by Alex Kinder
Can you juggle?
I can’t. Not that well anyway. It’s hard to keep three or more balls in a constant state of motion that ensures none of them will hit the ground. Juggling requires rhythm, concentration, trust and awareness.
The same goes for managing multiple projects.
More and more project managers are finding themselves not only managing multiple projects for a client, but managing multiple projects for multiple clients. This is comparable to not just juggling three or four matching balls, but juggling a ball, a ring, an egg and an oversized stuffed dog. Not easy!
But there are some things project managers can do to help ensure that their multiple projects move smoothly and steadily through their life cycle. Here are my top 10 tips for keeping all those balls (and other items) in the air.
- Be realistic with your capacity. Many people (especially project managers like us) don’t like to say no. But everyone has a breaking point, and hitting yours by taking on too many or wrong-sized projects is a sure-fire way for things to get out of control. Of course, we all expect to have to push hard once in awhile– working long hours to get a project over a particularly large hump, for example. But you if you constantly run at your max, it won’t be long before you burn out. Clients can see when their project manager is stressed out and overtaxed, and it doesn’t instill confidence. Set yourself up for success by only taking on what you can effectively manage.
- Set expectations. This is always important, but even more so when working with multiple clients. When time is precious and your day is a series of precisely orchestrated meetings and tasks, you may not be available for a brainstorming session via phone with that new client who likes to talk. It is better to establish very clearly up front the scope of the project, deliverables, how many hours you will be devoting to it, etc. If you know you won’t always be able to be present for meetings, offer to dial in from the road when necessary or to send along a colleague who is familiar with the project. By establishing these norms up front, you’ll help this client feel valued without taking away from your responsibilities to the others.
- Streamline communications. It’s okay to text responsibly for professional purposes. There, I said it. Unless you have a client that is dead-set against it, most folks in the professional world are texting each other because (let’s face it) it is such a colossal time saver. With one or two texts I can put out a fire with one client while I’m attending a meeting with another. I can get answers and updates quickly. I can move meetings around. If you’ve seen the object lesson about the rock and the pebbles and the sand, texting is the sand. It productively fills all the tiny gaps that bigger things don’t fit into. So go ahead and text. You’re welcome.
- Prioritize. Some projects are going to be more important than others. Some projects are going to be more important right now than others. Some projects involve a small group of people who work in the same office and are easily gathered into a meeting. Others involve multiple people in different time zones. All of these factors come into play as you organize your time as a project manager. If it feels like scheduling an organ transplant to get all of your key players for a certain project at a meeting, you don’t want to find yourself in the position of having to reschedule that meeting. Prioritize and move something else instead.
- Schedule out. One way to help accomplish item #4 is to build your schedule one to two weeks in advance. Get the organ transplants on the calendar first and work around them. If you are at an important stage with a particular project, don’t fill that week with little line items for other projects that can wait. The further in advance you know your schedule, the more flexible you are able to be in the current week.
- Keep your meetings on point. Solarity has a great blog post, The Art of Running a Meeting that can help you manage these rambunctious creatures we call meetings.
- Understand your client’s culture. Everybody wants to be understood, right? It’s going to help you immensely as a project manager if you can work within the constraints posed by your client’s company culture. Just like people have personalities that dictate how they act and react, companies do, too. Play to those personalities and you’ll have success in the next bullet point.
- Build that emotional bank account. Emergencies are going to come up. One day you will get the frantic email in the middle of a meeting that you simply have to respond to. If you can’t put out the fire with our good friend text, you may have to stand up and politely ask for a five minute bio break in order to make a call. This is never fun, but when it happens to a client with whom you’ve developed a solid professional rapport, you’ll be quickly forgiven. Of course if it happens too often, it can erode your credibility and trust with the client. So . . .
- Buffer when necessary. One way to avoid projects bleeding over into one another is to schedule a buffer around meetings and tasks that you know are going to be heavy. Need to deliver some bad news? Give yourself some time on either side of that conversation to prepare and do damage control. Huge deliverables to be discussed? Take the hour before that meeting to get all your ducks in a row and an hour afterward in case it runs long.
- Do your best. Here’s something we don’t always acknowledge, but it’s so true: if you have your client’s wellbeing at heart, they will know it. If you are working hard to make their company more successful, they will appreciate you. Follow these tips and put your heart into the job. Juggling is hard, but when it’s done well the audience always cheers in the end.