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Managing Multiple Projects: Avoiding Project Overload

~ By Duncan Haughey

A businesswoman juggling many balls all at once

What is the maximum number of projects a project manager can run concurrently before he or she becomes overloaded?

In a recent edition of PM Network magazine, project managers are bemoaning the number of projects they're asked to manage, with the average number of concurrent projects standing at eight. This number seems high by anybody's standards, especially as many are large and high-profile initiatives.

During an interview for a role of project manager at a software house some years ago, I made the mistake of telling the interviewer that project managers should manage one project at a time so they could give it their full attention. Not something he wanted to hear. After some hasty backtracking, I managed to convince him I was happy to run concurrent projects and got the job.

At the time, this is what I believed, but since then have accepted the reality that in business today, project managers have to manage several projects at one time.

So accepting this, how many projects should a project manager run? It's not an easy question to answer, as every project is different in size, complexity and importance.

The more balls a project manager has in the air at any one time, the more likely it is he or she will drop one. Recently this happened to me. At the time, I was managing several small and medium-size projects and failed to notice that one was heading for problems. The project was in the execution phase, with a strict delivery deadline. Unfortunately, I'd neglected to realise there was extra testing needed, to guarantee the software applications security on the Internet before it could go live. I'd not planned for this work and had to scramble days before go live to get a third-party to do the security testing. Luckily they had people available, and we met the deadline, but it caused some sleepless nights and didn't improve my reputation as a project manager.

So, was five projects too many to be managing at one time? In short yes, the fifth project was the straw that broke the camels back. I didn't spend enough time managing stakeholder expectations, allowing a significant work package to become overlooked.

So what can project managers do to avoid project overload?

  • Learn to say no - recognise when enough is enough
  • Avoid taking shortcuts to take on more projects
  • Delegate certain parts of projects to subordinates
  • Set priorities by importance and delivery date
  • Spend sufficient time managing stakeholder expectations (including your line manager)

It's not possible to say what the maximum number of projects a project manager should run at once before he or she becomes overloaded. However, it's certain that if the number is greater than, say, two or three, there is a risk of running into problems. Be clear, the more projects a project manager undertakes, the less efficient they become.

So in my job interview was I wrong? No, if a project manager devotes all of his or her time and effort to a single project then there's little risk of distractions or a loss of focus. However, this is not reality in our modern business environment where project managers have to manage multiple projects concurrently. So be careful not to become overloaded, otherwise, you could find you have problems that damage your reputation as a project manager.

Comments (3)

Topic: Managing Multiple Projects: Avoiding Project Overload
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11th September 2020 3:41pm
Phillip Burtcher (Salt Lake City Utah) says...
I am a Magna ***** Laude graduate of Weber State University working as an unofficial project manager. I hold two dual major degrees: A.A.S degree in Heavy Duty Truck Technology and (construction management) Apprenticeship, and a dual major B.S. degree in Automotive Technology and Professional Sales. My official title is fleet engineer but I haven't "engineered" anything yet. I have been in this position for a little over two months and currently "manage" 8 separate projects. Some are ongoing, others are short term, most are long term. Each one affecting most or all of the fleet. There has been little to no training with no guiding metrics to follow or measure. Your article hits it right on the head, juggling too many balls only creates a pile on the floor. The question is how do you know which one is going to drop and when? I have even inquired of my direct supervisor on my job performance. In this case, I definitely hope silence is golden because I have received little feedback. As such, tracking progress and success in difficult at best. This, in part, was the reason I found your article. The other part is our executive team has asked us to come up with guiding principles, a mission statement, and a set of definable metrics. Basically, they want us to justify our departments existence and purpose. Would I be able to refer to your article for substance when determining how many projects is too many? Thank you for your time and post. I look forward to your reply.
11th September 2020 5:05pm
Duncan Haughey (London) says...
Feel free to reference this article if you wish. I wrote this article some time ago and have since learned to say no, delegate more effectively and streamline my project approach. It is still difficult if you spend too much time switching between projects, and there are definitely risks to being over loaded. All the best.
12th September 2020 9:04am
Duncan Haughey (London) says...
An approach that may relieve pressure on the project manager is to employ a project assistant. The person may work one or two days a week and complete routine tasks, such as, checking timesheets and raising purchase orders. The PM can create a list of tasks during the week, as they arise, for the person to complete during their working days.

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