Spinning plates – how to manage multiple projects

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Having multiple projects on the go means that you have to be good at project management and here I’m going to use the analogy of spinning plates as a way to share tips for managing multiple projects either as a portfolio worker or in other contexts.

Project start-up

When I first get involved in a project or a new piece of work it’s a bit like getting the plate spinning in the first place. It requires dedicated time and attention and depending on the complexity of the project there is likely to be new things to learn and new people to meet. To get the plate spinning efficiently you need to define the scope, your contribution and expectations of others and depending on your role in the project initiate the kick-off. In my experience communication with all stakeholders involved in a project is one of the key elements to the success and to getting the plate spinning well.

Multiple projects

Once you’ve got the plate spinning you need to ensure that it continues well and if you’ve got multiple projects on the go at one time this can be tricky. Sometimes despite the best planning in the world unexpected things happen, and it is important to allow for these risks. You also need to consider how to keep the plate spinning when you are not physically engaged with project. Planning ahead and also dedicating specific time each week to a certain project helps me to do this. A client recently remarked that she finds it useful to know that I have a dedicated time slot when I work on her project. This provides the structure and I then build in flexibility by also being available to answer ad hoc queries outside the dedicated time slot. This often requires a quick assessment to establish if the request outside the dedicated project time slot is urgent, essential or not.

Estimating well the time you need to do tasks is another important aspect of working on multiple projects. I am getting better at this and not over committing so much. You need to ensure that you have the time each week to go back to all the plates that need attention to keep them spinning. Or is there anyone working with you on the project who can help out, if you are otherwise committed. Delegation and communication are key skills to managing multiple projects


Win-win

This is an interesting one, and I’ve written before about finding work and building your portfolio in line with your interests and strengths. I’ve built my portfolio around this and it seems to be working. It has resulted in me working on projects which all feed in to one another, so whilst they are separate pieces of work, with different customers, the content crosses over. So whilst I am spinning one plate, this is likely to be having a positive effect on other plates. I refer to this as win-win because everyone wins when you are able to facilitate sharing of learning and ideas across the projects you are working on. As long as client confidentiality is maintained, and open discussions take place then I am a big advocate of collaboration and sharing. If through your work you can enable this then it is a win-win and you can add value through your networks.

Number of plates – Plan, Plan, Plan

At the moment I am reflecting on the number of work project “plates” I have spinning and planning ahead to see how I get new ones started. Project plans are key to my work and I usually have three plans running concurrently – next week, next month and the year (or two) ahead. This is in addition to each project or contract having an individual project plan. To make sure you have a manageable number of plates spinning I recommend looking first at the big picture and then to chunk it down. I find this enables me to reflect on how any new project may fit in, and sometimes to say no. Currently I am looking at ways to increase capacity to have more plates and I’ll write more about this in another blog.

Long term success

Finally lets look at projects ending and new projects starting and how to ensure long term success. To succeed as a portfolio worker, freelancer, contracter or whatever you want to call the way you work, it is essential that you deliver well on projects and don’t let a plate fall. I learnt from my days working in sales that it is far easier to grow business with existing customers than to attract new ones. So my number one priority is always to deliver well on existing business before chasing new. This can be tricky when you are a solo entrepreneur because you need to have an eye both on delivery and ensuring there are new contracts or “plates” in the pipeline.

One last tip is to recommend that when the project or plate spinning comes to an end that you evaluate and review the project outputs. Even if the customer has not asked for an end of project evaluation report, offer them one, however brief, and also reflect for your own learning. It will help with getting the next plate spinning well.

I hope that this has triggered some useful ideas. I don’t have any formal project management training although I’m considering investing in some to help move on to the next level of plate spinning! Whilst I don’t have the formal training, what I do find works well is to build up experience over time and to make changes to keep improving.

Please do comment or add more ideas so that we can share. And following on from my conversation this week about the Myers Briggs Type Indicator with well qualified colleagues in this area, we each approach activity such as project management in different ways, so do reflect on your own experiences, strengths and ways of doing things. I’d love to hear your ideas.

I do not own the copyright for the photo in this article.

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