How many projects can a PM manage effectively?

I getpm one question asked of me all the time. How many projects can a Project Manager handle at the same time? While the obvious answer is ‘it depends,’ it does not satisfy somebody looking for a specific number. Therefore here is my heart felt answer. From my own experience the magic number for simultaneous and effective management of full-time projects is two. By full-time projects I mean the projects where you are the only project manager in charge of the whole project including scope, schedule and resourcing.

The reason is when you switch between 2 projects at regular intervals (say every 4 hours) it keeps you energized and motivated as the ‘boredom’ of one long project does not set in. Invariably PMs do get time of ‘low activity” on every project which is also the time to pick up on other project and make progress there. An example of low activity time is waiting for lab test results to arrive before PCB could be laid out etc.

pm2If the full-time and simultaneous project load of a PM becomes more than 2 projects then ‘effectiveness’ usually starts going down. This is because PMs now end up ‘juggling’ between the tasks of 3 or more projects and the law of diminishing returns kicks in.

While some effective PMs are able to handle more than 2 projects simultaneously but in general I’ve seen things start slipping or the quality of execution starts going down. More than 2 simultaneous projects also require almost daily prioritization of tasks. Why is that? That is because despite risk management, things seldom go exactly as laid out on Gantt charts. The dynamic nature of projects throw daily challenges. Therefore when faced with daily need of task prioritization, which project should be worked on and which one be waited upon if they have the same business priority?

As I was doing research for this post, I found several instances of data on internet where it was shown that on average a PM in a large company handles 6 to 8 projects simultaneously. Many from my PM fraternity that are reading these lines may already be managing several projects but are we as effective as we could be?

Now it is impossible that a company will hire a new PM for every 2 projects that it has in portfolio. In reality a PM is almost always managing more than 2 simultaneous projects therefore in my opinion the solution lies in delegating some of the PM tasks to cross-functional teams e.g. daily prioritization of tasks could be effectively handled at a daily stand up meeting as a group, instead of a PM running around and talking to different stake holders and trying to find out daily impediments.  So while a PM remains ultimately accountable for a project’s health, a cross functional team effort can certainly help with the ownership and ‘effectiveness’ of managing multiple simultaneous projects.

I also realize that my wish list of 2 simultaneous projects does not hold water for large construction projects. e.g. We may not necessarily want somebody project managing the construction of a big bridge be shuttling between 2 project sites. Similarly design of a new truck transmission may require several project managers working on a single project for several years.

Takeaways

  1. Working on two simultaneous projects is usually productive for a PM as it efficiently utilizes the not-so-busy time on one project by switching to higher priority tasks on the other project.
  2. Working on two simultaneous projects is usually energizing for a PM because it saves boredom of working on a single large project for an extended period of time.
  3. Efficiency of a PM usually starts coming down if more than 2 projects have to be worked on simultaneously. Managing 3 or more projects simultaneously may generate so many ‘high priority’ tasks that a PM may end up juggling them all the time.
  4. Above three takeaways may not apply on very large projects e.g. a project with 10 or more FTE (full-time-employees) working for a year will have enough full time  management work generated for a PM to keep him/her busy for the whole year.. Why? That is because as a general rule-of-thumb project management consumes 10% of the hours needed in an overall project.
  5. Above takeaways (1, 2 and 3) also do not apply on very small projects where a PM can effectively manage multiple smaller projects at a time e.g. software projects that are 40 hours or shorter in duration.
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