6 steps to managing multiple projects profitably

Managing multiple projects is business as usual in terms of running an agency. Managing multiple projects profitably takes a little more thinking through.

Projects don't all neatly start and end at the same time or follow the same structure or working pattern. One project might only have one person working on it, while another might need several people, who are all likely working on other things at the same time too. This kind of working can quickly become chaotic. 

We’ve highlighted six essential steps to help you keep the profitable plates spinning, giving you full control over all your projects and keeping your teams focused and engaged.

1. Develop a set of standard operating procedures

This may sound the opposite of what a creative agency stands for. But stay with us. Having a single set of (preferably) automated processes will help you operate far more efficiently.

One team logging timesheets on one system, account managers tracking time against budget on another... some teams updating data daily, some weekly. It’s already too complicated to think about, and that’s just one process.

So get templating, get automating, get streamlining.

What processes does each project generally need? Essentially, if all your processes follow the same pattern for each project, you’ll work much more efficiently. Saving time, saving money... and making money.

Top tip: remember, different teams will have different processes, so make sure you ask for input from each department.

2. Put the right people on the job

If you’ve got a lot of projects on the go, it’s tempting to fling a brief at the nearest person. But a less-experienced designer, for example, will likely need longer than a more senior colleague. Or they might just not be the right fit for the client and the brief. So you need to do some resource and capacity planning.

What projects are in the pipeline? Have you got a) enough people to manage and b) the right people to do the work?

If not, then at least you have an idea upfront rather than ending up overloading team members. And you can decide what actions to take. Do you need to get some freelancers in? Can you reshuffle some projects to free up the right people? Can you even ditch some projects if they’re going to be done in a panicky rush and not please the client? Or maybe you even need to recruit if it looks like you’ll be this busy for a long time.

Ultimately, just piling more and more work onto people will lead to poorly executed projects that clients don’t want to pay for.

Equally, having team members sitting around twiddling their thumbs can lead to overservicing – they’ll just put more time onto the jobs they do have, which the client isn’t paying you for.

Top tip: resource and capacity planning upfront can tell you what hours you have to sell, rather than feeling like you have to take any job that comes your way.

Learn more about agency capacity planning

3. Make sure time is tracked properly (and you tell people why this is important)

Time tracking comes up in almost every guide, article and blog we write, and we make no apology for that. Because it’s just about the single most vital thing you can do to help your agency stay profitable. And when the same people are working on multiple projects, giving them the right tools to track their time is even more important.

Awareness is hugely important here, too. For creatives, tracking time is a pain and it always will be. They want to put their focus onto the project, their pay packet is the same regardless so what’s their incentive? They need to understand the value of timesheets. If they’re working on multiple projects simultaneously, they need to log time on one before moving onto the next. Waiting until the end of the day, or even worse the end of the week, just leads to lots of ‘how long did I spend on that again?’

Top tip: However you choose to do it, getting across the importance of clear time tracking for each project, and giving your teams the right means to do this effectively, can and will directly impact on your profits.

4. Put everything in one place

It comes back to the kind of administration we’ve already referred to in terms of process and time tracking. If you’re operating with siloed systems and separate data storage it can become a logistical nightmare when you’re trying to navigate a lot of projects.

Even worse is when you don’t really have any systems and information is simply in people’s heads. This will all just conspire to give you a headache.

Success in managing multiple projects relies on communication. Putting all your information into one system means everyone can see everything. This could be project briefs, estimates, quotes, timesheets, reviews, updates, input from clients... essentially, anything relating to the project. Everyone knows where they can find information, and if the project is on track or needs refocusing.

It's important, however, to make sure you’re communicating wisely. What’s happening, when, and who needs to do what. Beware of falling into the trap of over-communicating, where people are being given information they don’t need. Your teams will start drowning in unnecessary comms and will more than likely start ignoring stuff they do need to know about. So keep your comms curated and concise.

Again, it’s about engaging and encouraging your teams to get on board. Talking about systems and processes might get people yawning. But explaining that this approach could lead to a calmer, less chaotic way of working might be more likely to win people around.

Top tip: if your team members forget to upload information, set up automated alerts to remind them.

5. Make sure you’re charging correctly

When you’re navigating multiple projects and numerous clients, this is where you need to make sure you’re getting your costings right. Because what works for one won’t work for another, and your profits could suffer.

Get to know your clients and their habits. If one tends to add to the brief as it goes along, build extras into your quote upfront.

Try to avoid the ‘overservicing trap’ of doing extra unpaid work. You might be able to mop up a few things here and there, and that’s your commercial decision to take. But getting your estimate and quote as accurate as possible at the start of the project helps you to stay on target.

Top tip: use previous similar projects as a guide for costing.

6. Review, review, review

The only real way to know if your projects are profitable is after the event. But you can try to pre-empt going down an unprofitable track as much as possible.

For longer projects, carry out regular reviews throughout to make sure you’re not going over time or budget. If you are, what can you do? Re-evaluate the brief and the quote with the client?

If you have an agency management system, you could set up alerts to let you know if something needs your attention. For example, you’ve used up 50% of your hours quoted but only completed 25% of the work.

Post-project reviews can help to shape your longer-term strategy by establishing which clients and projects are the most profitable (or the most unprofitable). This comes back to data management: the more information you have at your fingertips, the more accurate picture you can get of your profits.

Top tip: keep your post-project reviews on file with the rest of the project data. That way, when you use a previous job to guide costings for a new quote, you’ll know if you need to make any adjustments to improve profitability.

Agency life is always busy. But it doesn’t need to be chaotic. You will inevitably find yourself spinning plates as you try to navigate multiple projects and clients. But being methodical, putting the right systems in place and using intelligent data can help you to keep your head... and grow your profits.

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