Managing multiple projects requires managing top 3 problems

13 June

As a project management practitioner I look at my clients’ road maps from three or four years ago compared to now and I see more projects on the plate that need to get done. What keeps me up at night is the number of projects is only going to continue to grow. That means project managers need to efficiently lead and manage multiple projects concurrently to get projects through that pipeline.

So how can a project manager stay on top of multiple projects? 

While close oversight of project activities is still needed a project manager’s daily focus needs to be on the top three or four issues that are or could jeopardize project progress or completion of key milestones. A project manager needs to look at key data points on the highest priority milestones and decide where to drill down. Instead of getting in deep into each milestone project manager’s need to be skimming many on the surface but going deep on a few very critical milestones to ensure the team can hit the due dates. This allows you to align time utilization based on risk.

My experience has been that a top reason for projects getting in trouble is that the project’s most important problems are not managed effectively, nor with the degree of urgency they require. All project stakeholders, not just project managers need to have skin in the game and manage the top three problems to make the most effective use of everyone’s time. Therefore the top problems become the top priorities.

All project stakeholders should know and actively be managing to their top three problems. An effective approach for a project manager to follow in managing to the project’s top three problems involves four steps:

1. Identify the top three problems. If you have a small project with a handful of team members, then assemble the team. If you have a larger project team, then assemble the project team members that hold lead positions. In either case identify the most important project problems as a team and prioritize them based on potential impact to critical milestones.

2. Assign an owner for each of the top problems. Preferably a different owner is assigned to each problem. Most times the owner will be other than the project manager because most problems likely will be tied to a project member’s domain of responsibility. It is quite common that a major project problem can be assigned to an executive stakeholder. Common problems that fall to executives are related to competing priorities and resource constraint issues where the project manager and team members do not have authority to make appropriate decisions to resolve the problem.

3. Create action steps to resolve the problem. Each owner develops a set of actions that need to be taken to resolve the problem such as:

Who owns the problem

Tasks needed to be performed to resolve the problem

Owner of each task if different from the owner of the problem to be resolved

Dependencies that each task have on other tasks or on people

Duration of each task

Person who must sign off and approve the solution.

4. Track and report on each problem daily. While other activities may be tracked on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, each major problem must be tracked and reported on a daily basis to ensure proper attention is being paid to resolving the problem as quickly as reasonably possible.

The risks of not reporting problems

I have witnessed many projects spiral out of control because executive management was kept in the dark regarding problems that needed their input to solve.. Some of my observations are that people don’t bring serious problems to the attention of upper management because the culture reflects executives not wanting to hear that information or tolerate bad news.

As a project manager it is your responsibility to inform executive management about a project’s progress and problems. Provide the most important information first at a relatively high level and let executives ask for more details if they are interested. Develop your relationship with executive stakeholders and discuss that communication is a two way street. If executives want forthright project leaders they must resist the urge to blame the bearers of bad news. It takes effort and time to drill down and identify the real underlying cause of problems. However when all stakeholders are engaged in resolving problems to move the ball forward it will certainly improve project success rates.

Project manager’s can help keep communication channels open by asking executives to send an unequivocal message that they want to be informed whether the news is good or bad. This will encourage team members to communicate concerns about potential challenges and issues.

Because of the direct link between resolving the top three problems and a project’s success these problems must be identified, assigned, tracked, reported and resolved with the urgency they require. The project manager must exercise a great degree of leadership, vision and discipline to ensure the most important problems are being addressed appropriately. If a problem remains on the top problems list very long then the owner of the problem as well as the project manager are not performing their duties effectively.

A valued project leader is someone who understands the organization’s vision of a better tomorrow and is willing to guide them there knowing they will encounter problems along the journey. By focusing on the top three problems project managers will be on the right track to make that vision reality.

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