Can we absorb all the changes?

In the book, Project Portfolio Management: A View from the Management Trenches, one of the questions posed is ‘can we absorb all the changes?’  At first glance I dismissed the question and instead focused on the four components of the portfolio lifecycle. However, after further reading, it became clearer to me that from a portfolio management perspective, it is very important to understand how much change is being pushed out to the respective organizations. If there is too much change going on, it is hard for employees to absorb it, adapt to it, and accept it. This leads to excessive churn in the organization which has negative implications such as burn out, lowered morale, inability to get work done, etc.

In my experience as a portfolio analyst, I have heard of other organizations complaining about the amount of change we were introducing to them, particularly at the wrong time. Individually, a system manager or project manager may communicate an individual change to an organization or group of users, yet have no idea about the magnitude of changes coming from other system managers and project managers. This is where portfolio management needs to understand both the amount and the timing of change to the company. As the book points out, it is possible to measure the amount of total change and the timing. Having such visibility give senior management a way to optimize the portfolio by adequately sequencing work so as not to overload the system with too much change at any given point in time.

Of course this is a communication issue, where both the project team needs to communicate implementation dates and the project beneficiary needs to communicate “black out” dates. However, without the portfolio level visibility, it is hard to maintain proper surveillance and protect organizations from receiving excessive change.

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Checklists Plus Discipline Improves Portfolio Quality and Efficiency

Atul Gawande, a well-respected surgeon, is the author of The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Done Right. The book is focused on using checklists as a means of improving quality and reducing defects in such areas as hospitals, businesses, construction projects, airplane flights, etc. Moreover, a number of gripping stories help to convince the reader of the benefits of using checklists across these varied disciplines. The entire book is fascinating and deliberate on its message of using checklists, but the book takes a very interesting turn in chapter eight to see the application of checklists in the business world.

In short, checklists=discipline. The checklist helps business professionals be as smart as possible and helps teams improve their outcomes without any increase in skill (p. 168). I love these quotes because it shows that anyone can improve their outcomes today through the use of a simple tool. In the age of complexity, simple tools like a checklist can give someone an advantage over people who think they can remember all the critical details all the time. Using a checklist doesn’t mean that someone no longer has to think about basic tasks, rather, it marks the most critical steps (steps that should never be missed) so that more time can be devoted to the critical thinking, based on experience and training.  Sadly, many surgeons (and business professionals) have ignored the checklist because they want to ‘be in control’ and not bound by something that appears to be petty.

Chapter eight also highlighted the experience of three investors who used checklists when evaluating companies in which to invest. They noted that the checklists improved their efficiency, allowing them to comb through far more prospects because by the third day it would be very clear which companies were worth continued evaluation and which ones should be dropped. This compares very well with project portfolio management and the benefits of using a checklist at gate reviews. When due diligence is performed, misaligned and doomed projects can be caught earlier on so that critical resources can be put on winning projects. If organizations are disciplined enough to learn from past mistakes and capture the potential pitfalls of projects, they could significantly increase the value delivered through the portfolio of projects. To repeat, this requires discipline.

In my experience as a portfolio analyst, I have seen checklists used in various ways:

1) Project deliverable checklists to ensure that the right deliverables are produced at the right time.
2) Decision-Gate content check lists to ensure that the right information is communicated during gate reviews.
3) Implementation checklists to ensure that all the necessary steps have been taken (e.g. training, documentation, support) in order to implement the project solution in production (operations)

Here is the link to the surgical checklist produced by the World Health Organization discussed in the book:

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