Rich Collier never feels like he has enough people — or time — to accomplish everything that needs to be done. "We have far more work than people," Collier says. As vice president of engineering at Etnus LLC, a software-debugging firm based in Natick, Massachusetts, Collier leads 24 people who work on 75 projects. Juggling projects is a day-to-day challenge — and reality — for Collier and other leaders.
As the economy continues to struggle to regain its footing, hiring freezes and limited resources can pose substantial barriers to success in firms that are understaffed. People are asked to take on more projects, to embrace additional responsibilities when colleagues change jobs — or are laid off — and to continuously reassess projects' priorities as funding is cut or reallocated.
How can we do more — with less? How do business leaders manage multiple projects? How do team members keep track of the wide range of changing requirements and priorities so nothing slips through the cracks? To learn more about how to best manage multiple projects, Fast Company turned to the true experts, project leaders with a full plate — who always go back for seconds.
Regardless of what approach you take, leaders agree that prioritization is the key to their success. Lori Nerenberg, a vice president of Chicago-based Northern Trust Corp., oversees 20 projects at a time. About half of those will be completed within six months. Nerenberg encourages her team to work on several projects at once to maximize production. "If we can work on the right number of projects concurrently but stage them in a way to optimize the use of shared resources such as analysts and programmers, we can get more done without overly taxing any one individual or group," she says.
Robert Treves sits on Demand Management Steering Committee at Seattle-based Getty Images. That committee reviews and approves projects pursued within the company. Each week, the committee considers project managers' proposals, ranks leaders' requests, and establishes teams' priorities. "We decide whether to put 15 people on one project or 10 people on both projects, which then takes longer for each to complete," Treves says.
As a project manager and team member, it's important to negotiate with your boss to determine your priorities, says Jim Hanlan, an assistant vice president at the health insurance firm CIGNA in Philadelphia. "The first time you are given more than one project, ask them what it means in terms of personal priority," he says. If the projects are equally important, ask whether you should divide your time evenly between them. If a project sponsor wants more of your attention, direct him to your boss for confirmation. "Sometimes, escalation is not a bad thing," Hanlan says. "You need to get clarification and find a default position."
Sometimes, such decisions aren't easily made. Mary Freese, a contract project manager based in Minneapolis, says she's often called on to play the role of arbitrator, working with departments that have conflicting priorities. Freese asks group leaders to make the case for their projects, explaining the business reasons that they need more resources. "You should get project justification upfront and push users to articulate that," Freese says. She peppers business owners with questions, such as how much money and time are needed — and how a project is going to benefit the company. And if Freese thinks a certain project has a stronger business case, she'll suggest what should be prioritized.
Prepare to Change
Setting priorities is just the beginning, and leaders often find themselves having to change priorities as their understanding of a project shifts, new challenges arise, and different teams need more resources. However, constantly changing priorities can become a burden, says James Bullock, a project management consultant based in Seattle.
Bullock calls on leaders to be aware of their team's "change budget" — how much gear-switching people can tolerate and still work productively. "Learning takes work," Bullock says. And adapting to changes can lead to psychological strain. When people use up their change budget — when enough is enough — they stop listening. "They stop hearing what is said," Bullock says. "Even when they hear, they don't understand. Even when they understand, they can't do the new thing as well as usual."
Leaders need to recognize when changes are gaining traction, Bullock says. And if you face change budget challenges, eliminate some of the recent changes; determine whether challenges are posed by administrative, technological, or individual problems; and fix the bottleneck. Then proceed until things go awry again. "Wash, rinse, repeat," Bullock says.
Hanlan from CIGNA says that if a team changes its focus too frequently, it can become less efficient and effective. He tries to work on no more than three projects at a time and says that as the number of project assignments increase, so does the "fritter factor" — a term coined by one of Hanlan's colleagues. "The fritter factor is anything that steals productivity in such small bites that you don't notice it until it's too late," he says.
Instead of working on multiple projects during the same work day, Hanlan will dedicate every other day to a project. For example, he might work on one project Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and another Tuesday and Thursday. Hanlan makes his schedule known to different project teams so that they know when to contact him. "If certain teams can't reach you, their issues tend to evaporate," Hanlan says. "Physically locating yourself with your teams ensures better outcome."
When you have a lean staff, the boundaries between different jobs tend to blur, and everybody might need to do each other's work at some point. It's important to rotate team members to different posts — to the point that it makes sense for your project — so that people have different skills. In other words, everybody is more or less a generalist. When you have a larger team and a bigger budget, however, you then can have a more specialized staff.
At Etnus, Collier takes pride in the versatility of his employees. "Everybody is a project manager, an engineer, and a tester," he says. Collier assigns younger staff members, as well as senior managers, to take ownership of projects. People don't bother with job descriptions, and if a problem arises, "everybody chips in, fixes it, and moves on," Collier says.
Stephanie Black, a vice president at PPC, a Fort Worth, Texas-based company that provides tools to CPA and public services, also leads a lean staff. Her team of two project managers, seven engineers, and one business analyst works on as many as 10 projects at a time, and almost everybody has to take on someone else's work at some time. Team members mentor one another so they know what each other does, and they often rotate to different projects. For example, PPC's senior software engineer rotates his project responsibilities with other engineers in the department, so that if someone is sick or overloaded, there are backups, Black says.
Rebecca Rockafellar, director of program management of Getty Images, however, has the luxury of working with a larger team and a fatter budget. She works with five project managers, and each has a team of 30 people. On larger projects, team members have clear job descriptions and usually don't switch roles. "People are more dedicated, especially developers, who get to work on what they do," Rockafellar says. On smaller projects, team members can still rotate roles and support each other, she says.
Choose Your Tools
With all this change, how can you keep things straight? The tools you use can help spell success — or failure. Nerenberg from Northern Trust doesn't have to read dozens of spreadsheets and reports to know what's going on. Instead, she only has to glance at a poster-sized color chart hanging on her office wall.
Each row represents a project, and each column represents a month. Nerenberg marks up functions with different colors: yellow for testing, blue for training, pink for client communication, and green for implementation. If, for example, there are three color bars — yellow, pink and green — in a month's column, it means that in that month, project A needs testing, Nerenberg will meet with clients related to project B, and project C will soon be completed. "I see very visually the intersections and danger periods," Nerenberg says. If a month looks particularly crowded, Nerenberg makes sure her project mangers are aware of that — and avoid butting heads with each other.
Similarly, Hanlan from CIGNA runs an issue log that can be easily accessed by others in the company. Project managers update it regularly and make sure items are "actionable" — labeled with deadlines and the names of people working on a project. The log also shows the history of a project and its progression from one group to another, Hanlan says.
Black at PPC maintains a list of the top 10 risks to her projects and updates it weekly. She also avoids scheduling meetings in the morning, when her teams are usually busier. While other leaders rely on regular meetings, Collier from Etnus prefers voice messages and electronic communication — email, an internal Wiki, and instant messaging, especially when working with freelance programmers. "My model is no meeting," Collier says.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.