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Small teams are fine for small ideas. Small ideas and projects are rarely a challenge though. It is the significant ideas and important projects that demand complex solutions to resolve. However, we are often asked to deliver more than one project at a time and to coordinate simultaneous concurrent projects. We have worked with project managers who are asked to deliver anything from 3-9 concurrent projects with 6 to 7 concurrent projects being average. Working on more than one project takes away the focus of a single all encompassing goal and this primary focus is somewhat lost. Having multiple different goals with shifting priorities and activities makes any project more complex. Moreover, due to the swifter pace you are operating during an agile project, the additional velocity creates disorder and mistakes quicker. So, as the teams are running faster they need and expect the repair to be brought about faster, in fact faster than the Cookie Monster in a cookie factory.

Nevertheless, these days all managers are expected to deliver several projects concurrently and you are unlikely to pass a project manager interview if you heartily demand to manage one project at a time. So the question naturally arises about how many projects a manager can run at the same time. The answer is though not as simple as the question, as it depends.

It depends not least on the project manager themselves and their capability. It depends on the volatility of the personnel and the regularity of issues the project manager is asked to deal with. If a manager is interviewing, selecting and inducting new personnel this distracts their time away from the main focus of the project. You only have so many hours in your working week and these will probably be split randomly across various projects.

The more projects you run concurrently the more likely it is you will miss or fail to recognize an important issue on one of the projects. The extra threat comes when you are successfully running 4 or 5 projects at the same time and are requested or instructed to take on the next. You have to consider do you have the space to accommodate another project and will this extra work put all your projects at risk. There is only so much attention you can dedicate to each project and, as new projects are added, clearly the level of your attention diminishes.

The maximum we have worked on directly were 260 concurrent projects shared in a matrix management method between 13 project managers. This delivers the mathematical average of 20 concurrent projects per manager. Alas the circumstances were more complex. In this particular example, certain managers looked after substantially less than 20 projects while others looked after more than 20. Allocation was performed using a long wildly convoluted mathematical appraisal of the projects complexity and visibility based upon project length, cost, number of platforms and personnel, immediacy of delivery date, return on investment along with a combined group of specific local metrics. It was not ideal but at least stable.

However, 260 projects and 13 managers was the challenge. The selection algorithm for allocating projects was also not ideal but the challenge was to deliver a complete and intensive project pipeline within the bounds of the time and resources available. We did all that, in budget too. So all this is possible with stakeholder support and apt management.

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