divide: the difference between a complex project and multiple interrelated projects.

By identifying the strategic link between projects and the enterprise, project managers can help direct resources.

By bringing sponsors together, a project manager can ensure all needs are met.

Project managers must avoid micromanagement to truly handle more than one effort effectively.


The main problem: Managing multiple projects can exponentially increase employees’ workloads, making it difficult for them to accomplish all they're supposed to. “It's a myth to believe that we can reconstruct the laws of the universe regarding how much a person actually can achieve,” says William Malek, chief executive officer with IPSolutions in San Mateo, Calif., USA, and program director with Stanford Advanced Project Management at Stanford University.

A study conducted by Prof. Steven Wheelwright at Harvard University measured the time engineers spent on value-added activities each day. Researchers found that the percent of the engineers’ time spent on value-added activities increased from 65 to 70 percent when they were responsible for two, rather than just one project. (These were multi-million dollar initiatives spanning months or years.) However, when a third project was added, the time the engineers spent on value-added activities dropped to 40 percent.

Why these somewhat counter-intuitive results? Mr. Malek notes that workers often need the stimulation generated by juggling two projects; hence, the reason productivity increased from 65 to 70 percent when a second project was added. With three projects, however, workers’ performance starts to degrade, as their attention is pulled in too many directions.

Given demands, project managers must employ sound strategies to ensure that they manage them as effectively as possible. As a starting point, they'll want to recognize when multiple projects are packaged as one.

Eduardo Crocamo, IT project manager with Copa Airlines, Panama, belatedly realized this subtlety in 2001 and 2002, when he led an initiative to replace handwritten, paper flight tickets with an electronic ticketing system. He didn't initially recognize that this undertaking actually consisted of several smaller, yet still substantial projects, including automation of systems used to report sales and issue the vouchers given to passengers who can't get on their flights. It also required developing a system to issue special service tickets as well as the overall e-ticket initiative. “I made the mistake of treating the project as one big deliverable, instead of breaking it down into phases,” he says.

Had he realized this at the outset, Mr. Crocamo says he would have set smaller goals and deliverables that his team would work toward along the way, instead of one big goal at the end. While Mr. Crocamo and his employees finished the project on time, “it was with a lot of blood, sweat and tears from the project manager,” he says.

Equally important, while project sponsors or other executives may have responsibility for ranking projects, project managers must ensure that they are the “right” ones. At AmSouth, for instance, project office sponsors determine the priority of different projects, Mr. Morris says. It's up to them to choose whether to trade off projects that will boost revenue for one needed to allow the bank to meet regulatory requirements.

Even so, project managers must understand how different projects fit into their company's or client's overall strategy and goals, as they often have to provide input to decisions regarding the allocation of resources. Maryann Kelly, director of the project office with PHH Mortgage, Mount Laurel, N.J., USA, provides this example: one project may consist of strengthening the IT infrastructure, while another is developing an application that will allow customers to apply for loans online. While the second project offers the prospect of increased revenue, it may fall short if the infrastructure won't support the volume of expected users. The project manager may need to point this possibility out.


Talking Points

When an organization lacks a formal program steering committee or management office, the project manager can bring the sponsors together to jointly discuss the status of each project, potential returns and the likelihood for bottlenecks.

Gay Skinner, PMP, president of GAIA Management Consulting in Pickering, Ontario, Canada, recalls a telecommunications company engagement in the late 1990s. She was managing two projects in the network services area, each with a different sponsor: developing a software application and new business processes that would incorporate the application, as well as reworking manual procedures. Both required input from a subject matter expert, whose time was limited.

Ms. Skinner brought the two sponsors together, stating the overall strategic objective, which was to improve internal business processes, and discussed the limited amount of time the expert would have to provide to the projects.

As the discussion proceeded, it became clear that the application project should be finished first. It was further along, and finishing the application would improve the new business processes. “It was the logical first step,” Ms. Skinner says. “But, sometimes when you're in the thick of it, the politics can get in the way.”



1 Don't leave clients with no way to make progress. When you have to delay one project for another, offer the sponsor some help in meeting his or her immediate needs. When Patrick Cimolini with the Cayman Islands Government had to put off a request to develop a loan-tracking application, he created a spreadsheet employees could use until a new system was ready. “I try to be creative in finding short-term work-around options to meet their immediate requirements,” he says.

2 Judiciously ask for updates. Preparing project status reports for multiple project sponsors can consume a great deal of team members’ time. “Be disciplined about asking for status reports,” says William Malek, chief executive officer with IPSolutions, San Mateo, Calif., USA. Continually requesting updates can lead to chaos. Team members may spend time pulling together information to prepare an immediate update, even though the schedule calls for a status report a few days later.

3 Leave team members out of some discussions. Project managers will want to shield project team members from discussions with project sponsors regarding delivery milestones and performance. “Let the project team do their work efficiently and free from customer disturbances,” says Jens Leo Iversen, PMP, president of Iversen Konsulent in Bergen, Norway.

Eye the Big Picture

After the project gets underway, project managers should resist the temptation to delve into the nitty-gritty detail work. “You don't want to get sucked into individual contributions,” says Bob Wyatt, vice president of project management practice with Keane, a Boston, Mass., USA, consulting firm. “If you're managing, your job is to have your head and be open to interruptions.”

Mr. Cimolini can attest to this focus. “I went through a period several years ago where projects [had issues] left and right, with deadlines missed and budgets over.” This occurred in the late 1980s, when he was overseeing several software development projects for a company in the mining industry.

Realizing he had taken on too many projects, Mr. Cimolini began doing more of the technical work, reasoning that this would help move the project along. However, the long hours he put in led to several errors: he incorrectly described an interface file in a supplier specification, causing a significant amount of re-work.

To streamline the process of establishing project schedule, project managers can turn to technical tools, Mr. Morris says. “That way, you don't spend every hour documenting.” While many organizations use these tools, they don't always use them as effectively as they could.

As a simple example, many people manually enter all dates into Microsoft Project. That means that the system won't pick up the impact that a change in one date will have on subsequent dates. Instead, the project manager should enter just one date—the start date—and enter everything else as “durations,” Mr. Morris says.

Perils of Multitasking

While multitasking sounds like a reasonable approach to tackling several projects, the reality is much different. “You can't read a multi-million dollar contract, respond to e-mail and listen to a conference call at the same time,” Ms. Kelly says. “You're apt to miss an important point or question. That wastes everyone's time, as people need to repeat their comments or you have to continually reread a sentence.”

When Ms. Kelly is working on projects that require similar skills, she'll set aside time to do them together. For instance, she'll budget time to review several vendor contracts all at once. That way, she can “get in the zone” and focus on the task.

Jens Leo Iversen, PMP, president of Iversen Konsulent in Bergen, Norway, also prefers team members to work for several days on one project before switching to another, so that they don't leave open ends. “For example, during software modifications, we would like testing and documentation of a change to be complete, not leaving the documentation open,” he says. “It should be completed while everything is fresh in (the employee's) mind.” PM

Karen M. Kroll is a freelance business writer whose articles have appeared in AARP: The Magazine, American Way, Business Finance and Inc.




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