It used to be that we would hear of people managing three or four projects at a time. Now we are hearing of people who are managing 10 to 15 at a time. Chances are, others might have even more. Sure it is a sign of the times; organizations having to do more with less. But, are organizations really doing that much more with less or are they deceiving themselves? What is the criterion for determining when someone is managing too many projects at one time?

Before we can answer this question, first we need to establish some generalities. The number of projects that can be managed simultaneously by one person depends on the nature of the projects and how much time is required to properly manage them. The key phrase here is “properly manage.” Projects that are managed properly have scope, time, and cost baselines appropriately established during the planning phase. They are also executed and controlled to completion so they finish as close as possible to the initial baseline. In general, more projects can be managed simultaneously when they are smaller in size (3-6 months with a team size of 2-5 people) than when they are larger in size (12-18 months in duration with a team size of 25 or more people). Also, more projects can be managed at one time when they are familiar and routine in nature to an organization than when they are highly unique, one of a kind. Plus technology, standards, and processes have allowed us to be more efficient at managing projects thus allowing more simultaneous projects.

Now back to the question. What is the criterion for determining when someone is managing too many projects at one time?  The first thing you will notice is that the project manager becomes less of a manager of their projects and more of a status reporter. Basically, they are along for the ride and have little ability to influence the direction of their projects. They finish when they finish. The second thing you will notice is the projects with the stronger sponsor or stakeholder base gets more attention than the rest and thus completed sooner regardless of the project’s strategic priority. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that this is a very inefficient way for an organization to produce a product.

This is when organizations deceive themselves by believing they are doing more with less. Lets look at this situation from a different perspective. Let’s say Sharon is a project manager and has ten projects ready to be launched. Her director, Tim, thinks each project should take three months to complete. Tim can launch all ten projects at one time and tell Sharon he wants them completed in four months knowing there will be some inefficiency due to the chaos of running ten projects at one time as well as resource limitations. Or, Tim can launch five projects, wait for them to finish and then launch the remaining five projects.

If managing five projects at one time is optimal, then there is a good chance that launching five projects and then another five after those are finished will result in all ten being completed in six months, with half of them three months earlier. There is also a good chance that launching all ten at once will result in all ten being completed in a greater period of time, say eight months. To date there has not been any study to confirm this but given the above premise and logic the probability is high.

So far we have focused on management’s responsibility for controlling the volume of projects launched and how many are assigned to a single project manager at one time. But, what can you do as a project manager if you think you are managing too many projects?

  1. Verify your beliefs by comparing yourself to other project managers in your organization. Being sure to compare apples to apples and making sure your projects are the same as the project manager’s you are comparing yourself to. This is a little reality check you should go through before you move to the next step.
  2. Prioritize your projects, ranking those with the most visibility and perceived importance the highest.
  3. Determine what is the optimal number of projects you should be managing to ensure appropriate planning and strong execution and control. This will result in projects being completed closer to the initial predictions.
  4. Give 75% of your time and effort to the optimal number of projects with the highest priority.
  5. Give the remaining projects assigned to you least priorities your last 25% of time and effort. This will result in the higher priority projects being managed better and finishing sooner with greater quality. The remaining projects will finish substantially later but since they have less visibility you will receive less grief, especially compared to the accolades you got for finishing the top priority projects sooner. Overall your performance will be better than your peers, giving you more justification for following this advice.
  6. As projects are completed and new ones added continue the prioritization scheme, allocating time and effort as directed.

There are project managers who will say that their management expects strong results on all their projects and not just the ones they, as projects managers, determine as being higher priority. If you are one of these project managers and you truly do have too many projects at one time, your management is creating an environment of chaos with projects being completed inefficiently without much management. Following the above step will cause you to stand out and force management to review the volume of projects and how they launch them. Of course the flip side is true. If your performance doesn’t stand out by following the above steps it could be because you do not have too many projects at one time given your peers are able to produce strong results under the same conditions.

If nothing changes . . . nothing changes. If you are burnt out and totally spent with too many projects on your plate give it a try. You may find yourself refreshed and receiving pats on your back for a job well done.