Running Too Many Projects is consistently one of the top issues flagged by PMO leaders, and with good reason. It creates a suffocating negativity and ultimately erodes effectiveness, draining an organisation’s ability to perform. Having too many projects is demotivating, confusing and undermines the ability of leaders to implement goals. It’s also costly.
If you’re suffering from Too Many Projects you probably know it, but let’s confirm. Research suggests 2-3 projects at a time is optimal for individual focus and collective scheduling. If you’re asking people to juggle more than this then you are lowering their productivity.
Too Many Projects will damage your business and drive you into a self-perpetuating low productivity fire-fighting culture. Sounding familiar? Have a look at this article to see how one organisation suffered.
Overloading on projects also means you’re likely to be working on things that are not worthwhile. Zombie projects where the value died a while ago but nobody told the team, or pet projects where the value never existed, but nobody told the boss.
Solving Too Many Projects offers leaders the chance to transform organizations, building trust, velocity & focus… but thinking it’s simple is almost always a mistake.
This guide is here to help you make it happen. Let’s dive in.
The causes of Too Many Projects
- No Clear Strategy
- Cynical Culture
- Weak Process
The causes of Too Many Projects can be grouped into three buckets – Strategy, Culture & Process. Drop one and your transformation plan will probably fail. Sorry.
1. No Clear Strategy
Directing an organisation is challenging; even the greatest leaders will have their blind spots.
Here’s a quick checklist that will help you understand potential leadership shortfall:
- Lack of clear definition of what matters most – are leaders facing into challenging industry trends & competitive risks to make tough calls?
- Tendency for leaders to get drawn too far into the detail, where their power makes it hard for SMEs to challenge, but lack of current ‘on the ground’ exposure may limit their insight.
- Inability to say “no” especially to their own pet projects…
- … tendency to say “yes” to a new initiative without worrying too much about the impact.
- Sense that pushing in one more initiative will be fine: people will ‘find a way’ to absorb it, while failing to recognise that teams are getting demotivated and leaving.
- Rigid silos in resource allocation that create ‘pots’ of money that don’t make any sense and encourage horse trading between directors rather than issue-led collaboration.
For more leadership tips where better than HBR – try this.
2. Cynical Culture
It’s said that culture will eat strategy for breakfast. It’ll probably then have your profit for lunch and your career for dinner. In this context culture means ‘the way we do things around here’.
Here are the signs that you may have a cultural issue to resolve:
- Your people are suffering; they don’t like the culture, finding the pressure of Too Many Projects simply isn’t worth what you’re offering them – there are better jobs out there.
- Deadlines are seen as soft, or specifications changed ad-hoc to hit goals: either way there is an eye-rolling expectation that what is promised will not be delivered.
- ‘Over-Meeting’ culture is pervasive with too much time scheduled in talking about projects, and not enough time spent on delivering them. Perhaps you need a meeting to discuss this?
- Interaction is defensive & tactical with people ‘bracing for impact’ with their colleagues rather than searching proactively for positive outcomes using one another’s abilities.
- Estimations are nonsense. Business requests have inflated returns to justify inflated resource asks from delivery teams. In this context honesty is usually punished.
- Prioritization is done by front-line staff, as central teams process their projects without respect to capacity constraints of colleagues who must implement everything (as priority, obvs).
For more on this topic this Forbes article is a great read.
3. Weak Process
The third leg of a successful project eco-system is a robust process that creates organisation without excessive paperwork.
- Weak governance is a sign of lack of organizational discipline. Weakness can mean data is messy and visibility poor; or can mean a process is so onerous it’s not followed.
- The planning process keeps changing in search of the perfect model. Or worse, continuous re-orgs. A new spreadsheet / boss / set of goals every year is demoralising and hard work.
- Ignoring Benefits Realization. If you are too busy to reflect on (in)completed projects, then you are destined to make the same mistakes again. Without learning there will be no progress.
- Nobody trusts the process if nobody sticks to the plan. To succeed a process must have control – cutting out the distortive effect of ‘corridor politics’ and CEO brainwaves.
- Projects drag on, failing to either finish or be shut down, as scopes creep & criteria change.
- You have the wrong tools. Prioritization is a black box in an over-complex spreadsheet and data is spread across different systems, with no clear way to compare or aggregate.
- Approved projects are not started according to priority, or resource availability but all run concurrently irrespective of bandwidth to deliver – i.e. it’s a free for all.
- Work intake backlogs are opaque / chaotic, with a ‘spaghetti-mess’ relationship between service providers and internal clients, where accountability and visibility are patchy at best.
Figuring out the right balance of process vs. ‘just getting on with it’ is an important step in its own right – why not have a look here and work out your use case for better planning.
How to get the right number of projects
- Develop a Clear Strategy
- Foster a culture of respect
- Build a Process that will last
Do any of these points sound familiar? If so it’s time to figure out how to solve them, but beware – success comes from three areas working in tandem not in isolation.
1. Develop a Clear Strategy
At the core of Too Many Projects is a lack of alignment over what really matters. This can only be fixed from the top, so success may well involve some uncomfortable ‘managing up’.
Here are tips for your leaders:
- Too Many Projects mean leaders waste time chasing missed deadlines and sitting in (too many) oversight committees. Divert that energy to up-front planning, defining value so others can focus on the detail.
- Set better goals and empower teams by making them accountable against measurable outcomes. Exactly how they hit those goals is their responsibility.
- Role model saying “no” – recognise that ideas are like rose buds: all very pretty but if you don’t prune some back then eventually the whole plant dies.
- Challenge initiatives to show realistic resource plans or to stop existing projects when starting something new.
- Stop rewarding managers who overwork their teams to hit poorly planned deadlines.
- Prioritize at a higher level and be ready to move resources between silos to create a nimble organisation that responds to changes in the market, rather than pandering to directors’ egos.
To solve ‘Too Many Projects’ leaders must be role models for better ways of working. We recommend they create well defined measurable goals, then give their teams the resource & space they need to deliver.
2. Foster a culture of respect
If you have Too Many Projects it means something is going wrong with how people are working together and how people are being respected.
Here are our tips to fix it:
- Understand how people work today: are they inefficient due to excessive multi-tasking, losing time to context shifting & too many catch up meetings to discuss incomplete work? If 30% of a junior engineer’s time is in meetings, then you’re wasting talent (and resource).
- Include ‘flex’ in your schedule. If there are usually urgent ad-hoc requests then plan for them, rather than forcing people to work 60 hours or dropping commitments to other projects.
- Linked to this… make deadlines achievable & real so accountability for delivery can become greater, and commitments become reliable.
- Encourage department leaders to have greater cross-team empathy and put more focus on understanding how their workload relates to that of their colleagues. Cutting projects in one area to push work to another is not prioritization – it’s deflection.
- Make estimation a team sport. The opinion of a single person is distorted by ‘noise’ – a phenomenon well demonstrated by Daniel Kahneman. Where views are subjective make sure you have multiple data points & an open debate. This way your numbers make more sense.
We recommend putting time into landing this reboot – a workshop or off-site is ideal. Success will be defined by the participation & attitudes of people in your organization, so don’t be afraid of over-communication.
3. Build a Process that will last
A new process will only thrive once you have clear direction from leadership and the right shift in work culture. Get these foundations right and process will turn an encouraging new way of working into a sustainable uptick in productivity.
- Governance needs structure. This starts by having all the projects in one place, with a core set of shared templates to capture data and measure value, before, during and after delivery.
- Make change iterative, rather than constantly re-inventing how things are done. It won’t be perfect, but performance comes from the muscle memory of participants, not another new set of reporting lines bought in to try and solve problems caused by having Too Many Projects.
- Add a Benefits Realization step in your critical path and develop the discipline to always deliver it. Put time into the plan, and incentives into objectives. Failure to learn undermines progress.
- Give the planning process teeth. Or more specifically give it budget, such that any new initiatives must be prioritized properly, and ongoing projects must re-justify budget.
- Software will help but be clear about what type of solution you need. There are three steps to consider – Prioritization, Organization & Governance. Different tools have different capabilities, so determine what matters most to you, and if you need a macro or micro level of modelling.
- Model urgency based on real data: external deadlines, risk and cost of delay are just a few of many valid drivers. The impatience of a senior exec is not.
- Turn your spaghetti mess into a series of structured backlogs and ensure that your prioritization process overlays resource by team as a lens on which projects should be actioned.
We recommend using Technology to drive process led performance gains. But new software alone will only add value if you have the commitment of your leadership and your colleagues to make it work. Otherwise, it’s just another task that won’t deliver value.
How to make change happen
If you’re nodding your head in recognition then it’s time to start the journey. Becoming an organisation that runs the right number of projects isn’t trivial, but it is possible.
Here at TransparentChoice we see clients driving change – Gerry’s journey for example. Or on a different scale, the UK Civil Service is making strides to force politicians to move towards specific prioritised objectives.
You’ll need the support of your leadership; you’ll need to challenge ‘the way we do things around here’ and you’ll need to develop a mature tech-enabled prioritisation process – but the reward for doing so is sustainable competitive advantage.
Watch: Fixing Too Many Projects the Right Way
Explore the massive up-side of fixing "too many projects" in this engaging presentation by Stuart Easton, CEO of TransparentChoice, delivered at the Global Project Management Forum. He highlights the negative impacts of too many projects and the dramatic improvements possible if you fix it. He emphasizes the importance of effective project prioritization.
Stuart introduces Analytic Hierarchy Process as the solution to project overload and shows how AHP, a powerful decision management tool for optimizing project portfolios, together with visualizations such as the prioritization matrix and efficient frontier can transform decision-making.
Stuart also addresses the limitations of using spreadsheets and shows how a good prioritization process based on AHP can reduce waste, increase project delivery rates and reduce project failure. There are even some freebie resources for getting started with AHP and for solving the challenge of project overload.
We’d love to help you on this journey – why not check out our software page to learn more?