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How Many Projects Are Too Many?
By Mike Boyer Smith

Most project managers take on, or are given, too much to do – project after project comes along until it’s obvious they’re struggling. But by that stage, the damage is already done – milestones are in jeopardy, customers are dissatisfied and project teams are stressed.

I was recently asked to get involved in a project that was in trouble. With a little focus in the right areas, I’m pleased to report that the project is back on track, and I’ve considered offering to help on other projects for the organisation. But while I want to work at my optimum level, I don’t want to inadvertently bite off more than I can chew – how do I quantify my level of load?

I’ve identified a number of leading indicators that I can use to check that I’m on top of a project – indicators that help me identify problems before they occur rather than after. For example, I review and update project risks every day rather than having an unforseen risk cause a project delay.

I put the indicators in a daily checklist – if I can tick off the items on the checklist at the end of each day, then I know I’m on top of the project. And if I can do this for each of the projects that I’m managing, I know I’m not overloaded and can take on more work. Note that the indicator checklist isn’t my daily task list – that’s another story.

My daily leading indicator checklist for each project:

  1. I’ve sent a summary of actions or minutes for meetings that I chaired that day.
  2. I’ve spoken individually with each member of my team.
  3. I’ve spoken with my customer(s).
  4. I’ve reviewed project risks and updated the register.
  5. I’ve updated the progress/completion of tasks.

When I notice that I can’t complete my checklists each day, I have an early warning and I can do something about it – before my project starts to suffer.

So here’s how you can work out how many projects are too many:

  1. Work out what your leading indicators are – keep it simple but cover the essentials.
  2. Make a ‘leading indicator’ checklist for each project you’re managing.
  3. Check off the list every day.

By using a leading indicator checklist daily, you’ll keep on top of your game, and know where to focus to stay there.

Mike Boyer Smith has over 17 years’ professional experience in systems engineering and software development. Over this time Mike has worked as a systems engineer, software developer, project manager, consultant and business manager.

For the last few years, Mike has been Managing Director of a leading Sydney-based software systems engineering business and is a regular guest lecturer on Theory of Constraints, program management and Critical Chain Project Management for the Macquarie Graduate School of Management’s MBA course.

Mike now runs coaching programs for organisations and individuals who are pursuing project management excellence. He blogs his thoughts and insights at http://www.theproductivityhabit.com.

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