There has always been tension between running the business and changing the business. As a project manager, my work leading change has often felt like it’s got in the way of my colleague’s ability to run the business. Project leaders are regularly told that ‘run’ takes priority: keeping the lights on is more important than whatever new thing I’m trying to get done.
However, the tide is turning. As Antonio-Nieto Rodrigues writes in Harvard Business Review, the project economy means more and more organisations are setting themselves up to be project driven. What was previously seen as an ‘extra’ is now fundamental to building competitive advantage, developing new offers and meeting consumer expectations.
Combined with advances in AI-enabled tech and robotic processing automation, the belief is that structuring work as projects helps you achieve repeatable, efficient delivery. Projects underpin the way organisations operate as well as how they evolve.
I welcome the shift. However, there’s just one problem: managers and executives who have taken the lead on projects often have little – if any – experience of project management tools and techniques. And faced with a personal portfolio of change to deliver or initiatives to launch, they can’t simply focus on doing one project well. They have to juggle multiple projects and tailor their approach to make sure all the balls stay in the air.
Expectations at work have changed
Many of our colleagues had to adapt the way they worked as the pandemic began. With team members furloughed, leaders found themselves picking up more (and different) work and juggling became the norm as people pitched in to get things done.
As a result, the way we see work has fundamentally changed. Hybrid working could boost productivity by 4.6% but could that be higher if more people were able to access the techniques and processes that project managers take for granted?
It can be stressful being an accidental project manager (someone who finds themselves managing projects but never set out with that career goal in mind) or an unaware project manager (someone who doesn’t yet recognise they are managing projects). The biggest challenge I’ve seen for the people I mentor and work with is how to adapt ways of working to keep on top of multiple things.
A giant ‘to do’ list isn’t enough to stay organised and focused on the priority tasks, but clicking in and out of many project schedules feels inefficient too.
The impact on project professionals
Project professionals aren’t immune to this stress either. My research shows that 59% of project managers lead between two and five projects, with 26% of project managers leading more than six projects at a time. The biggest challenge for people in this situation is worry about the quality of work. Over 60% of project professionals are concerned that they aren’t doing their jobs to the best of their ability because of the workload.
Given that as project professionals we have the skills to organise, plan, follow up and engage others, I can only imagine the stress on our colleagues who are not able to draw on proven tools and techniques.
Supporting colleagues with project delivery
Whether you’re leading a team of project managers who are each juggling multiple projects, managing a PMO, or operating as the solo ‘official’ project leader in your organisation, think about how you can share what you know with your colleagues responsible for delivery in their own areas. Opening your library of templates for the whole organisation to use, running lunch and learn sessions on productivity tips, or offering training on your software tools could all help boost project outcomes.
Empowering people in all roles to use the tools and techniques they need, regardless of workload, regardless of job title, will help organisations deliver better value overall.
What’s in your personal portfolio?
Most importantly, if you find yourself trying to keep a lot of balls in the air, focus on priorities. And in the absence of any priority-setting information from on high, make your own judgement based on what you know to be important.
In my experience, we’re expected to keep everything moving forward and report some progress on each initiative, even the low priority projects. But it is a lot easier to do that if you can identify the priority order for the work that makes up your personal portfolio.
Portfolio management techniques – the ability to balance risk and reward while doing the right projects at the right time – work at an individual level as well as across an organisation. If you are a multiple project manager, whether by design or accident, take stock of what you are doing, how individual projects fit together and where you can find efficiencies by combining schedules, risk management activities, stakeholder meetings and more.
Working on many projects at once can feel stressful, but it’s also a great way of seeing more of the organisation and learning about how it works as a system because there will be interconnecting informal power structures and opportunities to share knowledge. It helps build clarity about what is really important and shapes decision-making.
The way organisations lean on project delivery is changing and we have to change with it. That means sharing what we know, streamlining processes and making it as easy as possible to juggle a modern workload through smarter ways of working. Project management practices have to keep up with the realities of what it means to deliver change. How is your organisation shaping up?