In 6 steps companies bring order to their projects

6. August 2018

The contents in brief: You miss the forest for the trees – this is how many companies feel in face of their projects. You have more projects in the pipeline than you can handle. The problem is that companies do not know which projects are really important to them and how they can advance the important ones. Project management experts offer help. To intelligently set priorities and to focus effectively on the most important project they use the "multi-project management" methodology. Expert Dr. Andrea Cerny explains the 6- step program for successful multi-project Management.

The complaints of the project managers about absent staff piled up. More and more often, projects were delayed at the northern German SMEs. The reason: the project managers did not find specialists for difficult tasks. The projects were stuck. Some were close to completion and did not manage the last few meters. For months, they tried to manage, until they realized: It was not too thin staffing that was the problem, but the overabundance of projects. "We had started too many projects at once and then lost the overview," reports a department head. Individual development projects resulted in innumerable internal IT projects and other improvement projects. "With regard to our 850 employees, we simply had too much in the pipeline," says the department head.

This overload is compared by experts with a traffic jam on the highway. With too many cars on the road the traffic collapses. What can be difficult to handle on motorways can be controlled by companies comparatively easily. What matters is that companies separate the wheat from the chaff - so you know which projects really have priority and are urgent. These projects may enter the "project highway".

"The teams of the important projects will be staffed-up in order to complete the work quickly. Other projects, on the other hand, are being postponed.” explains Andrea Cerny, Senior Consultant at the consulting firm next level consulting. With this so-called multi-project management, the North German medium-sized enterprise got its problem under control. It set up a Project Management Office, PMO for short. This office keeps an eye on both the projects and the workload of the employees. In addition, a high-level committee decides which project on the highway can really accelerate. Specialist Dr. Andrea Cerny explains this strategy in 6 steps.

Step 1: Align the compass

Many newcomers to multi-project management initially need basic orientation. "Sometimes companies do not know what's actually a project in their organization and how projects are actually initiated," says Dr. Andrea Cerny. Also, other basic questions are not answered. What does it mean that a project has priority? What are the criteria for priorities? For example, who decides whether resources will be allocated to a project - or whether it will be postponed? And: Which projects does the organization handle? Are there other projects in addition to classic IT and reorganization projects - for example in marketing, finance or production?

Step 2: Take stock

Which projects are already running in the organization - and how important are they really? Especially the question of priority causes problems for many organizations. Because what makes projects really important? Dr. Andrea Cerny recommends assessing the importance of the project's benefits.

This also applies to so-called internal improvement projects. "For me, it is crucial, for example, if a project accelerates processes, makes work easier or improves the satisfaction of employees," she explains. A good indicator of prioritization is also the question of how quickly the project has to be started - immediately, in 3 months or in half a year? "Information about the compulsory launch date and about the benefits are important for the top management," says the expert. Based on these two pieces of information, one can develop a good decision template.

Step 3: Develop a project approval form

New projects are emerging constantly. Experts suggest that you first set up a profile for these newcomers: a uniform description, for example, about the idea and content, dependencies on other projects, resources to be spent, duration, estimated budget and the urgency and benefits. Such uniform project approvals provide a clear overview of all planned projects. "Frequently, running projects must be deferred in favour of new, urgent projects," says Dr. Andrea Cerny, "you need this transparency and comparable information."

Step 4: Build the project control circuit

Someone has to decide which projects are important and have priority. Many organizations use a committee for this purpose, the "project board". Comprised of managers or department heads, this circle meets regularly. Its role: It sets priorities and determines which project is strongly supported and driven by staff. The decisive factor is that this board meets regularly and forms an "institution" for the project management of the company. Experts know: in the project world priorities change quickly. Therefore, the control circuit must operate at short intervals to reliably deliver decisions and readjust the project world.

Step 5: Plan resources

Too few employees for too many projects, many companies suffer from this bottleneck. "The project board will therefore allocate employees to urgent and important projects, which it assigns from other projects," says Dr. Andrea Cerny. "Augmenting the teams gives priority to faster-moving projects." But: The project board needs information not only about the projects, but also about their workload. For example: Which specialist works in which project and how many hours per week? What would it mean for projects when specialists change from one team to another?

With the help of special software, some companies minutely track their employees' working hours. The problem: many employees do not report their working hours carefully enough. The effort for data entry overwhelms them in the daily work routine. So, experts recommend a good sense of judgment. Frequently, approximate values and estimates of employees on their working hours are sufficient. "The key is that companies get an overview of the utilization of their resources," explains Dr. Andrea Cerny, "which employee works in which project for how long? How much time does he spend on work outside the projects - and how much time does he have for new tasks? "

Step 6: Keep track of dependencies

Dependencies are part of everyday project life. Many projects, which, at first glance, run side-by-side in the company, are closely interlinked. They share specialists in key positions, rely on results from other projects or interlock with each through their processes. Experts recommend keeping an eye on these dependencies. The standardized description of the projects is helpful. "Uniformly define for all projects the project phases, the roles of the participants, the work processes and the priorities of the tasks", advises Dr. Andrea Cerny. This not only brings order to the individual projects, but also helps to coordinate the projects within the company. As with resource planning, however, the same applies here: Do not think too narrowly and suffocate your work through too much regulation. Dr. Andrea Cerny also recommends a sense of proportion here: "Good multi-project management should help to keep an overview and to optimally control the projects of an organization. More is not required."