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Recently, the workload has been getting heavier and there are more areas to coordinate in an ongoing program to develop and market a product.

The product has reached the sales stage and has taken on clients, which means a sales and customer service group is needed, in addition to accounts receivable, etc.

What is the ideal number of tasks for a product/program manager to manage before he/she should approach a manager and ask for more help in the project management area?

  • Good question. However, I don't think that the number of tasks is a limitation. Instead, a number of working units (people or departments) is, as explained by David below. – yegor256 Apr 20 '11 at 11:34
  • "Tasks" implies that you're doing the work yourself; "program" implies you're managing several interrelated projects. Can you clarify - are you working on a single project with no team (or small team), or are you managing more than one project with more than one report? – Trevor K. Nelson Apr 20 '11 at 16:49
  • Thanks for the questions. I'm coordinating several different areas of a product we've released. I communicate with sales, development, marketing, IT, and many other areas and am finding work for different people to do to support the growth of the product. – jmort253 Apr 21 '11 at 2:37
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It sounds like you've moved more towards operations than project management, but I could be wrong. Either way, the same concepts apply. There's no rule or restriction, as each PM is different. It just depends on your own management style and how comfortable you feel. It goes to David Espina's Span of Control comment.

At various times, I've managed 20-25 projects with 5 reports, and others it was 40+ (plus general operations) with 9 reports. Managing them directly, it would be about half that. The more projects, the more hands-off I became and relied on the reports to do their job and provide me with the information I needed. For example, at one point I was responsible for all the projects in our division, but also I was responsible for the accounting (A/R,A/P). Accounting isn't my area, so I had an Office Manager that handled that and provided me with weekly status reports so I could watch for and deal with problems at a division level.

A big part of it isn't dollar volume, or number of tasks or projects, but management complexity. If your projects are relatively straightforward from a management standpoint (limited # of stakeholders or they're the same for every project, limited importance to the co., similar work, etc) then you could probably do more than if they were complicated.

From your description I would say you're in a somewhat complex environment as each of those depts you listed are going to have differing goals. So the complexity of managing increases because, as a whole, they're pursuing the same goal (product success & growth), but as depts they're chasing different ones, and they don't always work in parallel. So I would say you're perfectly justified in asking for assistance.

  • I agree with your assessment. I feel like I've moved more into operations due to the complexity and fact that the project is more a product or program. Thanks for sharing your experiences! – jmort253 Apr 23 '11 at 2:33
  • In this answer, I clarify that my role is more of a product manager role than a project manager, and a product manager can also perform the role of a project manager. As a product manager, there is a lot more complexity, which I feel does justify more help. Thanks again for your answer. – jmort253 Apr 24 '11 at 0:20
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Span of Control. The number of tasks or size of the project in dollars or complexity can be misleading. Span of control dictates the number of people that an individual oversees. In other words, if the work is expanding, the number of people assigned to it will also expand. At some point, another layer of leadership is created. If it expands more, add another layer.

There are different school of thoughts on the appropriate size of what an individual controls. Most times I have read that the number where we have maximum performance on average is between six and eight direct reports. Most recently, that number has been challenged and it was suggested we need to have as high 15 to 20 direct reports.

I personally feel 8 to ten is about right, at least for me. So, if I managed a team of 30, I would have a layer of team leads between me and the rest.

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Hard to give a really definitive answer. I would say: It is as much as the PM can seriously manage, which depends on the workload each of these departments and people represent.

When the workload becomes too heavy, (s)he has to refocus on a part of the work and delegate the rest to somebody else.

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I don't think there is a such arbitrary number (it would be 42 if any...)

Instead, one should consider tasks as a statistical measure of load they introduce. I suppose you can imagine managing 30 tasks if each of them won't take more than 5 minutes a day. So instead of counting tasks, try to summarize their workload and probability of appearing. This way you can easily - and anytime - point the most demanding tasks as well as worst case scenario when all of the tasks will require your attention at the same period of time.

Having such information refreshed frequently, you can not only ask for help in such areas but may also point to other solutions such as upgrading software or automating some tasks (which is a one time expense).

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If you are talking tasks - very few. If you are talking activities or projects, it will depend on the phase of the project, the skill of the team, and the experience of the PM.

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I think the number of tasks is not a good measure since two project with the same number of tasks may need completely different PM effort to be completed (even if, independently, the tasks are supposed to be of the same complexity, completion time in both projects).

Indeed, if all tasks are independent, you can predict the exact effort needed : it is the sum of the time needed for each task. The real problem appears when there is a friction between two tasks. The usual illustration is the following : you are managing a SAP deployment, and you manage a team composed of two subteams A and B. A is composed of people from HR, accounting, etc. B is composed of engineering people. A and B can complete easily their tasks. The problem is to make A and B converge to a result with "one size fits all". All the PM effort is then in decreasing the friction between A and B.

In a case like this one, a PM may need assistance even for managing a small team of 10 people involved in 2 tasks.

So my advice is to count the number of "hard" interfaces. If you have more than 4 or 5 of this hard interfaces, you probably need assistance.

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