How to avoid operational meltdown when managing multiple projects

  • August 1, 2011

Projectization is increasingly embraced by companies to cope with the challenges of the competitive global environment such as tighter budgets, diminishing resources, aggressive time constraints and competition to improve efficiency. The short-term ventures allow companies to maximize precious resources and tools while responding quickly and efficiently to changing market conditions. But today’s burgeoning portfolios pose tactical and strategic challenges that can create an operational nightmare or, worse yet, produce a string of project failures that can derail an entire company.

“Managing multiple projects is a competitive necessity,” says Dr. Vish Hegde, associate professor of management for the College of Business and Economics at California State University, East Bay. “But unless executives provide direction so projects are prioritized and aligned with the company’s strategic and financial goals, they can create an operational mess and cause project managers to fail.”

Smart Business spoke with Hegde about the challenges of managing multiple projects and how executives can avert operational meltdown by providing guidance and considering multiple characteristics when organizing projects.

Why is multiple project management so challenging?

Occasionally a project is so large and complex it requires the undivided attention of a single manager. In many companies, it is not uncommon to see project managers have to simultaneously juggle as many as five to 13 mid-size projects without dropping the ball. Their mission is complicated by the fact that projects are constantly being added, changed, or removed in response to changing market conditions, which alters the dynamics of the portfolio and forces managers to cope with an inefficient workload or fight for limited resources. Executives need to consider several characteristics when grouping projects or assigning resources, and provide project managers with the tools to balance multiple priorities and make prudent decisions on the fly.

How should projects be grouped to create synergies?

Grouping projects randomly can create inefficiencies, so most companies evaluate tactical characteristics when organizing projects. Certainly managers should consider project duration and complexity as well as technical and functional similarities when grouping projects, but they also need to consider the objectives and goals of the project, time pressures, workflow and resource availability to optimize every possible synergy. It’s imperative that executives provide guidance so project managers can balance tactical needs with strategic considerations and optimize efficiencies by sharing common resources.

What should executives consider when assigning projects?

Realistically, project managers can’t handle too many simultaneous projects without affecting quality and efficiency. If they’re juggling too many ventures, project managers will spend most of their time transitioning and won’t have time to dive into detail, devise a plan and actually lead the project. In fact, they’ll be inclined to simply go with the flow, which is symptomatic of an over-leveraged project manager. Balance a project manager’s slate of assignments by considering the mix, types and phases of the various initiatives in addition to his or her capabilities, because a project manager needs a broad range of technical and non-technical skills and the ability to multi-task in order to master a complex portfolio.

How can resource allocation and planning create efficiencies?

Sometimes CIOs launch multiple projects without considering the availability of critical resources, so employees struggle to balance conflicting priorities as project managers haggle for their services. Consider projected completion dates and the number of projects in the queue when evaluating the availability of shared resources as well as the organization’s overall capacity to handle a large portfolio. Help project managers avoid conflict and optimize scarce resources by providing benchmarks or a decision template that spells out the company’s priorities and the best way to schedule and allocate shared resources in various situations.

How does resource scheduling fit in?

Team members have to refocus and get their bearings each time they switch assignments, which impacts productivity and may ultimately delay the project portfolio. Executives should consider these challenges when scheduling shared resources and provide training in time management and multitasking to enhance their basic competencies. It’s important to control costs by leveraging the cost of human capital, but, at some point, over-scheduling critical resources becomes counter-productive.

Should project managers consider project interdependencies?

Certainly executives want to maximize the savings from working on several interdependent projects and select ventures that maximize investments. To achieve this important objective, the CIO should provide guidelines to help project managers select interdependent projects from a bank of possibilities, since their priorities and schedules could change as projects are added or removed from the process. Project managers should evaluate several criteria when making their selections, including the project’s benefits, available resources and technical synergies.

Dr.Vish Hegde is an associate professor of management for the College of Business and Economics at California State University, East Bay. Reach him at (510) 885-4912 or vish.hegde@csueastbay.edu.


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