Managing multiple projects at once can be a bit like a juggling act. Every action taken in one project needs to feed into the next with fluidity and poise, and when done right, a skilled portfolio manager can make it seem like no trouble at all. But if a few big mistakes are made, well—it all comes crashing down.
Managing multiple projects at once (otherwise known as project portfolio management), then, is a technique that can be cultivated and mastered. Portfolio managers must be able to prioritize tasks within projects, monitor their team’s performance, and allocate their resources effectively.
We’re going to cover potential pitfalls of managing multiple projects and how to maintain this delicate balancing act through the use of project portfolio management software tools. But first, we should explore whether or not you’re managing multiple projects at all.
How to Know If You’re Managing Multiple Projects
Sometimes, it can be difficult to tell where a task or phase ends and a project begins. In a sense, a project is made up of many smaller projects. That’s how they’re managed. You break down the large, final deliverable into a series of steps made up of small tasks.
These tasks are then collected under project phases, such as planning or executing. But these phases could potentially be viewed as projects in and of themselves. All this begs the question, what is a project, and when do I know I’m managing multiple projects? It sounds simple, but it’s the right place to start.
A project is defined as an activity done by one or many team members over a specific timeframe that ends with a deliverable. A task would seem to fall under this definition, except that it’s usually one thing that can be in a session. Therefore, a project is bigger.
You know you’re managing multiple projects when you’re responsible for several big and separate deliverables. This involves different teams. While these projects might work in concert with one another, they are distinct enough to require unique plans, schedules, etc.
Managing Multiple Tasks vs Managing Multiple Projects
Managing a project involves the development of a plan, scheduling, taking risk and resources into account, managing your team and budgeting. Tasks are less complicated, but benefit from a certain level of management.
Projects, like tasks, start and end. Both often start as a task list, but whereas tasks can often be accomplished with a simple to-do list, projects require more coordination. You need to estimate the cost and time it’ll take to complete each task.
In fact, tasks can be looked at individually, but a project must structure those tasks. They need to be prioritized. The tasks require resources, and those resources need to be assigned before the task can be worked on.
Usually, you’re not going to make a risk management plan to tackle a few tasks. There might be risk involved, but then again—there’s risk involved in everything. However, a project must look at all the tasks in context to the risks inherent in executing them. These risks go beyond the mere task. The project can be impacted by weather, supplies and more.
Though tasks are little projects, they differ enough with the constraints of a larger project to require a unique method of management. As projects grow in complexity, tasks relatively stay the same in that they’re broken down into small, manageable bits. Therefore, to-do lists and prioritizing is usually as much as you need to get tasks done, while projects require more detailed methodology.
To see how this process is done within our portfolio management software, watch the embedded video below.
Best Practices When Managing Multiple Projects
When you have more than one project to manage, you have to be efficient with your time or risk burnout. You have a lot of disparate things to do, often at once. It can be done, of course, but requires that you follow a few tips.
Just as you plan for one project, you must plan for multiple projects. The last thing you want to do is start the week unprepared and just wing it. No matter how good you are, things are going to get out of control quickly. Therefore, make weekly plans for yourself, look at the work ahead and prioritize it. Know your upcoming deadlines. Meet with your team and stakeholders. It’ll probably change day-to-day, but at least you have a structure.
Communication is the life’s blood of any project. Your project plan, status reports and so much more are all communication tools. Managing multiple projects means that you act as the hub that leads to both multiple stakeholders and teams; therefore, you must update stakeholders and direct your teams. However you do this (in person, on a project management tool or with documentation) it has to be clear. Remember, communication is also listening. Get feedback and be responsive.
Review and Adjust
Plans change. Things happen. You can’t be married to the schedule without risking going off track, overspending or losing quality. Just as you would when managing one project, and more so with multiple projects that exponentially add to the possibility of change, you need to monitor and review your progress and performance regularly. Have a plan in place to manage change and adjust your schedule, costs or scope accordingly.
If you have a tendency to feel that for something to get done right you have to do it yourself, lose it. There’s no way one person can manage multiple projects without support. Accept help and delegate work that can be delegated to associates. There’s tons of paperwork and other minutiae related to managing multiple projects that can be done by others. Oversee it, sure, but don’t over do it.
Don’t use Post-It notes or keep your schedule on scraps of paper. Where are your important dates and numbers? They should be at your fingertips, probably best on an online project management tool that can automatically alert you of approaching deadlines, collect all your files in one place and plan, schedule, monitor and report on your project.
Pitfalls of Managing Multiple Projects
It’s not going to be easy, even if you plan and are prepared. Managing multiple projects is challenging. The problems that come up when managing multiple projects are akin to a shadow world of best practices.
It’s obvious, but bears repeating, that communication can make or break a project. If you’re unable to clearly explain to your team what has to be done, you’re going to spend more time and money than necessary on tasks. If you can’t communicate the state of the project to stakeholders, they’re going to interrupt with the proper management of the projects.
Lack of Trust
If you don’t trust your team, they’re not going to trust you. Without building trust in the project, you’re jeopardizing the project. This speaks to delegating. If you’re not sharing the responsibilities of the project, then the people you work with are going to suspect you don’t trust them. Whether that’s true or not, you’re eroding morale and risking the success of your projects.
No Clear Roles & Responsibilities
As in one project and only more so with many, if you team doesn’t know who does what chaos ensues. Projects should run like machines, with each team member doing their part like gears that meet and move the project forward. If they don’t know their roles, and what they’re responsible for, things jam up fast.
If you don’t put the work in before execution of the project plan, you’re going to have to do it while executing the plan. That’s a recipe for disaster. Each project you’re managing must have a thorough project plan and on top of that, you need to have a plan in place to manage all the other projects at once. That’s a lot of planning, but you don’t want to do that when you’re spending money and losing time.
How to Manage Multiple Projects With Software
Project management software helps you manage one or more projects by organizing tasks, creating schedules and then monitoring their progress and reporting on performance. ProjectManager.com is a cloud-based tool that gives you the tools to better manage multiple projects all from one tool. Here’s how.
Build Overview Projects
See all your projects on one page. Customize the chart how you want. View status, progress, managers, teams and more.
Get data on metrics for all your projects, including health, cost and workload, on one dashboard. We do the calculations for you and display the results in easy-to-read graphs and charts.
Find efficiencies among your projects on the roadmap. Reduce costs and tighten schedules by seeing every project together on one timeline.
Keep your team working more productively by viewing the workload page. See at a glance who has too much work and reallocate from the same page to balance their workload.
Report to Stakeholders
Present portfolio status reports to stakeholders and keep them in the loop. Reports can be generated with one click and filtered to show just the data they want.
Ready to start managing multiple projects and tasks with our award-winning project management software? Start your free 30-day trial now.
Video: How to Manage Multiple Projects
Juggling multiple projects simultaneously takes a special kind of skill. The following video with Jennifer Bridges, PMP, offers you tips and techniques to keep all these balls in the air.
In Review: How to Manage Multiple Projects
Jennifer discussed the trials and tribulations of working on multiple projects at the same time. She offers some real-life advice on how to manage these many tasks successfully.
- Define in detail and resource as required for all projects before you begin them
- Set up a way to track process through the life of all of these projects
- Manage for dependencies and have a mechanism in place to chart changes
When you plan ahead you can also work to avoid these traps:
- Not tracking dependencies
- Over-allocating or over-committing resources
- Shifting critical resources to higher-priority projects
- Setting Unrealistic deadlines
- Not updating and re-baselining plans
- Conflicting priorities or incentives
Of course there’s more to learn, there always is, but if you follow the tips and techniques given the chances of your successful completion of multiple projects will greatly improve.
Pro-Tip: Overlapping milestones on multiple projects is another thing to avoid. Instead, find a way to insure that your resources are timely and realistically assigned. As always, the front-end work will help you from having to clean up in the backend.
Another aspect of working on many projects at once is managing those resources, and Jason Westland offers Tips to Schedule People on Multiple Projects.
Thanks for watching!
Hello, I’m Jennifer Whitt, Director of ProjectManager.com. I don’t know about you, but managing multiple projects is one of the most difficult things that I can do. I remember back in the day when I started, I literally tracked projects before a lot of the software tools we have today with literal calendars on my wall and diagrams of projects and how the dependencies ran into each other. Now that tracking capacities are available with software products.
People actually laughed at me, but that’s the only tool I had back in the day. So now, thank goodness, we have other methods to do that, but what I wanted to share with you today are three tips for successful project planning before the kick-off, because what I found for myself is some of the most critical things that I can do in managing multiple projects is really setting things up correctly before the action begins.
The first thing that can be done is defining in detail and resourcing as required for all the projects before you begin. So if you’re managing multiple projects, defining each one and resourcing each one before those projects begin.
Number two, set up a way to track progress. So if you’re managing multiple projects and maybe, number one, your time is dispersed among multiple projects, but also it could be some of your team members are too. So having a way to effectively track not only your time, your tasks, but the other team members as well.
Number three, managing for dependencies. Having a mechanism set up for managing dependencies and knowing when other critical milestones shift or other resources shift, knowing how those dependencies effect, not only your current project, but how they may affect the other ones. Typically in most organizations that I see where project managers are managing multiple projects, again, it’s for typically their core competency so the teams are on those same projects as well.
Here are some of the traps that I find that we all get into. Some of the traps are not tracking the dependencies, so if we’re not tracking the dependencies things get off and we tend to get derailed on all projects.
Number two, the resources are over-allocated or over-committed so people aren’t tracking that. So if they’re over-committed then not only the current project but all projects get off track. Also, overlapping milestones with critical resources, so we’ve all seen it, and sometimes we’re the critical resource on some of those projects.
So if you find yourself or your other critical resources on your projects are overlapping on critical milestones, where maybe that critical implementation date occurs where they’re overlapping that’s not really a good idea. So you need some way to ensure that those resources are their time and realistically what they’re assigned to can be done.
Also, number four, shifting critical resources to higher priority projects. We’ve all seen it where we have the superstar or that one person that really holds the key to the results in the project and they get shifted to a higher priority. Maybe another project has something that happens where they need that resource, so that gets pulled from one project to another.
So it helps the other one, but it generally negatively impacts the other one. So really having a backup plan for that resource and knowing how, if that critical resource gets taken away, what’s going to be done? So that probably, if you have resources on your team where if they get taken away, you need to identify that as a potential risk and having some backup plan or knowing how you’re going to do that or at least having the discussion or the agreement with your change control board or how that thing is going to happen before it happens.
Number five, unrealistic deadlines. It’s a common thing, having unrealistic deadlines by not really estimating appropriately or really standing up to say that can’t be done and we rely on our team members. So really encouraging our team members to stand up and say when things aren’t realistic. So if your team members aren’t telling you, then you can’t take that back to your stakeholders or your change control board.
The other one is updating and re-baselining plans. Here’s where most projects fail and it’s one of the easiest things we can do. Things will change. Things will re-prioritize. It constantly happens. I mean, that’s a given. But the things is many people don’t go back and update or re-
baseline the plan with their stakeholders or change control board. That’s one of the things that if we do that appropriately and timely with the project then we can be categorized at the end as possibly successful instead of unsuccessful project.
Then, number seven, again, conflicting priorities or incentives, so that one is probably one of our challenging ones, where with the multiple projects if they’re serving different business units or different initiatives. Then they’re conflicting priorities and so it’s hard to stabilize the task, the deadlines, your resources, even your budgets.
Then the incentives, where some groups are driven on different incentives. So maybe your sales and marketing group is incented on one thing, but yet maybe your technology group is incented by something else. So if they’re incented differently then they’re not driving for the same result, which ultimately will not end in success for your project.
So those are some of the traps, these are some of the things I find. If we put these three things in place in the beginning before the kick-off will certainly help. For those of you who may find yourself with the techniques that I had back in my day where you have calendars on the wall or paper on the wall, well, for me, I like to make my life easy.
So I’ve learned that some of the simple solutions for me are getting tips from other project managers who’ve managed multiple projects or similar projects that I’m managing. They use templates. So, if I can use templates to quickly do things and efficiently and any tools in place, now I have a lot of tools in place for myself, and software.
So, now there’s software available where you can manage multiple projects more effectively by defining it and having your resources so you know when your resources are over-allocated. You know when your milestones are overlapping and dependencies cause negative responses for each other.
So I hope you find those helpful. It certainly has helped me in managing multiple projects over the years. If you need any additional tips, tools or techniques to manage your multiple projects and avoid some of the traps and pitfalls that you may find yourself in, then come visit us at ProjectManager.com.
(This post was updated October 2020)