In the last entry in her blog “Managing Product Development” , best-selling author Johanna Rothman talks about her reaction to a project manager she met, who was saying that he was “managing” seven projects simultaneously. Her reaction was that this project manager really did not manage anything; he was being kept busy doing damage control and wishing for the best for these projects. Johanna states that this project manager’s bosses just delude themselves into thinking that those projects can be managed …and also that this project manager is part of the problem, if he is not advising his bosses otherwise.
Project management is often seen as a way to increase productivity in the face of personnel reduction in organizations, mostly associated nowadays with my fellow baby-boomers taking permanent vacation. The final result is that you end up meeting, as I did, a person who works on 34 projects at the same time; a complete aberration.
I do not say that a project manager cannot manage many projects simultaneously, but there is surely a limit to splitting oneself in mind-pieces. I just feel that the overall misunderstanding of what is really a project and of what it really means to manage such an endeavour, as well as the belief you can run projects like operations by standardizing everything, causes these crazy situations.
Recurring operations deal with certainty and maintaining stability in production processes, where cause and effect relationships are very well understood. In these situations, it is easy to change anything into a transaction. Managing operations is predictable “transactional” management, where automatic behaviours are quite efficient and welcome.
However, running projects on the automatic mode, like recurring operations, can be disastrous. Projects deal with uncertainty and promoting change through an evolving process, in which cause and effect relationships are often uncovered along the way, and where you are subjected to many surprises and many divergent perceptions of what is really happening. So transactions and filling out forms won’t solve everything. You need to “converse” your way through; you have to create and manage relationships. Managing projects is hardworking and mindful “relational” management, so your effectiveness is not limited by the number of forms you can complete, but rather by the number of people you can deal with at the same time.
As a former military officer, I learned that my maximum span of direct control was around nine people. Projects are delivered through teams and most authors on the subject today say that a high-performing team cannot be more than 10 to 12 people. So how many projects can a project manager really manage simultaneously? Assuming you can delegate a lot of management/ coordination/ facilitation stuff, and that you have direct relationships with two to three people in any given project, what do you think is the right answer? Certainly not seven, and even less 34!
You can believe whatever you want about “super-project-managers.” What I see in my practice is, that once organizations reach a decent level of maturity in project management, they significantly reduce the number of projects assigned to a single project manager… because they understand what it really means to manage projects.