We’re living in the middle of a project-oriented economy. By 2027, it’s thought 88 million of us will work in Project Management. Why? Because the value of project work is booming - it’s a money-making machine.
As a result, it’s likely most of us will manage multiple projects simultaneously at some point in our careers. When given this competing work, you may choose to muddle through. The obvious approach is to apply the lessons learned from standalone projects.
While this isn’t a bad idea, it can lead to inefficiencies. If you layer the same individual project process over and over again, it places exponential demands on your time and effort. You’ll spread yourself too thin and run the risk of chronic overwhelm and burnout.
Consider it like this: you may be able to throw and catch a single ball, but that doesn’t make you a circus-trained juggler. Managing multiple projects is a different skill set altogether. And, if you don’t tackle it as such, you may drop the ball on more than one occasion.
So, why is managing multiple projects different from a single project? In this blog, we assess the differences, outline the types of multi-project workloads, and help you identify the skills needed to juggle your projects.
What Makes Managing Multiple Projects Different?
While individual projects can be complex - especially when they’re large and strategic - they allow you to hone your focus. You have fewer stakeholders to satisfy, fewer team members to manage, and no cross-project dependencies.
Multiple projects, on the other hand, involve a range of conflicting variables. You have to fragment your attention; instead of staring into one mirror, you find yourself in a hall of them. Take every aspect you managed in a standalone project and multiply it.
Instead of reporting to and communicating with one group of stakeholders, you’ll have to juggle many stakeholders. To complicate matters further, these groups may demand varying degrees of your attention. Some may request weekly catch-ups instead of fortnightly reports, for instance.
Similarly, you’ll have to work with and manage a larger pool of operational teams. If these experts are working across other projects, you face resource management challenges and conflicts of interest.
And then, finally, the dreaded D word: deadlines. Managing multiple deadlines in parallel can be hard work, especially when those deadlines overlap.
Digging Deeper into Multiple Workloads
To add complexity to the question, ‘What Makes Managing Multiple Projects Different?’, we must also consider the different types of multi-project workloads. By establishing a complete portfolio view of your projects and then categorizing your workloads, you can better understand how to adapt your skills.
In Elizabeth Harrin’s book, “Managing Multiple Projects: How Project Managers Can Balance Priorities, Manage Expectations and Increase Productivity”, she segments multiple projects into 3 distinct categories: sushi, spaghetti, and side dish. (We hope you’re not hungry.)
Here is how she defines each category:
“Just like a plate of perfect pieces of sushi, each of your projects are unrelated and stand well on their own.” - Elizabeth Harrin
You may fall into this category if you’re a project manager in a small business. With many plates to spin and fewer resources to hand, the chances are you’ll have to handle a wide range of distinct, largely unrelated projects.
“Like a tangle of spaghetti in a bowl, your workload is made up of several related projects.” - Elizabeth Harrin
Spaghetti workloads consist of projects grouped by a theme or connection. For instance, your projects may all involve the same sponsor or customer. There’s a lot of interdependencies and overlapping team members.
“Projects are the ‘side dish’ to your day job. You have an operational role where projects are not your main focus, but you are still expected to manage small, short projects (and sometimes larger ones) around your other responsibilities.” - Elizabeth Harrin
Consider a team leader in a sales department. They spend most of their time leading their sales counterparts. On the side though, they may have to complete projects around process changes or training rollout.
These categories aren’t fixed. Depending on your role and company, you may find your workload changes throughout the year. This could be a result of:
- trends in the industry (e.g. preparing for Christmas product or sales launches)
- urgent deadlines (e.g. year-end accounting reports)
- or internal changes in your business (e.g. personnel leaving).
As such, it’s possible to shift from one category to another. When a Project Manager leaves, for instance, you may have to take on a more diverse portfolio of projects. In this scenario, you’d move from a ‘spaghetti’ workload to a ‘sushi’ workload.
No matter the shape of your portfolio, it’s important to hone your multi-project skills. Otherwise, you may face the chronic overwhelm and burnout we discussed earlier in the article.
Adapting Your Existing Project Skills
Most Project Managers run 2-5 projects at any given time, but this number only grows with experience. In fact, 22% of experienced Project Managers have over 10 projects on the go.
The more projects you juggle, the harder the job becomes.
But it’s not impossible. The good news is, managing multiple projects requires a lot of the same skills as managing individual projects. You just need to adapt them.
In standalone projects, your top priorities are:
- Planning and fleshing out initial requirements.
- Managing changing project requirements.
- Communicating and building relationships with stakeholders.
- Effectively leading your project and project teams.
- Identifying and mitigating risks.
- Managing project control and governance.
As we stated earlier, multiple projects multiply your priorities. Therefore, to adapt these skills, you have to consider scale, overlaying dependencies, and connections.
When fleshing out your initial requirements, you must also map out the priorities across all your projects. When communicating with stakeholders, you must consider every stakeholder and their unique differences. When managing your project teams, you must also navigate additional resource management complexities… And so on.
The aim is not to tackle your workload project-by-project, but to treat your portfolio as one interconnecting web.
If you need help managing your multiple projects (or decreasing your workload stress), you’ll find step-by-step advice in our accompanying blog post. Or, if you’d like to hear wisdom from Elizabeth Harrin firsthand, register for our upcoming exclusive webinar.