by John Edwards

7 tips for leading multiple IT projects at once

Dec 01, 2020
CIOIT LeadershipProject Management

IT leaders will have their hands full when COVID-delayed projects return to the front burner. Here's how to maintain oversight and guidance without losing sleep or sanity.

man with many arms multitaskiing
Credit: Thinkstock

Today’s CIO can feel like a circus performer, simultaneously juggling multiple projects while making sure that none crash to the ground. The pandemic has placed added urgency to this issue, with work-from-home mandates colliding with the need to accelerate digital transformations. Soon, however, when the world begins emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic, the juggling will grow even more furious as remote work, security, digital transformation, automation and other pressing initiatives begin demanding renewed attention and rapid completion.

Because the pressure will become intense, it’s important to strategize now how you will plan to manage multiple essential projects without sacrificing time, budgets, or quality. The following seven tips will help protect you from dropping the ball.

1. Be a project leader, not a manager

A critical mistake many IT executives make when managing multiple projects is viewing themselves solely as project managers rather than leaders. “Instead of only managing budget, schedule, scope, quality and risks, [you] also need to lead people,” explains Byron Love Sr., cyber protection services program manager at defense firm Raytheon Intelligence and Space. “Project managers who believe they can manage projects alone will lead their teams and organizations to failure.”

Successful leaders coach teams — and individual project managers — to serve as human sensors who will immediately relay a warning signal if an initiative runs into serious trouble. “They motivate [teams and managers] to apply their expertise in a manner that keeps projects on track,” Love says. “The more complex the projects, and the greater the number of projects, the more project management leadership experience and talent is required for success.”

2. Consider the big picture

When facing multiple IT projects, it’s important to have a clear understanding of current enterprise priorities. By knowing which initiatives are most urgently needed, staff and other resources can be allocated to high-priority initiatives while less important ventures can continue progressing at a less furious pace. “Organizations make a lot of demands on IT for a wide variety of interesting and impactful projects,” observes Heidi Norman, acting director of innovation and performance for the City of Pittsburgh. “Each request comes with a sense of urgency and, many times, a lack of clarity on the details, which is where problems begin to germinate.”

Norman suggests building strong ties with enterprise management and other key stakeholders to meet their needs and expectations, as well as to prioritize initiatives and keep projects on track. “Lack of communication and attention to change management tend to be the biggest, or perhaps most common, mistakes,” she says.

David Birdsall, a senior manager at The Parker Avery Group, a retail and consumer goods consulting firm, believes that 80% of project management success lies in communication. “You need to be able to … report status and key takeaways so that the organization understands what’s happening,” he states. Open communication also helps an IT leader learn which ventures need immediate attention, as well as projects that can be addressed at a future point.

3. Designate a program manager

When multiple high-priority projects threaten to overwhelm available resources, it may be a sign that it’s time to appoint a permanent or temporary program manager. Working on a full- or part-time basis, and reporting directly to the CIO, the program manager is responsible for handling project status reporting and developing processes to identify and manage risks, handle action items, and resolve pending issues as they arise. In many organizations, the program manager also handles resource and budget management tasks.

A program manager expedites projects by identifying any key constraints or dependencies faced by current ventures, giving the individual project managers more time to focus on core tasks, Birdsall says. “Also, the program manager can offer additional oversight and/or assistance to each project manager to ensure that tasks are progressing as planned,” he adds.

4. Trust your teams

When an initiative begins slipping behind schedule, many IT leaders make the mistake of bypassing the project’s manager and trying to micromanage the initiative themselves.

“Instead of trusting their team and delegating [responsibilities], they can feel the need to be a part of every decision made on a project,” says Chrystal Taylor, head geek at SolarWinds, an IT management and network monitoring software provider. “If you can’t trust the team to take on tasks effectively within a project, then you haven’t assembled the right team for the job,” she warns.

Unless the projects happen to be closely integrated or related, Taylor recommends never appointing staff members to more than one initiative. Team members need to be able to focus on the task at hand and not be distracted by issues associated with another project. It’s also important to keep team members informed through their manager. “Task and project priority shouldn’t be unknown or confusing to them,” Taylor notes. “Stepping out of the way to allow people to thrive within their skillsets, and only stepping in when absolutely necessary to guide or redirect priorities, breeds success for everyone.”

5. Leverage automation

IT leaders that fail to use automation to accelerate project development are needlessly hindering their teams from the very start. “Seeking to improve efficiency, especially through automation of repetitive tasks, saves time and money,” Taylor states.

Automation makes complex processes easily repeatable and less error prone, says Kyle Mizell, vice president of engineering at AIM Consulting, an IT consulting and technology provider. “There have been many advances in automation that reduce manual and/or human intervention,” he notes. “These advances help to simplify and reduce the amount of ‘moving parts’ with your project release.”

Robotic process automation (RPA) technology, for example, uses machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) to rapidly and automatically perform many different types of ordinarily time-consuming, repetitive tasks, particularly in data extraction and data migration processes.

6. Avoid duplication

Many IT leaders fall into the habit of examining each project individually, thereby failing to proactively check for dependencies or shared interactions between initiatives. Instead, confer with each team leader to see whether there may be a way to share resources between ongoing projects, speeding both development and deployment schedules.

“The best way to juggle multiple IT projects is to analyze them from several different perspectives, or ‘lenses,’” says Ruth Anne Guerrero, an IT project management instructor at software training company DevelopIntelligence. “Each ‘lens’ examines a different set of project characteristics, and may reveal opportunities for synergy across multiple projects.”

Viewing projects through multiple lenses can also lead to the early discovery of redundant or conflicting requirements, while ensuring efficient resource use and minimizing end-user confusion. “Looking at multiple projects together, using various lenses, may reveal opportunities to bundle software changes and streamline all of the associated project work, benefiting both project resources and their stakeholders,” Guerrero says.

7. Stay on target

While many IT leaders take pride in their multitasking capabilities, attempting to do too many things at once can erode judgment and lead to critical errors that, in the long run, actually lengthen a project’s development time. “Trying to juggle multiple IT projects when you’re distracted or disorganized not only affects the broader team, but also makes the organization more confused about assigning resources across the projects,” explains Vince Padua, chief innovation and technology officer at Axway, an API management and integration software platform provider.

To achieve order, structure, and stability, smart IT leaders set aside distractions and stick to a detailed, consistent plan for each project. Task management tools, such as Trello and SmartSheet, allow beleaguered leaders to observe team progress and assign tasks to specific individuals while keeping track of every step in each project.

When supervising multiple projects, Padua suggests beginning with the end in mind. “Know what the … organization’s priorities are and then rigorously align your time, the teams’ efforts and resources to the overall objectives,” he advises. “This will carry you through those chaotic times when balancing multiple projects seems especially daunting.”