Multitasking unrelated projects?

A few months ago I was assigned to the most unusual project ever. All the standard project management entities were there: the scope had to be estimated, followed by a detailed costing of fixed and ongoing costs with the usual identification of major milestones and personnel.

It was a project that many people had done before. Therefore the resources were fairly obvious. The regular staff members plus one expert – in this case medical systems – and a non-technical support person with lots of experience. The forging of the team was luckily quite easy because, unknown to us, the technical and non-technical folks had already worked on projects together before ours and had developed mutual respect. One resource on the project was very odd, however. This individual was, presumably, on another gig and was to be available any time within the last month of the project. Of course our experts had other commitments and we couldn’t pay them to sit around twiddling their thumbs.

The risk analysis showed that not doing the project well could lead to long term financial and interpersonal headaches. One thing project management courses and software don’t describe is the impact that other unrelated projects have on your timeline.

This wasn’t our only project. Near the end people understood that we were juggling things, but became impatient when we kept saying, “we might not be available that week.” Fortunately I have the benefit of being able to hand off some of the project tasks to others. But with the uncertainty, I am trying to clean up loose ends before the big push.

Fortunately I’m not using project software for this one because there are no good common milestones between the medical gig and my normal Web database work.

The question is how do you manage multiple projects when they have such unpredictable elements? For us, it boils down to managing customer expectations. The customer expects fast inexpensive services. But it is a negotiation. This recent experience has made clear some things we probably already knew, but solid reminders don’t hurt.

Be open with the customer – don’t give away all the dirty secrets, but don’t hide the fact you are multitasking.

Be open with your suppliers. If you are in need of a heroic effort from them for a project, tell them. Don’t dump stuff off. Also explain the overall significance of the request.

Use the lulls in the storm – a project always has little dull moments when you are waiting on someone else. Use these moments to keep the basics of a business running – for example paying suppliers, billing clients, and keeping the bookkeeper happy.

Plan for Murphy. This is Murphy of the famous Law. He will come to your place of work and drop off unexpected requests, new clients, angry clients, Revenue Canada audits, calls from your mother and anything else unplanned. This stuff will happen. That is what the slack in a formal plan is for.

Well, I have to complete this article right now because my wife is shortly about to move into heavy labour. One of our experts is here – a birthing coach – and our doctor is sick and not on call. What other surprises are lurking around? At least all this is happening the day before the due date.

Ford is a Vancouver-based consultant who has a new staff member, Carolin, who joined the team at 12:42 AM on the 6th of November.