The Project Notebook

Managing Multiple Projects: The True Test of Project Management

By: Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP
Copyright 2010, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

It’s that time of year again when those of us who celebrate year-end holidays find ourselves behind schedule, over budget and not meeting performance expectations. Most project managers do manage concurrent projects throughout the entire year. Ironically, many project management textbooks only address the management of one project at a time. That’s a luxury that few of us ever enjoy. Whether it’s a few weeks of “holiday compression” or an ongoing state of affairs in a work environment, there are a few techniques that can be effective in managing multiple projects.

Different Projects/Similar Activities.
Even though each project may have different goals and tangible deliverables, there are tasks that lend themselves to consolidation across projects. For example, there is often a period of time when vendors or subcontractors are being assessed prior to making final selections. The tasks associated with this activity can include such things as Internet research, request for proposal (RFP) development, and reference verification. In many cases the same vendors and subcontractors are used by an organization in multiple projects. Therefore, it makes sense to group these tasks and assign them to one or more individuals to conduct for all of the projects.

Split Activities.
The typical Gantt chart display has tasks grouped into activities that are completed in full before other dependent activities begin. However, the actual accomplishment of all tasks within an activity in a linear fashion may not be feasible for a number of reasons, such as subcontractor delays, customer/client change requests, etc. Project managers of single projects often find that they have to defer parts of activities to another time within the project schedule. This technique can also be used across multiple concurrent projects. Obviously, dependencies still need to be taken into consideration in re-arranging tasks. Use of this technique can assist in leveling resource demands and can be a factor in consolidating tasks as mentioned in the preceding paragraph.

Different Projects/Shared Human Resources.
Within any organization there are a handful of people who seem to get assigned to virtually every project. These simultaneous and consistent assignments may be due to the person’s functional responsibilities, technical expertise, political clout, or any of a myriad of logical or illogical reasons. Each person who is in demand is often worth two or more “ordinary people” in terms of talent and work performance. An effective method for addressing the challenge of shared resources is to develop a profile of total commitment for each of the most critical shared resources. These profiles should include the fluctuations in percentages of involvement and the related timing both for each project and for all relevant projects in total. In many cases the profiles can readily identify periods of intense effort as contrasted with those of minimal involvement for each individual. The individuals can then be assigned to activities in multiple projects based on true availability.

Managing multiple projects, whether for business or for personal reasons, requires a different perspective with regard to planning and resource utilization. By using the techniques outlined in this column, project managers can maintain a sense of balance in facing a most difficult challenge. Happy Holidays!

Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP, is a consultant who manages diverse programs and projects in both the private and public sectors for individual organizations and consortia. She also conducts enterprise assessments of project portfolio management practices. Prior to establishing her consulting practice Susan led major efforts for Fortune 100 organizations throughout the United States. She teaches the Project Management Simulation capstone course as well as the Project Portfolio Management course in the University of California, San Diego, Project Management certificate program and is a member of the curriculum committee. She can be contacted at susanada@aol.com.

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© 2010-2012 Ray W. Frohnhoefer, MBA, PMP, CCP