Teresa is on a teleconference call next to me. She wears a headset so that she can continue to keep the half dozen instant message conversations going as she makes the call. The tapping and talking is a constant distraction. "The plan as it is just isn't working", is the last I hear as I go to the canteen for some peace and quiet. I know that once this call is over Teresa will be making another.
Teresa is now running four different projects, and rarely leaves her desk. The calls follow a familiar pattern, occasionally varied (amusingly) when there is someone else using the shared telecon number. "Who's just joined?" is the familiar challenge to check for interlopers.
The general routine is to start with quiet politeness, and then to shift gradually to louder, more pointed remarks about incomplete actions and complaints about scope creep.
I've seen the trend over the last decade of this style of remote and multi-project 'management'. Project managers are forced to work at arms length, never getting to see the whites of their teams' eyes. The only practical way to cope with the myriad of meetings is to stay in one place and don the headset. When Teresa finds a few moments to engage in conversation with me, she generally takes the opportunity to tell me how overloaded she is, how many hours she works, and how difficult it is to get anyone to do anything.
It seems to me that organisations that allow, or even expect project managers to slice their time between multiple projects are under-valuing the importance of the role.
My hunch about where things are heading has got me surfing the PM forums, and I found two interesting themes that bear out my own experiences. Firstly, there is a widespread acceptance that it is normal to manage multiple projects. And secondly, the common wisdom – taken from the responses to questions such as "what's the average number of projects a PM can manage?" – is that multi-project management has a diluting impact on delivery effectiveness (surprise surprise!). PMs in these positions are more often than not, 'one-man' PMOs who add little value to the delivery process. If their masters are lucky, then they might do a good job of reporting what's happened, but they will be largely ineffective in driving delivery and forecasting outcomes.
According to Middlesex University's National Centre for Project Management, there are an estimated 1.5m to 2.0m people in the UK who define themselves as project managers. But there are apparently not enough to go round, so the pressure to overload project managers is likely to continue.
If you were faced with the challenge of delivering more projects with a limited supply of project managers what would you do? Load more onto your PMs and risk even more project delivery failure? Or get smarter about how you manage your project portfolio. If you at least include Project Manager capacity into your decision making you'll be making a good start. Doing less and doing it better and quicker could result in achieving more.
For me, the starting point is to have a one-to-one relationship between projects and PMs, only flexing in exceptional circumstances or where you have pragmatic options, such as starting a new project as an existing one closes down. From what I'm seeing around me, part-time project managers should be avoided at all cost.
Teresa is now packing up for the night. One of her ears seems redder than the other. "I think my voice is going" she says! "Thank heavens for that!" I think. Maybe I will be able to concentrate more easily tomorrow.