Managing Multiple Projects
Published: 11 May 2009 By Carol McLachlan for CareersinAudit.com
Audits, Anniversaries and Assessments of Risk: Your Guide to Managing Multiple Projects
It’s a fact of life. We have to do it. Like it or not managing multiple projects is inescapable; it’s a life skill not just a business skill. From student or junior trainee right up to manager, partner or parent, there will always be, at any one time, at least, one area of our work or life in general where we are juggling more than one ball. From our audit portfolio to special projects to organising a family birthday party, managing multiple projects is a core skill.
In this article we’re going to look at how we can accomplish this essential function more effectively and more efficiently, to produce better results for ourselves, our businesses and our wider stakeholders.
First up though, let’s distinguish between managing multiple projects and that 21st century blight – multi-tasking. Multi-tasking is very ‘old century’. It means working on more than one task at the same time. Say, reviewing a report and listening to a CPD podcast. Although widely viewed as the norm in workplaces, it has been shown to reduce productivity as well as IQ. We humans are just not wired for multi-tasking. It seems efficient in the short-term but is seldom so in the longer term with its adverse effects on how people learn and retain information.
Managing multiple projects on the other hand is a core process. It refers to keeping a number of plates spinning in unison not necessarily at the same pace and not dependent on simultaneous input. Bottom line: it’s simply handling your ongoing commitments and responsibilities and keeping them moving towards a satisfactory conclusion.
One at a time, please
So forget multi-tasking. The 21st century way is single-tasking, in which effectiveness is valued above busy-ness and time is used more profitably by stressing attentiveness and mindfulness. Improve your game by nurturing intelligent, focused attention rather than constantly task switching. Work on a single project for a certain amount of time. The amount of time isn’t important, rather that you have a set amount of time to focus on each job without distraction. And the added benefit is that this is an effective way to keep at bay - selective procrastination.
Working on the job not just in the job
We all need to regularly take time out to stand back and see the big picture. The helicopter view is critical for maximising your peripheral vision, keeping you aware of what is going on outside of your immediate zone and helping you spot what’s coming over the horizon. Some experts recommend spending 10% of your time on planning. So what do we actually mean by ‘planning’ and its undervalued benefits?
- Figuring out the what, how and who, and their sequence
- Setting up an infrastructure to achieve your objectives. That is, an infrastructure with enough flexibility to adapt to the so called ‘unexpected’ which quite frankly, can be expected: changing scope, changing deadlines, responding to unexpected findings, human limitations
- Planning and ongoing review also give you a fighting chance of keeping ‘on target’, being prepared for the challenges and then allowing ‘course correct’
- Not only anticipating problems but also finding better ways to approach your work and maximise your productivity. For example spotting critical points that might require a little dovetailing to achieve an even better execution
- Taking a realist’s view of what is humanly possible and saying no at the right time for the right reasons
- Planning puts you in pole position to anticipate those inevitable bottle necks
- Planning gives you a chance to ask how to get through this; what do I need to find a solution? (The alternative: log jammed – up the creek without the proverbial paddle – sadly we’ve all been there)
Understand your objectives and don’t sweat the small stuff
Understand your goals and be prepared to prioritise. Do you know the difference for each project between ‘must have’ and ‘nice to have’? Be clear on third party expectations: over delivery can be acknowledged and rewarded but not if it’s at the expense of under delivery elsewhere.
Appreciate your own role. Ask, what is it that only I can do? Faced with unproductive tasks that contribute to no greater good, you should check the alternatives. Ask yourself - who else could do this? Does it need to be done at all?
Know the line between adding value and needless perfectionism. Hey – we’re auditors we’ve no excuse for not applying the concept of materiality to all aspects of our life and work. And don’t forget our old friend Pareto – which 20% of your actions are going to contribute to 80% of your results?
Once you’ve decided that a project is worth doing don’t let the big boys squeeze out the underlings. You need to make room for all parties, not necessarily rooms of equal size, but you need to give each project the life force to simply stay alive.
Budgets, routines and start and finish deadlines are your friends here. As are milestones – interim deadlines and review points. Budgets and deadlines ensure you experience some pressure – vital to drive you forward. Milestones and review points keep you on track and ensure that all those plates keep spinning.
The auditors’ motto: Be Prepared
Marshal your resources. Ask for help: the secret is asking with a solution focus rather than a problem focus. Stand back: have you got everything you require? If not ask, ask and ask again.
The meaning of communication is the response it elicits
Delegation is one of your key resources. Whether it’s getting a secretary to follow up third party documentation or your brother to send out the invites. Delegation is critical but poor delegation is dangerous. Be precise, be prepared to spend time in communicating effectively by testing understanding, and be ready to invest some time in coaching. And remember, an ill-prepared team member swiftly turns a delegate from an asset into a liability.
Above all else: Know thyself
You know best what you do well and more to the point you’ll be pretty well appraised of your personal weaknesses (yes, we all have them). I’m a great advocate of investing in your strengths as opposed to constantly trying to fix weaknesses (also known as the round peg in round hole syndrome). But it’s not always possible; sometimes your Achilles’ heel can be critical. And this is where you need to find a solution – a work around perhaps.
Draw up a personal SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats). Be honest with yourself and consider asking for some input from colleagues. Once you’ve identified what you do well – you can do more of it – capitalise on your natural assets. As for those weaknesses and ‘threats’ – face up to them and decide what you are going to do. You’ll also be in a great position to identify ‘what can go wrong’ and hence channel suitable resources in the appropriate direction. And in a great position, of course, to keep all those plates spinning!
Written By Carol McLachlan for CareersinAudit.com, the leading job site for auditing vacancies.