Techniques for managing multiple software projects

Project managers often start their careers with one or two projects to manage at the same time. Learning to balance cost, schedule, and quality with resource loading, scope management, and expanding client expectations is always easier when you have a small number of projects.

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Lawrence Oliva

After getting some experience and critical on-the-job training, PMs are often assigned several projects to manage simultaneously. Most small projects don't require a full-time PM, and companies frequently have multiple projects to be managed, which creates a position for the infamous multi-tasking, multi-project PM.

Without working 12 to 18 hours every day (not recommended), the multi-tasking PM needs to be very efficient and effective. Many of the techniques below are useful for all projects, but when balancing three, four, or five projects at one time, you need every advantage available to keep things moving ahead. Of course, know your limits and don't take on so many projects you can't support any of them.

Take the techniques below that work for you, and refine them to meet your style and needs.

Informal techniques

  1. Have a trusted source: Develop an unbiased information source who will tell you the truth about who is contributing to the project's progress (or making problems).
  2. Know the client priority: Clients always want perfect budget and schedule performance, but every project has a "real" priority, which may not be the typical schedule, budget, or product performance objectives. The PM needs to know what is critical to client success.
  3. Learn interdependencies: Spend time understanding interdependences between external factors, internal resources, and management decisions. Most projects these days are being affected by the economic slowdown and resulting business response.
  4. Time management: Don't schedule your whole day in meetings. Leave several hours open for crisis response work, and spend time planning priorities for tomorrow.

Formal techniques

  1. Use common reports: Standardize cost, schedule, and issue reporting processes for programs and sub-projects by using common forms, templates, and tracking systems. This will help you reduce input errors, avoid data reformatting, and avoid the need to use different systems.
  2. Watch the dollars: Review financial numbers weekly to avoid unexpected surprises from unplanned overtime, avoid unapproved time charges, and prevent out-of-scope work from continuing.
  3. Records are critical: Document agreements, understandings, or commitments from internal and external people and organizations. Use the telephone to negotiate, but use email to ensure you have a written record of agreements.
  4. Communicate: Communicate project status and issues being worked on via email or a website on a weekly or bi-weekly basis to management, team members, and other parties as appropriate.
  5. Decide quickly: When project interdependencies exist, decisions must be made quickly to avoid work stoppages or stop failure-chains from starting. Get as many facts as possible, talk to technical experts, and try to make a decision that can adapt to changing conditions as more information becomes available. Waiting for perfect information will often be a regrettable memory.

Managing multiple projects over time develops the experience and wisdom needed to lead large and complex programs. Appointment by management to those assignments will be a signal of your mastery of the techniques.

About the author:
Lawrence Oliva is a senior consultant and program manager with CH2M HILL, a global engineering and program management company. Based in the Washington D.C., area, he currently leads mid- to large-size IT programs for federal government and commercial clients that have unique technical challenges that require risk management, earned value analysis, cost/schedule forensics, biometric security, and "Green IT" implementation experience.

This was first published in November 2008

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