A question that comes up regularly during project training sessions is “do you have any tips for managing multiple projects?”. It’s pretty rare for managers and many staff these days only to be managing a single project and most of the attendees on my workshops aren’t professional or full-time Project Managers. Not only do they have to juggle multiple projects, but they also have to juggle the complexities and ever-changing priorities of their day-jobs.
As a consultant, I spend my life managing multiple projects, so here are some of the tips I have learned over the years. They may not all apply to you and you may have to adapt them to meet your needs, but I hope they might be a good starting point.
1) Gantt charts aren’t much use! For the sort of projects I manage, they typically display “elapsed time” rather than “working time”. So, for example, it might take me a couple of days to design a workshop, but that usually happens within a window of one or two weeks. So, if you are managing multiple projects from Gantt charts it can look like there’s lots happening in parallel. What you need to do is block out time in your diary/calendar to do the work. Generally, that means a minimum of half a day of uninterrupted time. Anything less than half a day risks being interrupted or “given away” to a more urgent priority. Once you have blocked out time in your diary, it’s pretty easy to see when you are “full” and have no more capacity to take on additional work (unless it can be delegated). Knowing your diary is full makes it easier to say “no” to yet more work.
2) Delegate. If there is someone better placed to do a particular task, delegate it to them. They will need to know the purpose, quality standard, budget (people’s time and £) and deadline. You will also need to agree how and when you’ll both check-in on progress and what to do if the other person runs into difficulties. Remember, you can delegate responsibility and authority, but not accountability. If they screw-up, it’s your fault!
3) Have a system. In some ways, it doesn’t matter what system, but the key is to have a clear overview of all the different projects that you have to manage. Currently, my preferred tool is Trello and I have a Trello Board with one column for each of my live client projects. Each column then has cards which are key activities that I have to do and their deadlines. Trello also lets me display these in a Calendar view so I can see all the different project milestone dates in a weekly or monthly view. Another advantage of Trello is that I can send e-mails I have received (or sent) to clients from my Gmail account into Trello. Each e-mail becomes a new card in the appropriate client project column. I have used other systems (Wunderlist, DropTask, Huddle) and there are plenty more available. You need to find one that fits the way your brain works and is compatible with the sort of project and details you need to manage. You do also need to consider whether or not the tool you choose should be available to other project team members. Trello (and most of the others) is designed to be used collaboratively, but just be aware that a tool that suits your way of working may not suit other people and the more complex the tool, the less likely people are to adopt it and stick with it.
4) Make sure tasks start on time. It may sound obvious, but you can’t assume that other people will start and finish their project tasks on time. They too are juggling multiple priorities. On some projects I use a weekly Scrum Board or an ABCD Report to send regular reminders of, or have regular conversations about, what needs to be finished this week, or started this week. If you’re competing for other people’s time to contribute to your project(s), you need to ensure you are “top of mind” for them. The more tasks start on time, the more likely they are to be completed on time. I find it’s better to have these update conversations on a Thursday rather than a Friday. That way, it gives other project contributors time to get back to you during the Friday if they foresee any problems and makes it a bit more likely that they will plan their due tasks into their next week’s diary. If you leave it to a Friday to remind them, they may not react to it until the following Monday, by which time they may already have committed themselves to other priorities.