What to do about project overload?

By Elisabeth Goodman, 4th November 2018

Illustration from “Too Many Projects” by Rose Hollister and Michael Watkins, Harvard Business Review, Sept-Oct 2018 pp. 65-69

As many of the organisations that I work with are really struggling with this issue, Rose Hollister’s and Michael Watkins’ Harvard Business Review article on “Too many projects” (Sept-Oct 2018, pp 65-71) was very appropriate.

Why care about too many projects?

The authors assessment of the potential of too many projects mirrors the kinds of things we have been hearing from our RiverRhee clients in Life Science / Biotech SMEs:

  • increased (negative) stress
  • concerns about the negative impact on the quality of output
  • low morale
  • high turnover

Why organisations end up having too many projects?

It happens so easily…

1. Lack of awareness

As organisations get larger and more complex, they develop more silos so that it’s easy to lose sight of yet another addition to the portfolio and it’s impact on workload.

One department or function will add another project which will in turn impact on other departments or functions whose resources may not be equal to the additional workload.

Organisations will typically have no overall view of their portfolio, nor any mechanism to measure the number of projects within it.

2. Lack of judgement

One more project… according to the HBR authors this can happen through:

  • ‘Band aid’ initiatives: a supposedly quick fix which can end up being the wrong solution for a problem
  • ‘Cost myopia’: cut backs on resources without reassessing the project’s goal, scope, requirements.  (Or, in my clients’ experiences, expansion of scope without reassessing the resources.)
  • Political ‘logrolling’ (a term coined in 1835 by US congressman Davy Crocket) where a senior manager will take on another project just to help a colleague out – not wanting to break any promises
  • General under-funding or under-resourcing of projects

3. Lack of (or the wrong) action

Without a clear view of the portfolio or a way to measure it, and without any formal process for assessing or reviewing the status of projects it can be easy to…

Not have the means or will to stop existing projects..

Prioritise by function or department than by the organisation as a whole..

Add new projects without cutting others…

Make across the board cuts in resources that don’t take into account the impact on individual departments / functions and their projects..

Click here for information on RiverRhee’s training, workshops and coaching for project management and other skills for managers and teams

Is project overload an issue for you?

The illustration from the HBR article at the top of this article is an extract of a diagnostic that organisations can use to assess whether project overload is an issue for them.  If the answer to any 4 of the question is ‘yes’ then you will need to find ways to better manage your portfolio..

Good practices for keeping your project portfolio in check

So… how to keep your project portfolio under control should by now be fairly self-evident:

  • Take a cross-organisation view of your portfolio.  Get a true count of the number of projects, and understand the impact of each project’s impact on other departments or functions.  Have leaders work together for this integrated view and approach.
  • Evaluate each initiative before you start.  The article includes examples of the questions to ask.
  • Have a review and sunset policy. Review projects and portfolios on a regular (monthly / quarterly / annual) basis.  You might even, as the authors suggest, expect project teams to reapply for resources in order to continue!  The sunset policy is a clause within the project’s brief describing when / how they will end the project.

And… create a mindset within the organisation that stopping a project does not equate to failure or a lack of merit.. but rather to strong decision making and objectivity.


About the author. Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting., a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We support our clients through courses, workshops and personal one-to-one coaching.)  Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.  RiverRhee is a support supplier for One Nucleus and a CPD provider for CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals). Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is a member of CILIP and of APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.

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