managing multiple projects

Managing projects is not an easy job. Having just one under your belt requires a lot of commitment to ensure its successful realization and delivery.

However, what if you have to deal with numerous projects, often simultaneously? The traditional response to this question would be to create detailed plans for them beforehand and allocate resources appropriately.

While this is not a bad strategy on some occasions, as Agile practitioners, we know that pre-planning can turn out to be a waste – especially if we are talking about a knowledge work environment. Besides, when handling multiple projects, often managers lack a well-thought-of structure to manage their team’s capacity. As a result, they end up juggling between various “priorities,” always starting work but never finishing it.

So, is it possible for Kanban to bring something up its sleeve and help you manage multiple projects successfully?

Short answer: Yes, it is.

Long answer: Let us show you how it can happen in practice from our own experience at Kanbanize.

Plan on Small Batches

Let’s first start from the bigger picture – Planning.

This is perhaps the area where, in general, traditional and agile project management differ the most. At first look, when we pre-plan all the details of our projects, we are reducing the risk. We just feel more comfortable having something defined as accurately as possible, so we can have an idea of what the final execution will be.

However, things move faster today, requirements change, a deliverable at the bottom of the backlog becomes more important than the one at the top. That’s why as a Lean/Agile company, we plan frequently and on small batches – only what is feasible now and will produce value tomorrow.

traditional vs agile planning

When doing this, we only have a rough picture of what the projects might look like in the end. This way, we can retain flexibility for the execution of the work but also the allocation of resources. Planning just enough to make sure we bring value to the market allows us to know with greater certainty when something requires more effort so that we can adapt our processes and resources accordingly.

Prioritize

Did you notice the air quotes around the word “priorities” at the beginning of this article? Why do you think I used them? That’s right – because you can only have one priority at any given moment. The same thing applies to project management and business in general.

Of course, we live in the real world, where two or more projects can end up running simultaneously. Regardless of that, one of them will hold even a slightly higher priority than the others. The question is: how can you decide which one, so you can pay more attention to it?

To take that decision, there might be many factors to consider. However, a favorite concept of mine to use for prioritization is Cost of Delay (CoD) – especially when everything is always number 1 priority. The method is purely based on economics and it shows how much money you would lose if you were to delay project delivery in time.

With that being said, prioritizing projects for execution usually happens in one of the following ways: starting with the most valuable one (in terms of expected profit), the shortest one in duration, or with the one holding the highest CD3 score. Of course, another option is to have no specific priority and execute all projects at once.

To come up with the CD3 score, you can divide the project’s expected value by its duration. For more information on this topic, you can check out our dedicated article on Cost of Delay.

cost of delay prioritization order

The idea here is to find out what delay cost you would accumulate for the projects if you were to follow any of the above options. With that being said, you should always choose the order of execution that would cost you the least amount of money in case of a delay.

Once you have decided what the priority of your projects is, you should visualize them. To do that at Kanbanize, we use the Kanban board which helps us separate, organize, and track the work.

Visualize, Organize and Keep Track of Work

In order to manage multiple projects successfully, you need to have a clear structure to align planning with execution. Sure, you can use a Gantt Chart to illustrate sequencing and track dependencies, but again, this requires pre-planning and works in a less volatile environment. What if you wanted to see the work on individual tasks across multiple projects in one central place? This is where Kanban can help.

Decomposing Work

The core idea behind Kanban is to make work visible, reveal bottlenecks, and as a result, maximize efficiency. With the help of the Kanban board, you can do that on an individual workflow level. However, when managing multiple projects, you need to tie everything together in order to achieve high-level transparency and better work organization.

To accomplish that in reality, at Kanbanize, we use a Portfolio Kanban board. It serves as a management platform where you can visualize the flow of big projects and company’s strategic initiatives.

portfolio kanban board

To get a better idea of this structure, let’s give a practical example with two projects that we need to handle: X and Y.

The first thing that we should do is decompose those projects into deliverables, which we are going to link (with a parent/child relationship) to the responsible for their execution team Kanban boards. There, the deliverables will be visualized as epics/team initiatives on a Kanban timeline where team members can start planning and further breaking them down into manageable tasks.

project, deliverables and task breakdown structure

Keeping Track of Multiple Projects with Multiple Workflows

Once we have the projects broken down into actionable work items, we need to keep track of them. As you can imagine, different projects will have quite different workflows.

To deal with that at Kanbanize, we apply Multiple Workflows to our Kanban boards. This allows us to visualize and keep track of the actual work that is being done by our team on two or more projects simultaneously.

multiple workflows

Additionally, it gives us greater flexibility to dig further down and separate the nature of tasks within the multiple workflows/projects with the help of Kanban swimlanes. One example is to apply lanes that represent different classes of service (Expedite, Fixed Delivery Date, Standard, Intangible) with the intention to separate work items with higher urgency from the normal ones.

multiple workflows with kanban swimlanes

When the projects are in motion, we also start tracking the rate at which individual work items flow through our system. This can be done with the help of various metrics, such as cycle time, lead time, and throughput. Measuring them helps us optimize our flow efficiency so we can deliver work faster and continuously make project delivery more predictable.

chart for flow efficiency

Manage Capacity

Capacity management is one of the central themes in the management of multiple projects. In a traditional environment, we often see team members constantly being overburdened with an endless stream of work items due to “push” tactics. As a result, new work is always started with the old one never finishing. This contributes to chaos inside the organization and an increased likelihood of delay.

To deal with this problem, Kanban preaches a “pull” approach where team members start working on a new task only if they have the capacity to do so. Moreover, the addition of Work In Progress (WIP) limits emphasizes focus on the current work in progress, ensuring that whatever enters the system will eventually leave it.

wip limit

At Kanbanize, those are the principles that we use to manage our capacity when dealing with multiple projects too. Instead of tracking the percentage load of human resources, we use WIP limits both on our Kanban timelines (project deliverables level) as well as inside the multiple workflows on the task level.

wip limits on Kanban timeline and In Progress column

To determine how many initiatives and respectively tasks teams can handle at any given moment, we turn to past data to get answers. For example: what is our team’s historical performance in terms of average cycle time, average throughput, as well as average work in progress?

With this knowledge in mind, we can decide to reduce the number of team initiatives that can be in progress, and thus increase throughput, without overburdening our team members.

Improve Communication

Last but not least, it’s all about proper communication, especially when handling multiple projects. In order to see success in the end, you should integrate feedback loops and encourage team collaboration during the progress of your projects.

In the world of Kanban, we accomplish that through different Kanban cadences. They represent meetings that help us align communication and sync team’s progress on projects. Here we should mention that if possible, it’s better to map those meetings to the ones already happening inside your organization, rather than introducing them separately.

When managing our projects at Kanbanize, we are die-hard fans of specifically 4 of those cadences: Daily Meeting, Service Delivery Review, Replenishment, and Strategy Review.

kanban cadences for integrating feedback loops

Now, I am not going to go into detail about each one of them. However, I will tell you that they significantly help us sync valuable information about projects, discuss impediments and roadblocks, keep our pipeline full of the most important work to execute next, and eventually, improve performance.

Remember, the idea here is to encourage fast flow of feedback so you can resolve emerging issues and successfully adapt to changes whenever necessary.

To sum up…

Managing multiple projects requires identifying what your top priority is and creating a structure for aligning planning with execution. Otherwise, you risk generating chaos in your organization where everything is top priority, and nobody knows what’s happening.

So, how do you manage multiple projects inside your company? Do you agree with our concept? Let us know in the comments below.

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