MANAGING MULTIPLE PROJECTS

MANAGING MULTIPLE PROJECTS

By Howard Birnberg

 

CHALLENGES

Every project manager will concurrently lead multiple projects at many points in their career.   Some jobs are so large they absorb the full attention of a project manager, but even these big projects typically generate multiple design change orders. Handling this workload effectively is a challenge for even very experienced individuals. It is also unusual for small projects to proceed without some change to the original scope resulting in a PM handling the base job and one or more design change orders. Some project types can result in a significant number of scope changes requiring the PM to manage many projects concurrently. Early in my own career, I worked for a good sized architectural firm specializing in health care projects. This work was a constantly moving target. While we were originally hired to design a bed tower, deep into the design process, we were told one floor would now be a research lab. Later, we were told to redesign other space in the planned structure to provide for doctors offices. The project manager began with one job and now had dozens under his umbrella.  

The size and type of projects are not the only factors influencing the evolution of a job and the challenges facing a PM in dealing with multiple projects. Complex technical jobs can absorb much of a manager's attention. Remote or challenging locations can also make the process of managing multiple projects difficult. The lack of technical or support staff may require a PM to handle more of the work themselves. As a consultant, I worked for a major Native American gaming organization using the growing financial resources available to the tribe to provide for a large number of needed facilities for tribal members. This included housing, schools, clinics, community centers, recreational facilities and for many other required structures. In an effort to provide employment for tribal members, preference hiring was established. Unfortunately, there were insufficient trained and capable tribal members creating tremendous workloads for those project managers with the needed skills. All handled a large number of projects concurrently without the necessary information systems and support staff.

NEEDED SKILLS AND TOOLS

Information Systems:   No project manager will be effective in managing multiple projects without accurate and timely information reporting systems. They require design budgeting tools to plan for labor and expense needs. The reporting system must continually update actual expenditures against the prepared budget and allow for detailed information on change orders/out-of-scope items/extras. Information should be available on an on-demand basis.   Every firm should make use of one of the commercially available software packages that are proven to meet the needs of design firm project managers. Some suggested software include those produced by Deltek and Clearview In-Focus.  

Support Staff:  Particularly when handling multiple projects, PM's need administrative assistance to help support their workload. *Project administrators are typically not technically trained, but have a reasonable understanding of project needs and the design and construction process.   These individuals support the efforts of full-charge PMs by relieving them of some of the administrative burdens of projects. Most project administrators work with multiple managers unless one has a particularly heavy workload. Some suggested activities for project administrators include:

Change Order Management:  It is essential to carefully monitor a project’s scope of services.   Where the project manager has any question as to the inclusion of an activity in the basic scope, he or she should generate a design change order. This necessitates establishing a separate record for time and expense charges in the firm’s data base system. It also requires informing those individuals working on the project regarding the existence of the change order to allow them to properly complete timesheets and for accounting to accurately record project expenses.  

A wide variety of outside individuals and firms also need to be informed of changes            including consultants, clients, suppliers, etc. so they can keep their own records properly        segregated. The preparation of the change order record and its distribution can be   assisted by the project administrator.

Distribution of Information and Materials: Ensuring the proper distribution of project information to all team members can be time consuming and is often incompletely handled.    The project administrator should be of assistance in this process.

Invoicing and Accounts Receivables:  Project managers should be deeply involved in project invoicing. They should have the final say as to when a project or change order is invoiced. A proper system should require the accounting office to prepare a draft (electronic or paper) invoice for a project manager’s review and approval. It should be a responsibility of the project administrator to track these invoices and assist the project manager in their review. Information on outstanding receivables should be directed to the administrator who can alert the project manager as to their status.

Scheduling and Record-keeping: The project administrator needs to assist in scheduling for a project manager including both internal and external meetings and similar activities. Some firms also require the project administrator to be responsible for record-keeping such as meeting minutes. 

*Some of the material in this section originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of The Project Manager.

Skills: Individual project managers also need certain skills to effectively management multiple projects. These include:

Strong Organizational Skills and Support: Every PM must be a well organized individual with the necessary skill to handle many activities, staff, and systems concurrently. However, in regard to organizational processes, they are not on their own. Their firm must provide required forms, systems, information and structure to allow them to do their job. While allowing flexibility, standardization of project management processes are essential.

Delegation:  The hallmark of a successful project manager is his or her ability to effectively delegate assignments to other staff members. Growth in many organizations is inhibited by the inability of the firm's senior owners and managers to release the reins of control over project and firm management. As a result, crisis management prevails as the overextended individual attempts to cope with a work overload and shifting priorities.

Responsibility and Authority: One of the most difficult concepts for firm and project      managers to implement is the equality of responsibility and authority. In many organizations, project, marketing, and financial managers are assigned significant levels of responsibility. They are expected to meet budgets, deadlines, and targets, often without adequate authority to implement their decisions or to meet the needs of their tasks. This is particularly true of facility managers whose input is often ignored when new or redeveloped facilities are planned.

A common complaint by senior managers in many small and midsized design firms is that middle managers fail to take responsibility and initiative for their assignments. Often, this occurs either because responsibilities are not clearly defined or because responsibilities are delegated         while authority is not. Where authority is delegated, the residual right to override middle management decisions may remain with design firm senior management. This problem is   particularly apparent in firms where the founding principals or partners are still active and are accustomed to making all decisions. These entrepreneurs often feel the need to be highly involved in marketing, project decisions, and client meetings. As a result, they may inadvertently or by habit discourage the taking of responsibility.

Communication Skills: The key function of a project manager is to communicate. He or she serves as the primary link between members of the project team. Each design consultant, contractor, and client should be represented by a project manager able to communicate their needs, questions, and status to other team members. To accomplish this function, project managers must be skilled communicators. Public speaking skills must be learned and polished through extensive practice or with formal training. Writing skills must be developed to a high degree.  Project managers should attend university or community college writing courses to learn fundamentals, technical writing, and persuasive writing. Firms should retain, on a full- or part-time basis, an internal staff member to review and constructively criticize written materials and to train all staff in effective written communications.

ADDITIONAL CONCEPTS

Establish Priorities:  There are many criteria that could be used to establish priorities for the various projects a PM is managing. Meeting project deadlines are an obvious consideration although often these may be flexible. The cost of delay needs to be evaluated and other factors considered. For example, in congested cities such as Chicago and New York, the ability and time available to bring materials to a job site can be an issue. In a busy construction market delay can inhibit the likelihood that qualified bidders are available. In some circumstances, if a design firm is extremely busy and PM's face a heavy workload of multiple projects, some clients may be willing to delay their project(s).  

Don't Micromanage: This issue was covered in brief above, but PM's also must be willing to delegate and avoid micromanaging projects. With multiple jobs to handle, a micromanager will rapidly become ineffective.

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Howard Birnberg is executive director of the Association for Project Managers.   He may be reached at 312-664-2300, hbirnberg@gmail.com

Howard Birnberg