You’re in a large organization, you have multiple projects and programs ongoing, and you want to manage them as effectively (and efficiently) as possible, so you turn to Project Portfolio Management (PPM) (also sometimes referred to as Portfolio Management, or PfM). It’s been … 3 years (insert extended amount of time here) since you’ve decided to implement Portfolio Management as a means to achieve that dynamic organizational strategy you’ve worked so hard putting together. Wait, whaaaaat? 3… Y-E-A-R-S?!?!? Yes, years – not months, weeks or days. And how do you know when you’re “done” implementing that whole portfolio effort anyway? How do you know if it’s working or not – or more importantly, how do you know WHY it is (or isn’t) working, and what can you do about it?
This is more common than I care to say, but many organizations feel they can “fix” their implementation problems with a magic “best practice” – such as portfolio management. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a HUGE PPM proponent, but only when an organization is mature enough to handle it. If attempted too soon, it will fail. Harsh, I know. But it will, and here’s why…
First, implementing a large effort like project portfolio management into an organization (especially a large one) is the same as implementing any large-scale project, program or major effort – it requires patience, learning, and a concise plan. Yes, a plan – even agile developments have a plan to work toward. The Project Management Institute’s Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) refers to this as iterative planning, or rolling wave planning with progressive elaboration. Regardless – It’s a project, and requires resource planning (time, money, people with specified skills, etc.) to make it happen. And that’s not all – to work, it also requires mature governance processes and mature project management practices.
Realizing that this can be challenging to relate to, I’m going to attempt to break it down into a (notional) simplistic example, below.
“I want to run in a marathon” <– the expected outcome
– Sign up for Marathon
– Run Marathon
– Drop dead from exhaustion while in the middle of running. Well, you did “run in a marathon”, so I guess your obituary could declare your marathon run a success? After all, if you keep the expected outcome vague enough, you can claim success almost no matter what, right?!
– Sign up for Marathon scheduled to take place 12 weeks from now
– Read “Top 10 tips to prepare yourself for running a marathon”
– Practice walking each day, increasing distance 1 mile/day, 5 days per week
– Run marathon (only, you end up mostly walking it, because that’s what you practiced and what you know how to do)
– Finish marathon in 3 days
-Declare success, I guess? After all, the expected outcome didn’t say to run the whole time, so as long as your ran a little bit, you can say you successfully “ran” a marathon, right? And, there was no time constraint – so what if it took you 3 days to complete it and the local event organizers were beginning to put out a bounty on your head just to get you to “cross the (insert angry adjective here) finish line already”, right?
– Realize that your initial outcome statement of “I want to run a marathon” completely sucked. It was way too vague and left Sure, by keeping it so incredibly vague you could claim almost any basic attempt at a marathon run to be deemed a “success”, but will others look at you and be inspired? After your claim to victory, you’ll be lucky if they can look at your with a straight face, let’s be honest here.
– Improve expected outcome from “I want to run a marathon” to “I want to complete a marathon in under 4 hours by within the next 6 months”.
– Your break down your plan for achieving this result, with mini-milestones and more detail, as follows:
– You achieve your 15 non-stop miles milestone 5 days ahead of schedule, and simply adjust your plan accordingly
– Run the entire marathon, completing with a time of 3:55. Glowing with pride, you can now claim measurable success and earn the respect of your peers for your amazing ability to not only develop a strategy – but actually ACHIEVE it! Bravo!
While the previous example was very much notional with limited detail, it was intended to simply show that details really (really, REALLY) matter – from knowing exactly what your expected outcome is, to knowing precisely how you intend to achieve it. This is a basic project management fundamental, but if you don’t know the needs of your plan (time estimates, cost estimates, equipment estimates, human resource estimates and skills, etc.), you will have an incomplete “plan” – which is no plan at all, even if you think you have one.
What, then, does this have to do with Portfolio Management?
As the old saying goes, “garbage in = garbage out”. That’s really the bottom line. If you intend to implement a Portfolio Management strategy that actually works, please don’t waste your time purchasing high-end tools until you have achieved project management maturity. Think of this as foundational – you wouldn’t build a house without first laying the foundation, would you? Then why would you even consider doing such a thing within your organization? Stop focusing on specific methods, and instead, focus on maturity of knowledge and stick with the basics (at first), until you can build up your foundation. This, in and of itself, requires a solid plan. The process of implementing Portfolio Management, much like building a house, first requires a blueprint (a plan) that includes things like training the workforce (do your employees require new skills to achieve the new strategy?), obtaining stakeholder buy-in (without it, what’s the point?!), assessing timelines (so that you can properly put the “to-do” list in the right order!), governance (who makes what decisions? How are these decisions tracked and monitored?), tools, human resource needs, etc.).
Foundational path to effective Project Portfolio Management
5 Key Rapid-Check Questions to Assess Your Organization’s Level of PM Maturity:
- What is a project?
If your organization claims to practice project management, then there should be a consistent understanding of what constitutes an actual project, and what doesn’t.
- What are the qualifications to becoming a project manager in our organization, and why?
If you have job titles of “project manager”, what are the requirements to hold such a title? Is there a certification process they must pass, or maybe a mentorship program they must belong to? Why is your organization choosing such requirements – does it make sense for YOUR specific organization? (Personal bias: having hired many “certified” and “credentialed” PM’s myself, I found the best PM’s were those that could actually perform notional projects as part of their interview process. Passing an exam of sorts, in my experience, is not nearly good enough, and more 75% of “credentialed” candidates couldn’t perform basic project management tasks when asked (ie: resource load the schedule, develop a project charter when given the objectives, etc.).
- What is the specific project team breakout, for each project, and the assigned roles and responsibilities for each?
This isn’t something that should take a week to drum up. If your organization is practicing mature project management, this should be as simple as either hitting the “print” button or displaying on a screen for each project. If the response isn’t immediate, your organization likely is scrambling to quickly create one, and does not already have a method for resource allocation to project effort. The good news? While the results may hit like a blow to the head, it is always better to know and do something about it vice proceeding in ignorant bliss – ignorant bliss is always temporary, and that brick will undoubtedly hurt more the longer you wait.
- What is the standardized method used for cost estimating across the organization? Time estimating?
Again, If there is no standard than can be immediately shared by your senior leadership, your organization is lacking PM knowledge and skills, and likely too immature to effectively take on Portfolio Management practices. Good news – once you know this, you can actually do something about it, and it doesn’t have to take years! Stay tuned… next week I’ll show you how to get this exact information, 100% free and from your own computer, any location and at any time – all you need is Internet access.
- What is your organizational process for ensuring all projects are strategically aligned, and that only the highest priorities receive funding first?
In other words, why are you doing any given project? What priority number is it? Your organization should have a 1-n list of projects, and their associated priorities, based on the organizational strategy it is intending to achieve. If you don’t have this, you are not yet ready for project portfolio management.
That’s it! These 5 questions are intentionally both tactical and strategic in nature, because effective project portfolio management requires tactical inputs that equate to meaningful data in tracking the “how” for your organization’s strategic success. Want to keep the conversation going? Join my Learning Project Management community on Facebook, where you can ask your questions and obtain answers and guidance from other community members, grow your own PM portfolio and exchange information, ideas, and help each other and our organizations improve!