Managing Multiple Projects: The Curse of the Modern PM


If ever there was a role that obviously requires the ability to multi-task, it must surely be ours: project management. Luckily, as a discipline, project managers have developed a supreme set of tools for managing multiple pieces of work. We have Work Breakdown Structures, Network Diagrams, Gantt Charts, Kanban Boards and Linear Responsibility Charts, to name just my own favorites.

The reason that this work is not because they merge together multiple activities, it is the opposite. They separate them. Each one allows us to atomize a project into its many tiny components and examine each component individually.

Project management is not multi-tasking, it is the art of creating complex webs of serial and parallel mono-tasking. No tool illustrates this better than a Network Chart. The inevitable conclusion is that, as a project manager, you are no better than anyone else at multi-tasking; you are just better at avoiding it.

So, Where’s the Problem?

The problem lies not in your projects, but across them. Because increasingly, project managers are being asked to manage not one, but two, three, five, eight projects at the same time.

I used to think that this was an issue solely for the great majority of unsung project managers: those professionals and managers who aren’t professional project managers. These are the people asked to take on project management as a part of their job: often with little or no project management training. Those that succeed are often “rewarded” with another project, and another…

The Rise of the Multi-Project Manager

Before they know it, they are trying to juggle their business-as-usual role with three or four projects. These are the people who I see regularly in my training courses. But I am increasingly speaking with full-time professional project managers with just the same problem.

Maybe their organizations are just trying to save about money. Maybe their bosses are impressed by their successes and feel comfortable with those talented people at the helm of a number of key projects. For whatever reason, we are seeing the rise of the Multi-Project Manager.

One Thing People Are Rubbish At

Having said that project managers are no better than anyone else at multi-tasking, we should ask the question: “just how good are we at it?” And the answer is “not good.” We are rubbish.

And, before you reach for the comment button (though I’d welcome it, of course), let me say that I am aware that there is now some (limited) evidence that indeed women are (marginally) less rubbish at multi-tasking (in certain limited contexts) than men.

That multitasking is a poor way to work has been known for years. Our brains are not able to process two non-trivial tasks simultaneously. By “non-trivial” I mean tasks that I find non-trivial: you may find one of them trivial due to many hours of practice and repetition, which renders the task automatic. Skilled musicians can play a familiar piece with minimal concentration and drivers frequently pay so little conscious awareness to elements of their driving that many have had the experience of reaching our destination and not recalling whether we stopped at a particularly hazardous junction.

When we try to do two non-trivial tasks simultaneously, we fail, and end up instead, chopping and changing from one to the other, while constantly being distracted. Work at Stanford University has shown remarkably clearly how students with a high preference for digital multi-tasking perform less well than their peers. They work more slowly, make more mistakes and have lower levels of recall. Multi-tasking sucks.

What’s the Solution to Project Multi-tasking?

Having been asked this question many times, I have honed my answer down to one word…hats.

As a project manager coming under pressure to manage multiple projects, or needing to fill several non-PM roles in your project while managing it as well, the answer is hats. You need to think of yourself as needing to wear different hats: one for each role. And, since you cannot wear more than one hat at the same time, I recommend you mentally think of taking off and putting on hats as you move from one role to another.

The rules of hats are pretty simple:

  1. You should never try to wear two hats at the same time.
    This will create confusion for you and for the people around you. It will diminish your ability to focus, contaminate your thinking, and damage your decision-making. Be clear which hat you are wearing and help others around you to know which hat, too.
  2. You should keep the same hat on for long enough to make a difference.
    If you change hats too frequently, then you will spend too much time changing hats and not enough time wearing them – and therefore getting stuff done. If you truly need to get things done in parallel, then the optimum balance between swapping too often and wasting a lot of time, and keeping one hat on too long, and loosing track of your other issue, is around 20 minutes.
  3. Better yet, keep the same hat on long enough to focus.
    If you do need to wear multiple hats, the best approach is to segment your week into big chunks and keep one hat on for a significant time, so you can really achieve something worthwhile. Some split their days into two halves, giving ten half-day chunks per week. Others divide each half-day in two, to create 20 2-hour work segments. My own pattern is three sessions per day: 5-9 am, 9-1 pm and 2-6 pm. The trick is to give yourself a single focus in as many of these sessions as you can.
  4. Take a break when you change your hat.
    There are two compelling reasons for this. The first is that the break marks the change. It lets your brain gear down from one role and then gear up for the next. The second is even more obvious: a good break will help recharge your mental and physical batteries for the next session. Breaks increase productivity way more than the apparent ‘lost’ time. Use your hat-change breaks for getting: fresh air, daylight, (these two are particularly important if you work in an air-conditioned, fluorescent-lit white-collar cubicle warehouse), freshwater, movement, and maybe some food.
  5. Hand out small hats.
    The more you need to juggle multiple projects, the more important it is that you outsource more of your memory and low-level tasks. There is a limit to what you can store and what you can decide on effectively, so to keep you focused on the biggest issues that each hat commands, you need to be able to delegate everything else. Corporate and political leaders like CEOs and Governors, Presidents or Prime ministers, are able to swap hats effectively, because they know that, with most hats, they only need to focus on one or two big issues.
  6. Prioritize your hats ruthlessly.
    All hats are not equal! You will need to wear some hats a lot, whilst others merit only wearing once or twice a week. If you try to balance your hat-time equally, you are unlikely to match the strategic needs of your different projects well. As each project progresses, the hat-time it needs will vary. At the start of each week, do a strategic hat review: what proportion of your time will each hat merit?
  7. Know when your hat rack is full.
    When your strategic hat reviews are starting to identify that you will have little contingency time in your week you should spot that you are headed for trouble. Ideally, your review should identify slots that take up no more than 90 percent of your time. The other 10 percent needs to be contingency time to flexibly adapt the hat that you need, or better yet; to think and plan.

If you regularly cannot make this 10percent time in your week, you won’t be far from the day when the total hat-time each project merits adds up to more than 100 percent of your week. That way lies madness. (The Mad Hatter went mad because the mercury in nineteenth-century hat-making poisoned him—you will just risk stress and the failure of your projects). It is time to hand one of your hats back.

Don’t Try To Go It Alone

It is tough enough managing one project. Juggling a number of them is another order of tricky. So don’t try to do it all alone. Be sure you find someone – a boss, a colleague, a mentor, a coach, or a friend – who can help you put your priorities and problems into perspective. Be clear that the harder your job, the more important it is to know how to ask for help. And whatever you do, don’t think that one more hat will make you a hero. Have you ever noticed that Superman (who doesn’t wear a hat) has only one cape? And he seems to get good results.

People may not have the capacity to multi-task, but the ProjectManager software can do many things and do them in real-time. The online software works in a collaborative environment so that you, your team, and stakeholders can all be privy to the planning, monitoring, and reporting of a project. Try it yourself with this free 30-day trial.

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