, How to manage multiple software projects successfully

By Francis Miers, Director, Automation Consultants

 If you are a programme or portfolio manager, you could easily find yourself juggling several large software projects at the same time. In large organisations, these can involve thousands of team members, making it highly challenging and complex. Being successful at managing multiple projects requires additional skills and tools compared to what is required for managing a single project at a time.

 

Experiment with the ‘what’, find what works

A large bank, for example, may have a significant number of developers and testers working on various projects across the organisation. Aligning all these activities with the institution’s overall objectives can be difficult and time-consuming. For example, let’s assume the executive team has set a goal of attracting more customers who open current accounts. Which type of IT investment will support this goal the most? Should the aim be to step up marketing efforts, or developing more efficient back-office processing or user features such as a card freezing app?

A portfolio manager may perhaps rely on personal experience and intuition to determine which investments would most likely produce the desired result, but unless there is some evidence to support one option or another, reliance on intuition could be just too much of a risk. At such a macro level, tracking a mass of project data, such as releases or story points, will not offer much guidance on how to increase the number of current accounts opened.

Often, the only way to find evidence to support a set of different hypotheses it to test them to see which one yields the best results. This exercise should inform managers in which IT areas to invest to have the best chance of achieving the organisation’s strategic goals. In testing hypotheses, or working on a strategy that has been settled on (preferably having previously generated some evidence to support it), it is important to work out at a lower level how best to maximise investment efficiency, maximise completed useful projects per month, and per pound spend.

 

Establish reporting consistency

One of the first questions to ask when managing multiple software and IT projects is: How should I assess the investment of money and resources against the benefits for the business? Even when working at the division or business unit level, rather than that of the whole enterprise, scale can still be a major challenge. Each project will most likely have an autonomous team with its own manager, sub-team manager and team members. To enable meaningful reporting, however, there has to be a degree of consistency throughout the organisation, especially in the ways in which progress is documented.

When you present multiple projects to executives or clients, you don’t want to spend time retraining the audience on how to interpret each report separately. You want a simple, standard report format that you can explain once, and then apply across the board.

There is a balance to be struck, though: while a degree of standardisation is essential for consistent reporting, too much standardisation can stifle initiative and creativity within the teams. Your project management tools must be configured to ensure enough standardisation to permit consistent reporting, and allow enough freedom for the project teams to customise their projects to fit their working methods and maximise productivity.

 

Use project portfolio management tools

With these tools, you can collect and consolidate data about your projects in order to manage risks, resources, timelines, budgets and more. They enable releases to be coordinated across projects, and resources to be allocated to different projects when needed. For instance, if one project in a portfolio is forecast to finish after a planned release date, the tools can model resource allocation such that resources are reallocated to the lagging project – without delaying other projects beyond the release date (if such an allocation is possible).

An example of such a tool is Portfolio Management for Jira, an App (i.e. add-on) for Atlassian’s Jira Software, which can manage a portfolio of up to 150 Jira projects. Above this number, it’s better to rely on a standard reporting framework which also permits customisation at project level.

One way of doing this in Jira is to impose standard reporting requirements at the upper levels of the agile hierarchy (e.g. epics, releases and groups of releases), but permit customisations at the lower levels, (e.g. sprints and stories). This approach not only permits standardised reporting, but prevents wasteful creation of reports in many different formats.

Through a consistent approach to reporting, it is possible to secure cultural adoption of the standard, and promote efficiency in the generation of management information across the organisation. The approach, however, must be pursued consistently for an extended period to give time for the working practices to bed in.

 

Ease the pressures on IT infrastructure

Highly configurable project management tools such as Jira Software can be utilised in a wide range of business processes and project management styles. While this attribute makes it hugely popular with project teams, the wide range of possible configurations and customisations can result a mass of unnecessary and obsolete configurations as teams duplicate functionality, and move on, leaving their customisations behind.  This can adversely affect performance. While innovation and mass customisation are can motivate people to participate, create and learn, there must be a degree of control and discipline exerted to avoid a system slow-down.

One way to do this is by encouraging teams to submit requests rather than create customisations at will. Establishing a helpdesk to process these requests can be a worthwhile compromise for three reasons:

 

  1. The helpdesk team can determine if a similar customisation already exists
  2. It can form a view on the likely performance impact versus the benefit of the customisation
  3. It can advise the requestor on the most efficient way to achieve the desired result

 

Moreover, the helpdesk can maintain the high performance of your project management software through regular cleaning up of obsolete configurations.

 

Hire the right people and train them

The performance of the people involved with a project, more than the tools and processes, will ultimately determine the success of the project (as proposed by the Agile Manifesto). It is essential to have the right people in the right positions. This isn’t only limited to experienced project managers and skilled developers, but also those people you can train as ‘power users’ of the various tools and software options. Training is key. For any system of reporting and management to take root, training the portfolio and project managers, and making it clear that the system has support from top management, is essential. A cadre of appropriately trained staff will ensure widespread adoption of the desired practices, especially if they are good practices, throughout the organisation.

These ‘power users’ will become your greatest ally to help conquer the identified challenges. In fact, a single power user can raise the level of output in any project group with an average skill set by providing peer support, encouraging creativity, promoting best practices, and ensuring on-time delivery of project goals.

 

About the author: Francis Miers, Director, Automation Consultants

Francis Miers joined Automation Consultants in 2002 as a director after establishing a career in IT and the City, starting out in a French software and services company and has since been engaged in corporate finance in the technology sector. He has a BSc in Physics from Imperial College London and an MBC from Erasmus Business School in Rotterdam.