3 Strategies for Managing Multiple Projects at Once

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Tips for controlling scope, schedules, and resources when working on multiple projects.

header image shows a man juggling three icons that represent projects

Here’s the simple truth: No project goes off without a hitch. And when you’re managing multiple projects at once, there’s going to be multiple hitches.

It’s how you handle those issues that’s the real indicator of project success.

In this article, we’ll review three areas of project management (PM) that tend to be particularly troublesome when managing multiple projects, and we’ll recommend strategies and PM tools to help you effectively overcome any issues.

3 challenges in managing multiple projects

Scope, schedule, and resources/budget are a project’s triple constraints. If one is changed or increased, then one or more of the other factors have to change or increase as well to compensate.

The triple constraints are common sources of frustration when you’re able to give your full attention to one project, let alone when your attention is pulled in multiple directions by multiple projects at once. Why? Because a setback in one venture can easily spill over into another, putting the whole portfolio at risk.

Below, we highlight why the triple constraints are challenges and recommend strategies and tools to help you effectively manage scope, schedules, and resources across multiple projects.

1. Fighting against scope creep on concurrent ventures

What is scope management?

Project scope refers to all the required work within the set limits of a project. Scope management is the process of first collecting requirements and defining the extent of a project, then monitoring and controlling work efforts to ensure all of the required work—and just the required work—is delivered.

There is no extra bandwidth for work on a project. Most projects are estimated at the minimum timeline and budget/resources and the maximum amount of work that can be done under those constraints.

Scope creep is when stakeholders want to change or increase the work involved with a project but don’t understand or acknowledge that doing so requires the budget and/or timeline to change or increase as well.

Avoiding scope creep is difficult, especially when the ask comes from an executive or other business leader whom you might not be accustomed to saying “no” to. (And they might not be accustomed to hearing it.)

And when you’re dealing with multiple requests from multiple stakeholders on multiple projects, your resolve to stick to each project’s planned scope can quickly be worn down.

 How to manage scope across multiple projects:  Ensure that every project plan includes a work breakdown structure (WBS), and then use the WBS to fight against scope creep.

During planning, you’ll collect project requirements, compile the requirements into a scope statement, then create a WBS. The WBS involves breaking the project requirements down into deliverables, outlining the tasks required to complete deliverables, estimating the time required to complete tasks, and determining the critical path.

If you have a WBS, you’ll be able to show how a proposed scope change will impact that project’s planned timeline and resources. More importantly, you’ll be able to show how changes to that project’s scope (and subsequent timeline and resources) will impact the other projects you’re managing as well.

For example, let’s say you’re managing Project A and Project B, both of which require a developer resource. If the same developer is allocated to Project A one week and Project B the next, but there’s a proposed increase to the scope of their work for Project A, there are a few ways this can play out, including:

  • Project A’s extended timeline and resource requirement is approved, and Project B is paused until the developer’s work on Project A is completed (in so doing, extended Project B’s timeline and changing the budget and resource requirements to accommodate).
  • Project A’s extended timeline and resource requirement is approved, and a different developer is assigned to Project B to maintain the original timeline.
  • The extended timeline and resource requirement for Project A is not approved, and the developer completes the initial scope of work for Project A and then is allocated to Project B the following week as planned.

 How PM software can help:  Look for tools with robust planning capabilities, such as Gantt charts, that can help you create a WBS.

A Gantt chart is a graphical representation of a project, displaying scope on the y-axis against the schedule on the x-axis. Making changes to scope on a digital Gantt chart will automatically cascade changes across subsequent tasks (often called a “dynamic timeline” on software vendor sites).

You’ll immediately see whether a change will extend the timeline or conflict with scheduled resources. If tasks or resources have billable hours assigned, you’ll be able to see how changes would impact the project budget as well.

If you’re managing multiple concurrent projects, Gantt charts give the user a high-level overview of each project’s scope, timeline, and resources, which helps users keep an eye on their entire portfolio.

Reordering tasks and cascading changes on Wrike’s Gantt chart feature

Reordering tasks and cascading changes on a Gantt chart in Wrike (Source)

2. Staying on top of multiple project schedules

What is schedule management?

The project schedule is the estimated time required to complete all the work within the scope of the project. Schedule management is a similar process to scope management, where you first collect requirements, create the WBS, and then monitor and control task and schedule execution to ensure all of the required work is delivered on time.

The second biggest challenge teams face on projects is inaccurate task-time estimates, according to Capterra’s recent survey.

This is a problem area for two key reasons:

  1. People tend to underestimate the time required to complete tasks (regardless of past experience), which means time estimates are optimistic at best.
  2. Timelines are often set by people who are not actively involved in the work it takes to complete projects, which means they have unrealistic expectations of how fast projects can be completed.

Whether due to optimistic time estimates or unrealistic expectations, setbacks will occur. This is why it’s critical to treat task-time estimates as just that—estimates.

If you’ve based project schedules on inaccurate task-time estimates, the first task that takes longer than expected will immediately result in a schedule overrun; or, require that additional resources be added to the project to help make up the lost time.

And when you’re managing multiple projects at once, a delay in one schedule can quickly impact the others’ schedule and/or resources as well.

 How to manage schedules across multiple projects:  Build slack (aka “float”) into project schedules during project planning to act as a buffer for any miscalculations.

This is as simple as increasing task-time estimates by a certain amount, such as scheduling all three-day tasks for five days. Or, if you know that ad hoc requests take up 20% of your team’s time, increase their task-time estimates by 20%.

If you’ve built slack into the project schedules during planning, you’ll be able to recoup time lost on one project due to inevitable setbacks. More importantly, you’ll be able to avoid a delay on one project spilling over to the other projects you’re managing.

For example, let’s say a QA team plans to work on Project A one week and Project B the next. If Project A is delayed a few days, there are a few ways this could play out, including:

  • Project A’s review is postponed until after Project B is reviewed, pushing Project’s A review back two weeks and extending Project A’s timeline by two weeks.
  • Both Project A and Project B are pushed back one week, extending both project timelines by one week.
  • If both Project A and Project B’s schedules were built out with slack in the system, the QA team would not need the full week to complete their review and could recoup the time lost due to the delay, not requiring either project timeline to be extended.

 How PM software can help:  Look for tools with time-tracking capabilities so you can track how long it takes to perform certain tasks and drastically improve the accuracy of task-time estimates. You can also track when and why overages occur, giving you insight into which tasks should have more or less slack added to them on future projects.

Leveraging time-tracking functionality can also provide risk management benefits as you can set alerts for overages that might impact the overall project timeline. And when you’re managing multiple concurrent projects, an overage in one project can easily impact the others in the portfolio, making early risk detection essential for effective portfolio management.

Entering time on a project in Mavenlink software

Entering time on a project in MavenlinkSource)

3. Staffing multiple projects from the same resource pool

What is resource management?

Resources are the people who do the project work. Resource management is the process of identifying the roles and skills required for a project, estimating the quantity of resources needed, allocating resources to projects, and then monitoring and controlling work efforts to remove obstacles and ensure resources are on track to deliver results.

Managing resources effectively can be challenging when there is a lack of transparency into employee workloads, and related to that, a lack of understanding into optimal resource utilization.

Despite research showing that just 40% of an employee’s work week is spent on role-specific tasks—the remaining 60% is filled up with meetings, emails, administrative tasks, non-project work, etc.—many leaders still plan projects assuming that employees can and will dedicate 100% of their time to the project. This leads to inaccurate task-time estimates and timelines.

Secondly, many leaders either don’t know or don’t accept that optimal resource utilization is between 70% to 80% utilization—not 100%. Working project teams above 80% utilization tanks their productivity and actually costs your organization time and money.

 How to manage resources across multiple projects:  Invest in resource management software to increase transparency into employee workloads and optimize utilization.

When staffing multiple projects from the same pool of resources, it’s highly likely that you’ll need similar key roles for each initiative (e.g., a designer and a developer). You’ll need to consider each resource’s workload alongside each project’s task dependencies when planning project timelines and prioritizing work efforts.

For example, the developer can’t be scheduled to work both Project A and Project B at the same time. And if the developer can’t start their tasks until after the designer is finished with theirs, that will need to be reflected in each project’s schedule as well.

Spreadsheets simply aren’t sufficient to manage project resources across multiple projects. You need a tool capable of tracking employing skill sets, viewing upcoming availability, forecasting needs, and scheduling “placeholder resources,” as well as reflecting real-time updates and changes to schedules and alerting you when employees are nearing or over capacity.

 How PM software can help:  There are several tools you can use to manage project resources across multiple projects, including:

If you’re managing concurrent projects, you need a tool with robust resource management capabilities. As such, be sure to vet products by their ability to not just assign resources to tasks, but also by whether they offer skills tracking, demand management, forecasting, and resource capacity planning.

Managing staff workloads in GanttPro, a resource management tool

Managing resources in GanttPro (Source)

How to overcome issues when managing multiple projects

When managing multiple projects, keep an extra close eye on each project’s triple constraints: scope, schedule, and resources/budget.

Remember to:

  • Create a work breakdown structure (WBS) during project planning.
  • Build slack into project schedules.
  • Increase transparency into employee workloads and optimize utilization by using resource management tools.

An overarching best practice you should follow when managing any project, but especially when managing multiple projects, is to communicate issues to stakeholders early, often, and clearly.

At the first signs of trouble, alert your executive sponsor (ES) of the issue and what you’re doing to remedy it in the short term. Agree on a plan for further escalation if the short-term plan doesn’t solve the problem. Then, provide frequent updates so the ES knows if/when escalation is needed.

Never downplay an issue or avoid mentioning it altogether in the hopes that you’ll be able to get it under wraps before anyone else will notice. When the issue does come out, failing to have been upfront about it can erode the trust you’ve built between yourself and stakeholders.

Want to learn more about the tools your peers are using to manage projects?

Check out our 2019 Project Management Software user report.

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Note: The applications selected in this article are examples to show a feature in context and are not intended as endorsements or recommendations. They have been obtained from sources believed to be reliable at the time of publication.

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About the Author

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Eileen O'Loughlin

Eileen O’Loughlin is a Senior Project Management Analyst for Capterra. Her research helps small businesses leverage the latest technology and trends to solve key business challenges and achieve strategic goals. Her work has been cited in various publications, including CIO.com, ProjectManagement.com, ProjectsAtWork and DevOps Digest.

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