Multi-Project Management: a practice and management discipline on the rise

Are you properly equipped to manage multiple projects?

04 February 2019

Project management has been dealt with extensively in management literature for the last hundred years. Today, project management is part and parcel of every organisation and projects make out an ever larger part of any modern organisation's activities.

Projects are used for almost everything today and are therefore no longer reserved for special types of tasks or business areas. Projects, by and large, form the basis of many organisations today.

Every year, managers and employees do courses in project management, with good reason, to learn how to master this discipline, in order to help their organization, and to further their own career.

Multi-project managers are vulnerable

However, many project managers have discovered that they have, over time, become managers of not just one or two projects at a time, but several, perhaps less strategic, projects at the same time. In other words, they have become multi-project managers.

Multi-project management has been well-known in practice for quite some time, but as a management discipline, it is fairly new and has its own unique characteristics and challenges. Most managers responsible for several simultaneous projects are often not quite prepared for the many and tiresome issues that come with them. In some cases, unfortunately, managers end up with burnout, stress or the like.

As a multi-project manager, one typically has a permanently high workload. You also experience pressure as a single-project manager, but this is typically due to approaching deadlines, benchmarks or the closing process. If you are responsible for many projects, you have continual deadlines and benchmarks, etc., meaning there is no time to take stock of the progress. Your work becomes hectic, and you get the sense that you are always behind schedule with something in any project.

Your work life is also very changeable. No two days are alike. You must adjust something here, change team members there, and suddenly the project owner shows up with new guidelines for this and that. It can be exciting to be in the thick of it. In the short run, it can be a thrilling experience and challenge to be in charge of many projects, stakeholders, details – but in the long run, you discover the tiresome aspect of having to perform at a constantly high level and being available to almost everyone all time.

The challenges of multi-project management

The following issues typically occur in multi-project management:

  • The portfolio consists of different projects that in reality require different competencies. The project manager must seek support elsewhere – which is perfectly all right, as one cannot know everything – but unfortunately, the project manager cannot always expect to get the right contribution at the right time, making coordination and implementation more difficult
  • Projects will often be handed over or developed within the organisation without clearly defined resources. The project manager can, therefore, have several project activities to be completed without knowing who will help or when. It can also be difficult for employees to know which projects to work on and when
  • Project owners also often hand over projects with an unclear mandate. Project owners do not always inform the organization of who is the project manager of a given project or what the project entails, in terms of prioritization, estimation, etc. In Danish management culture, much is often implied concerning this aspect of project management, which puts further stress on the multi-project manager
  • New projects appear unexpectedly and unstructured. The organisation or project owners create new projects, which are then handed over to multi-project managers before even being ready, having assessed what their impact on the portfolio is, or being prioritized. New projects – because they are new – then create their own energy and attention, forcing the multi-project manager to immediately re-prioritize and re-estimate his/her resource allocation, so these new projects get the time and resources they are expected to have

Prioritizing and backing from the organisation

But what can be done then? What does it require to succeed as a multi-project manager? Looking at the organizational premises, the following is clear:

  • Organisations must practice the ability to select and prioritize the “right” projects, preferably after a clear and formal method, in order to avoid any overload or bottlenecks. This is hard for most people and experience tells us that, in organisations, it’s a long way from theory to practice
  • Project owners must get a handle on the allocation and assignment of projects. It is impossible to work with projects efficiently, that are only just ideas or unstructured. Launching a new project in a portfolio requires structure and an overview of both project and portfolio
  • The resource allocation must also be in place – it is not very productive if the multi-project manager must guess, who is working on which project, or, due to an uncertain mandate, must find available resources on his/her own
  • Organisations must foster a culture that supports multi-project managers, trying to balance a portfolio’s resources, needs, etc.

What is required of the multi-project manager?

Multi-project management requires quite a few competencies, including

  • Having extensive knowledge of his/her organisation – preferably, who knows what
  • The ability to influence upwards and sideways, securing both the progress of the portfolio, as well as the motivation of others
  • Having knowledge of planning tools, and yet be humble and agile regarding the complexity and changeability of projects
  • Being able to multitask and adapt quickly to new situations

Cphbusiness held its first course in multi-project management in late August/early September 2018 with 33 participants. If you wish to learn more about project management, take a look at our course catalogue: (in Danish).

By Jens Vestgaard, Professor.