Project Practitioners > Managing Competing Projects

Managing Competing Projects

By Matt Glei

This is not a commercial. About a year ago I re-established my consultancy in project management, the first time in six years. After a year of networking and building a client base, with some local, but many on the U.S. mainland, I have finally achieved a state of project saturation.

I define "project saturation" as having enough projects active that place demands or deadlines on my time such that it is often almost impossible to keep everything on time. In a typical business organization, I was able to delegate authority and responsibility to keep everything flowing along peacefully. In a one-person operation there is little delegation that can help.

So I have resorted to trying to make time-slicing between projects more efficient, placing some limitations on new projects and getting better at setting expectations. First, I will describe some examples, then, the solutions.

Since I have three or four projects going at the same time, I must get better at juggling them, as well as dealing with the normal interruptions that occur. Last month, for example, I missed doing my monthly blog here because I was traveling on personal vacation and working with a business client in California. The trip was extended by a week to make sure the new client project got off to a good start. Internet connectivity was sometimes a challenge on the road.

Next, when you are managing several, unrelated projects, their deadlines often appear suddenly or overlap. One project was facing a major deliverable in three days that should have taken a week, and another (volunteer) project was to prepare for and teach a PMP Exam Preparation class because another instructor had a sudden business trip out of town.

Earlier this year I did a volunteer project for a non-profit that took about seven months. The project was successful and was delivered on-time. Luckily, because I was still building my business, I had the bandwidth to spend close to 50% of my time on that project without affecting my other work.

In a hypothetical project, the project manager has been given time to do thorough project planning, including scope planning, doing risk analysis, quality planning, schedule, budget, etc. After the plans have been agreed-to, changes are supposed to be documented and approved and future plans change accordingly. Within a single business trade-offs between projects can be managed.

I my world of multiple, unrelated projects, the project manager can plan thoroughly for each individual project, but cannot know about conflicts with projects yet unplanned or unknown. It is also the nature of sudden, short, consulting projects that the single-resource project manager may have to focus on the early, almost impossible deadlines in order to get them done. This often limits planning for the long term. Some input from Agile techniques can help here – plan in detail for the items you can define during the next "sprint," or short time period, then focus and deliver. Move on to the next sprint and plan, focus and deliver.

Another helpful technique is improving my efficiency in time-slicing or task-switching. I now have a short "hit list" for each project that allows me to quickly observe what’s next to be done or resolved when I am pulled to focus on that project. This shortens the time to get back up to speed when a competing project beckons. It helps deal with chaos.

Another solution is to be careful not to take on too many projects without understanding the risks to already existing projects. In my case I will limit some of my short-term volunteer activity time commitments. In the next year I cannot give the same percentage of my time to volunteer projects that I was able to this year. Instead, since I’m earning more, I may be able to contribute more money donations. I’m not giving up on helping, I just have to be realistic, or all the projects will fail. In some cases I may commit less time, but donate more time during a lull period. This is also an example of setting better expectations.

These few are a good start, but something tells me that I will learn more this next year!

-- Matt Glei,

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Good points Matt.

I'm a fan and supporter of agile in my daily practice. While we always need to be forward thinking and understand the overall goals, defining the specifics of work packages as you go keeps things moving well. Not to mention this route is more flexible and allows more focused decision making.

Switching from tactical to strategic thinking and planning can be tough. I generally keep a note pad wherever I am for both types of items. You never know when a good idea will surface.

Thanks for this personal look at time efficiency and effectiveness, Matt, in the face of TOO MUCH TO DO. (In all caps because I feel like it's the story of our lives.) I like hearing about other people's survival strategies :-).

I'm in a position of having a mix of "overhead" tasks of managing a business, "project managemnet tasks" for some of our initiatives, "outward tasks" working with customers, and "subject matter expert" tasks e.g. creating or reviewing content for the site. The interrupts alone from the various areas are crazy-making.

The technique I am using right now to survive it all is some ruthless partitioning of each week. We've designated at least two specific days each week as "focused project work days". Which means that I schedule no customer or vendor phone calls, check email only a couple of times, basically eradicate the interrupt sources in favor of focus on a specific project. And we do this across the office so that together we get momentum, work closely, and finish something! (Of course we still have to respond to customer service and answer the phone! But there's lots we can whittle away, put off to a non-project day, and drastically reduce the bouncing around. But everyone has to commit to it so that we don't contribute to each others' lack of focus.

This may sound obvious to some who operate in a more "projects only" environment. But we're the typical place that is "projects plus ongoing operations", and the latter can just kill productivity on the former. The designated, dedicated focus days work really well for us.

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