The project jugglers

By Usien (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia CommonsIn this blog post, I will shine some light on a feature of our company that is often met with disbelief: How five developers can work on twenty projects at once without being stressed. I try to use the metaphor of a juggler, though I know nothing about juggling other than it can be done. I cannot hold more than one object in the air at any given time and even that is an optimistic estimate. But I’ve seen jugglers keep six to eight objects flying with seemingly no effort. We do this with software development projects.

A layman theory of juggling

A good metaphor can be applied from start to finish. I’ve probably chosen a bad metaphor, but it gives the right initial impression: Every developer at our company leads several projects at once. He (or she) keeps the projects alive and in the “green zone”, the ratio of remaining budget, time and scope (read: work left to be done) that promises little to no trouble in the foreseeable future.

In order to juggle without visible effort, you probably need to practice a lot. You probably drop your objects a lot. You probably need to watch the objects fly in the beginning.

In our case, we needed a lot of practice to reach our level of confidence. We lead development projects for up to 17 years now. Each developer finishes between four and seven projects per year. That’s up to a hundred projects to gain experience from. But we couldn’t drop (read: fail) a lot of projects, because it directly hurt our bottom line. Just imagine you want to learn how to juggle, but all you got are expensive ming vases that you bought from your own money, without insurance. That’s how it feels to “experiment” with projects. So we play it safe and only accept projects we know we can handle. And we watch our projects fly, very very closely. In fact, we have a dedicated position, the “project manager”, with the one duty to periodically ask a bunch of questions to assure that the project is still in the green zone.

Draw the trajectory

Every object that you can juggle has its own characteristics of how it behaves once it is in the air. A good juggler can feel its trajectory and grab it in just the right moment before it would fall out of reach. The trick to keep a software development project in the green zone is the same: Get a hold on it before it ventures too far in an unfortunate direction, which is the natural tendency of all projects. The project lead has to periodically apply effort to keep the project afloat. But when is the right time to invest this effort? Spend it too soon and it has only minimal effect. Spend it too often and you’ll exhaust your power and your budget. But because every project has its own trajectory, too, and you can’t afford to let it slip, you should make the trajectory as visible as possible. You should draw it!

We’ve experimented with a lot of tools and visualizations. The one setup that works best for us is a low technology, high visibility approach. The project lead takes one half of a whiteboard and draws a classic burn-down chart or a variation (we often use a simple vertical progress bar). This chart is hand-drawn and rather crude, but big enough that everybody can see it. It is updated at least every time the project manager comes around to ask his or her questions. One of the questions actually is: “Is this chart up to date?”. The remaining budget of your project needs to be available at a glance, from across the hall. The project lead needs to “feel” this budget. And if it makes him or her nervous, it’s high time to determine the remaining scope and calendar time of the project once again.

In doing this positioning by triangulation on a regular schedule, the project lead draws the trajectory of the project for all three axes and can probably interpolate its future course. He can then apply effort to nudge (or yank, if things got worse fast) the project back on track.

Without the visibly drawn trajectory, your project lead is like a juggler in the dark, tossing unknown objects in the air and hoping that they’ll fall in place somehow.

Know your limit

As the complete noob to juggling that I am, I imagine that jugglers have a secret dress code like martial artists (watch their belts!), where other jugglers can read how many objects they can hold up at once. Something like buttons on the vest or the length of a scarf. So the beginning 3-objects juggler bows in awe to the master 12-juggler, who himself is star-struck by the mighty 18-juggler that happens to attend the same meet-up.

In our company, this “dress code” would be based on the number of projects you are leading. And just like with the jugglers, it is important that you know your current limit. There is no use in over-extending yourself, if you accidentally let one project slip, the impact is big enough that you’ll fail your other projects, too. Just like the juggler loses his or her rhythm, you’ll lose your “flow”.

The most important part of juggling many projects is that you always juggle one less than you are capable of. You need reaction time if one of them topples over. A good juggler can “rescue” the situation with subtle speedup or extra movements because the delay between necessary actions allows for it. A good project lead has emergency reserves to spend without compromising other projects.

There is nothing wrong to start with two projects and add more later on when you are more confident. But don’t start with only one. You can only form habits of resource sharing if you share from the beginning. Even I can pose as a competent 1-juggler, but the lowest bar to juggling has to be two objects.

Box your time

Again, I know nothing about juggling. But from a mathematical viewpoint, juggling is “just” an exercise in timeboxing. If you have four objects in the air, in an arc that requires one second to go around, you’ll be able to spend a quarter second (250 ms) of attention to each object on each rotation. The master 12-juggler from above can only afford 1/12th or 80 milliseconds for each object. If he takes longer for one object, the next one will suffer. If he has no time reserves, a jam will build up and ultimately break the routine.

So, as a project lead, you need to apply timeboxes on all of your projects. They don’t need to be of equal size, but small enough that you can multiplex between your projects fast and often enough. A time box is a fixed-size amount of time that you allot to a specific task. The juggler uses a time box to put the next falling object flying back up. In our lunch break, we allot 60 minutes to food, beverages and some amount of walking. And if the process of eating takes longer than usual (I’m a chronic slow-eater, I can’t help it)? Then I have to go back partially hungry because I’ll end my lunch break on time. That’s the most important characteristic of a time box: You either succeed “in time” or interrupt or even cancel the task. The juggler will drop the one iffy object instead of risking a complete breakdown of the arc. You need to let your problematic task go (for the moment) instead of spreading the problem onto your other projects, too.

We’ve found that the amount of “one workday” is the most natural and easiest to manage time box. So we try our best to partition our week in the granularity of days and not our days in the granularity of hours. One aspect that helps tremendously is to have different physical locations for different projects. So you can be physically present “in the project” or “too far away at the moment” from the project. You plan your work week in locations as much as you plan it in project time boxes. The correlation of workdays, locations and projects is so strong that it doesn’t even seem to be timeboxing or project multiplexing. You just happen to be in the right place to work on project X for today. This is how you can juggle up to five projects without having to compromise all that much (provided you have a five-day work week).

If you can’t physically relocate your work, at least try to have a fixed schedule for your projects, like the “project A monday” or the “project X friday”. This might also mean to postpone emerging issues with project X until next friday. You need to build up skills to negotiate these delays with your customers. If your customers can dictate your schedule, you’ll get torn to shreds in no time. It’s friday or no day for issues on project X – at least as a good start for heavy bargaining. But that’s a whole topic for another blog post. Please leave a comment if you are interested to hear more about it.

Stuff your box

The “one workday” time box has a strong implication: Every little thing you do for a project takes one day. That doesn’t mean you should work for five minutes on project A, completing the task, and then stare into the air and twiddle your thumbs. It means that you should accumulate enough tasks for project A that you can spend the better half of the day on the known tasks and the remaining time on the unknown problems that arise on the way. In the evening, you should be able to finish your work for project A with a feeling of closure. You can put project A aside until next week (or whenever your next cycle is). You can concentrate on project B tomorrow and project C the next day. Both projects didn’t bother you today (well, perhaps a bit, but you only acknowledged some e-mails and deferred any real thoughts on it until you enter their timebox).

Perpetual closure

The feeling of closure at the end of a successful work day is the most important thing that keeps you composed. You’ve done your thinking for project A this week and will think of project B tomorrow. But now, you can rest.

This must be the feeling that the juggler experiences with each object that goes up again. It is out of sight and only needs attention after it has nearly completed its arc again. And now for the next object, one at a time…



How do I start a project

On my quest to build better software for people and their needs I try to move my current agile project approach to a more user centered and outcome oriented one.

This starts right at the beginning of a project. After getting the go from the client I start with meeting the project leads on the client side, the ones who will make decisions and control the way of the project.
I like to take an assumption driven process or learning focussed one to ask questions and clear my assumptions on my way.
The first questions I have are:

  • who will use the software
  • who will be affected by the software/project
  • what are their goals/expected outcomes, what if they could choose only one
  • what do they expect from the software
  • what will happen if the project stalls or even fails

The people using the software aka the users are one of the main focus during the project but also the people who get benefits from the software without directly using it are really important and should not be neglected. These can be the people responsible for operating the software or managers getting reports from actual users. I keep them in mind so that other parts which are often missed during a user centered approach are considered.
All these people have some expectations how the software will affect them, some even have goals or need something to come out of the project. These outcomes cover a great range: from measureable business goals like increasing revenue or retention rate, to personal benefits like visibility. It is important to get a rough priority, I use a narrowing question like ‘what if you could choose only one’.
Besides from goals and outcomes people have also imaginations how the software will be used by them, in which context and how often.
These are the positive effects of the project and the software but all is not sunshine, so I also look at what will happen if the project is delayed, stops or even *shudder* fails. These are the risks that I need to consider and may be even plan for.
All these questions help me frame the project from the end. I know what goals to aim for and in which direction the journey goes.
This is my first step to build a shared understanding among the project participants. The steps to learn about what picture they have in mind. My questions and their answers help me to clarify the direction. After that I need to plan the first phase. For this I have to clear my mind and start with a beginner’s mind to find my hidden assumptions. Every assumption I or other have need to be called out explicitly. I have to capture it and formulate a corresponding learning step.

But this is a topic for another post…

A simple yet useful project metric

In my years of managing software development projects, I’ve come to apply a simple metric to each project to determine its “personality”. The metric consists of only two aspects (or dimensions): success and noise. Each project strives to be successful in its own terms and each project produces a certain amount of “noise” while doing so. Noise, in my definition, is necessary communication above the minimum. A perfectly silent project isn’t really silent, there are just no communicated problems. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any problems! A project team can silently overcome numerous problems on their own and still be successful. The same team can cry for help at each and any hurdle and still fail in the long run. That would mean a lot of noise without effect. I call such a project a “Burning Ox”.

Success vs. Noise


As you can see, there are four types of projects with this metric. The desired type of project is the “White Knight” in the top-left quarter, while the “Burning Ox” in the bottom-right is the exact opposite. Let’s review all four types:

  • White Knight (silently on track): A project that is on track, tackles every upcoming challenge on its own, reports its status but omits the details and turns out to be a success is the dream of every project manager. You can let the team find its own way, document their progression and work on the long-term goals for the team and the product. It’s like sailing in quiet waters on a sunny day. Nothing to worry about and a pleasant experience all around.
  • Drama Queen (loud, but on track): This project is ultimately headed towards success, but every obstacle along the way results in emergency meetings, telephone conferences or e-mail exchanges. The number of challenges alone indicate that the team isn’t up to the task. You are tempted to micro-manage the project, to intervene to solve the problems and ensure success or at least progress. But you are bound to recognize some or even most problems as non-existent. The key sentence to say or think is: “Strange, nobody else ever had this problem and we’ve done it a dozen times before”. If you are a manager for several projects, the Drama Queens in your portfolio will require the majority of your time and attention. You’ll be glad when the project is over and “peaceful” times lie ahead.
  • Backstabber (silent and a failure): This is the biggest fear of every manager. The project seems alright, the team doesn’t report any problems and everything looks good. But when the cards need to be put on the table, you end up with a weak combination. It’s too late to do anything about the situation, the project is a failure. And it failed because you as the manager didn’t dig deeper, because you let them fool you. No! If you look closer, it failed because nobody dug deeper and everybody was in denial. You’ll see the warning signs in retrospective. You will become more paranoid in your next project. You’ll lose faith in the project status reports of your teams. You’ll inquire more and micro-manage the communication. You’ll become a skittish manager because of this unpleasant experience. Backstabber projects have horrendous costs for the social structure of a company.
  • Burning Ox (loud and failing): The name stems from an ancient war tactics when the enemy’s camp was overrun by a horde of oxen with burning torches bound to the horns. The panicked animals wreaked havoc along their way and started fires left and right. A Burning Ox is helpless in the situation, but takes it out on anybody and anything near it, too. This project is bound to fail, the team is in it way over their heads and no amount of support from your side or help from the outside can safe it. Well, experienced firefighters might work wonders, but they are expensive and rare (we know because we are often called in for this job). If you find a Burning Ox in your project portfolio (and you will know it, because a Burning Ox screams on the top of his lungs), prepare yourself for the inevitable: The project will fail, in scope (missing functionality), budget (higher costs) and/or time (delayed delivery). You better start with damage control now or make a call to a firefighter you can trust.

Easy assessment

This project management metric is not meant for deep inspection, but for easy assessment and quick communication. You can convey your desired communication style and the fact that everybody involved with the project is partly responsible for its success or failure. The metric states that too much detail is not helpful and too little detail can be disastrous. It also shows that loudly failing projects are not the fault of the project team alone (the ox cannot help being used as a living torch), but that the prerequisites of the project weren’t met.


If you are not a project manager, what can you learn from this blog post? Ask yourself if you require too much help from your manager, forcing him/her to switch into the micro-management gear, even if you could solve the problem yourself. If you cannot, ask yourself if you think that you can deliver the project in scope, time and budget or if you already smell the fire. If you can smell the fire, is your manager aware? Are you telling him/her in unclouded words about your perceived state of the project? Did you attempt to communicate your perception/feeling at least twice? If not, your manager might be shocked that he/she took care of a Backstabber project. A failing project is not your fault! You would only be to blame for the continued hiding of a known fact.

If you are a project manager, take a piece of paper, draw the metric’s chart and try to pin-point the position of all your projects. Be as honest and exact as possible. Is it really a Burning Ox or “just” a Drama Queen? Are your White Knights really above reproach or is their loyality questionable? What questions could you ask to try to unveil hidden problems, even those that nobody is aware of yet?

These quick, repeated assessments help me to manage my schedule and not forget about the silent projects because the loud projects always ellbow their way into my attention.

Having a plan

As a software developer, I quickly learnt that having a plan is essential for the successful realization of a project. Of course, there are projects which seem to run by themselves – either because no problems occur or because their solution is trivial. However, the larger the project, the tighter the deadlines, the more you need a plan to retain control over it. And it is particularly easy to lose control over a project if you not only manage it, but also participate in its implementation.

A project leader is responsible for the outcome of a project. They have to keep track of its goals, must know its current state and how far it progressed. You can, for example, constantly prescind from present actions and problems and check them in order to find out if they bring you closer to your objective or if you are getting side-tracked. Useful techniques are time boxes as in the Pomodoro techniques: For a fixed time, you concentrate on a problem, and afterwards, you recapitulate your results and, if necessary, adjust your approach. Yet, this is probably not enough to reveal how far your project advanced – and for this purpose you can employ a plan.

Such a plan can show you the exact condition of a project: It will tell you which milestones are already reached, where you are at the moment and which tasks have to be tackled next – and most importantly, it will tell you if you are in time. Basically, a plan is a monitoring tool for a project. By molding the project according to the plan, it is possible to see wether everything is alright, to expose potential pitfalls and, in the worst case, to recognize early if the project fails.

Moreover, a plan can also improve the communication related to the project. On the one hand, you will be able to brief your clients on the course of the project. Even better, if you can publish your progress regularly in a form allowing your clients to verify what you did so far, you will create a feedback loop that helps you to meet the clients’ demands. On the other hand, a plan will give you a handle to communicate with the people involved in the project realization. The knowledge about the state of the project is spreaded, which will permit you to spend less time talking about the required actions and more talking about the actual solution.

How to plan

Now, I want to enumerate a few hints for constructing a plan. First, even though a plan is crucial for a project, it is not necessary to develop the perfect plan right from the start, and it is presumably disadvantageous to stick with it at all costs. Instead, it is completely fine to launch the project following a rough draft; you can adapt it to your needs anytime.

Next, you should think about the unit of time you use to organize a project. If its life span amounts to a few weeks, it might be appropriate to plan single days, but in case it covers several months or even years, you should not bother to deduce the duties for the last month before starting the project. However, you should keep in mind that you may adjust the granularity arbitrarily: You can, for example, plan the first few days of a project in detail, while you sketch later actions in terms of weeks and months. In this step, it is also important to identify possible deadlines which have to be met.

Furthermore, you have to divide the project into sub-goals that are easier to operationalize. Just like with time units, you do not need to split your project into equally sized tasks, but upcoming issues should be specified in higher detail. At this point, you must also estimate the resources required to solve the issues; this could be as simple as time or money, but also something more specific as hardware or software. If you have tight deadlines, it is vital to check if there are tasks blocking other tasks: They cannot be parallelized and hence, the required resource is not just time, but rather calendar time.

Finally, even if you are managing a project, you are probably not alone – and you should exploit that circumstance extensively. When you know that there is someone who is able to perform a task more efficiently, you should delegate it. This is not restricted to the actual work in the project, but also includes management tasks such as the estimation of efforts. By this means, you will distribute the knowledge about the project to your team and facilitate the take-over of responsibility if it becomes necessary. In fact, perhaps the best way to successfully lead a project is to render oneself superfluous.

Make it visible: The Project Cockpit

We are a project shop with numerous customers booking software development projects as they see fit, so we always work on several projects concurrently in various sub-teams.

We always strive for a working experience that provides more productivity and delight. One major concept of achieving it is “make it visible”. This idea is perfectly described in the awesome book “Behind Closed Doors” by Johanna Rothman and Esther Derby from the Pragmatic Bookshelf. Lets see how we applied the concept to the task of managing our project load.

What is the Project Cockpit?

The Project Cockpit is a whiteboard with titled index cards and separated regions. If you glance at it, you might be reminded of a scrum board. In effect, it serves the same purpose: Tracking progress (of whole projects) and making it visible.

Here is a photo of our Project Cockpit (with actual project names obscured for obvious reasons):


How does it work?

In summary, each project gets a card and transitions through its lifecycle, from left to right on the cockpit.

The Project Cockpit consists of two main areas, “upcoming projects” and “current projects”. Both areas are separated into three stages eachs, denoting the usual steps of project placing and project realization.

Every project we are contacted for gets represented by an index card with some adhesive tape and a whiteboard magnet on its back. The project card enters the cockpit on the left (in the “future” or “inquiry” region) and moves to the right during its lifecycle. The y-axis of the chart denotes the “importance” of the project, with higher being more important.


In the “upcoming” area, projects are in acquisition phase and might drop out to the bottom, either into the “delay filing” or the “trash”. The former is used if a project was blocked, but is likely to make progress in the future. The latter is the special place we put projects that went awry. It’s a seldom action, but finally putting a project card there was always a relief.

The more natural (and successful) progress of a project card is the advance from the “upcoming” area to the “present” bar. The project is now appointed and might get a redefinition on importance. Soon, it will enter the right area of “current” projects and be worked on.

The right area of “current” projects is a direct indicator of our current workload. From here on, project cards move to the rightmost bar labeled “past” projects. Past projects are achievements to be proud of (until the card magnet is needed for a new project card).

If you want to, you can color code the project cards for their urgency or apply fancy numbers stating their volume.

What’s the benefit?

The Project Cockpit enables every member of our company to stay informed about the project situation. It’s a great place to agree upon the importance of new projects and keep long running acquisitions (the delay filing cases) in mind. The whiteboard acts as an information radiator, everybody participates in project and workload planning because it’s always present. Unlike simpler approaches to the task, our Project Cockpit includes project importance, urgency and volume without overly complicating the matter.

The whiteboard occupies a wall in our meeting room, so every customer visiting us gets a glance on it. As we use internal code names, most customers even don’t spot their own project, let alone associate the other ones. But its always clear to them in which occupancy condition we are, without a word said about it.

Ultimately, we get visibility of very crucial information from our Project Cockpit: When the left side is crowded, it’s a pleasure, when the right side is crowded, it’s a pressure 😉