how to manage multiple projects with Kanban

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, the reality is that as project managers, we often have to manage multiple projects at once. In a traditional project environment, we would create detailed plans for them upfront and prepare strict roadmaps. 

When managing knowledge work projects, however, as Agile practitioners we know that following the above approach, doesn’t work. So, how to manage multiple projects successfully in a knowledge work environment, without getting overburdened? 

This is where Kanban can help. Let us show you how it can happen in practice from our own experience at Kanbanize.

#1 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 in knowledge work and requirements frequently change. That’s why you should plan frequently and “just in time” – only what is feasible now and will produce value as soon as possible.

traditional vs agile planning

So, when managing multiple projects, as a Lean/Agile company, we only have a rough picture of what we might produce at the end. Once the projects are in motion, we engage in frequent feedback loops to check if we are on the right track. 

This way, we can retain flexibility for the execution of the work but also the allocation of resources. Planning only small portions now and leaving the rest for later allows to understand whenever something requires bigger effort, so we can adapt our capacity accordingly.

#2 How Do You Prioritize When Working on Multiple Projects

Did you know that the word “priorities” didn’t exist before the early 1900s? Only “priority” in its single form existed. Why do you think that was the case? That’s right – because you can only have 1 priority at any given moment.  

Now, don’t get me wrong. We live in the real world and we know that we can end up keeping track of multiple projects 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.

Here it is important to assess different sequencing methods based on their delay cost. For example, you can decide to start with the most valuable one first (in terms of expected profit), give higher priority to the shortest one in duration, or execute everything at once. You can also calculate which one holds the highest CD3 score (divide the project’s value by its duration) and sequence them accordingly.

cost of delay prioritization order

The idea 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.

To learn more about Cost of Delay, you can check our dedicated article.

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 for organizing and tracking multiple projects.

#3 How to Keep Track of Multiple Projects 

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. 

So how do you keep track of multiple projects and individual tasks within them in one central place? This is where interconnected Kanban boards step in. 

Decomposing Work

The core idea behind Kanban is to make work visible, reveal bottlenecks, and as a result, improve 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 the 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.

Based on the scale of the projects the first thing that we should do is decompose them 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 Agile project epics or team initiatives on a timeline where team members can start planning and further breaking them down into manageable tasks.

project, deliverables and task breakdown structure

Tracking 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.

#4 Manage Capacity

Capacity management is one of the central themes when managing 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 a 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 handling 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 and throughput, for example?

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.

#5 Improve Communication

Last but not least, it’s all about proper communication, especially when managing and organizing 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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This post was updated by our editors. It was originally posted in January 2020.

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2 thoughts on “Kanban to the Rescue: How to Manage Multiple Projects in Agile?

    1. Nikolay Tsonev Post author

      Hi Johnatan. Yes, you can subscribe to our blog to receive new content straight to your inbox. At the end of the post, there is a blue form where you can register.

      Best Regards,
      Nikolay

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