How many projects can a project manager realistically handle simultaneously?

This post is part of the series “Project Management Problems”; make sure to read the introduction.

It is based on questions and in general discussions on project management regarding frequent project problems. The discussions here are not on theoretical matters, nor do they dwell on the self-evident or trivial. The focus here is on real problems encountered by project managers working in the trenches, trying to get their projects done in today’s stress-filled environment. The discussion begins with some qualifications describing what the response depends on and includes factors to consider in dealing with the issue at hand. The responses are based on what tends to work, at least most of the time, for those of us who lead actual projects.

Depends on:

  • Team size(s)
  • Project complexity
  • Project workflow continuity

Understanding Limits on Control

The number of projects that even an experienced, grizzled project manager can effectively manage is usually one. There are exceptions to this, but managing several simultaneous independent projects, where any or all of them might need attention at any time, often results in a loss of visibility and control, serious problems, and probable failure of one or more of them. Managing more than one project well requires either that the projects be small and simple, or that they do not require uninterrupted effort.

Project leaders typically spend about 10 percent of their time interacting with each full-time member of their project team (or teams), so projects with about a dozen contributors will account for all the time that’s available, and then some. Managing several teams of ten to twelve people working on separate projects can be successful through delegation of responsibility to leaders for each who can manage their assigned projects. Delegation such as this is a key tactic of program management, which focuses on management of multiple related projects.

Managing Very Small Projects

It is possible to manage more than one project if each is relatively small and the number of contributors in total is about twelve or fewer. Even if some of the team members are involved with more than one of the projects, you should be able to keep things in balance as long as cross project timing and resource contention conflicts are minimal. Regardless of how small the projects are, though, for the sake of your sanity keep the total number of simultaneous projects below about a half dozen.

Check Suggestions for leading multiple small projects

Stay Tuned.

Managing Discontinuous Projects

Another case where managing more than one project may be feasible is where there are significant natural gaps in the work. For small projects that have a good deal of inherent ”wait time” in their schedules, you can potentially manage a larger number at once. The maximum number depends on the complexity of the work and the proportion of work time to wait time.

About the Author

Dany Hoyek
I am a Computer and Communication Engineer and Consultant. I have been leading, developing and managing millions of dollars worth of software development projects.