Improve Portfolio Health By Avoiding Two Portfolio Management Extremes


Two Simple Questions

You can measure your general portfolio health with two simple questions:

1) Do you approve all or almost all of your projects?

2) Are you approving so few projects that people would say you are “cutting to the bone”?

These are two portfolio management extremes that we will examine in this post.

Approving Everything is Bad

Question number one highlights a common trap for many companies, approving all or almost all projects that get reviewed.  This indicates that the project selection process is not working well. When governance councils have a project approval over 90%, it means very few projects are getting screened out and some poor projects are probably getting approved. Approving nearly all projects also means that significant diminishing returns kick in for this group of projects and executing this work likely requires unnecessary multi-tasking and exceeding the resource capacity of critical resources. While it is theoretically possible for an organization to do an outstanding job of selecting the best possible project candidates upfront and still have a high approval rate, I doubt this occurs very often. More likely, organizations operate in a reactive mode and approve projects as they get proposed; since most projects look good by themselves and almost always have a good reason for getting initiated, the project gets approved and funded. Therefore, one of the best portfolio governance council metrics to measure portfolio health is the project approval rate. We can illustrate these concepts with the graphic below.

Portfolio Cumulative Frontier - Extreme 1
Portfolio Cumulative Frontier – Extreme 1

Here we have a bounded curve of possible portfolios (in this case we can apply the cumulative frontier, which is the cumulative portfolio value based on the rank order of projects in the portfolio, not to be confused with the efficient frontier which is based on portfolio optimization). At the upper far right is the problem area in question. If organizations are approving most projects it means there is little to no discrimination among projects which is a symptom of not having enough project candidates to review and stems from poor ideation and work intake. When organizations have more project candidates than they can reasonably take on, the governance council is pushed to do a better job of selecting projects. Organizations can still do a poor job of selecting projects (or may simply ignore resource capacity and continue approving everything) even when they have more than they can take on, but the emphasis here is on increasing the project pipeline so that the governance council will become less reactive and more proactive and say no to projects that really should be screened out. Creating a strategic roadmap to identify important projects (top-down approach) combined with an employee ideation (process bottom-up approach) will help build up the pipeline of projects and increase the decision making rigor by the governance council.

Don’t Cut to the Bone

We can also evaluate portfolio health by looking at the other extreme where an organization is cutting costs so much that any further cuts will hurt the organization’s day to day operations (aka “cut to the bone”). In one place I worked, the cost-cutting measures had been in place for years and a number of good project candidates were hardly under consideration because funds simply were not available and a buildup of project requests was accumulating. A few high value projects got approved, but “money” was left on the table as a result of not taking action on those good project candidates. In some cases, the rigor to do a good cost-benefit analysis is absent and makes it difficult to communicate how much ‘value’ is being ignored by not taking on additional projects due to strong cost cutting measures. Such extreme cost cutting also has the negative residual effect of discouraging innovation among employees. We can also illustrate this with the same graphic.

Portfolio Cumulative Frontier - Extreme 2
Portfolio Cumulative Frontier – Extreme 2

Summary

In short, asking simple questions about the approval rate of projects and the cost-cutting measures of an organization can highlight general portfolio health. In both cases, organizations should be pushing toward the middle. Adding more project candidates will help ensure that only the most valuable projects get approved. In the case of extreme cost-cutting, companies should improve their ability to measure project value in order to communicate the ‘value’ left on the table. This is best accomplished when a company is doing reasonably well and not when the company is truly in dire straits. Cutting costs “to the bone” is never a good way to stimulate innovation, therefore careful attention is needed when companies are cutting costs too much and not investing in the future.

Cumulative Frontier - Healthy Portfolio

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Portfolio Reports – Portfolio Bubble Charts


This is the third post in a series on portfolio management reports. In the first post, we reviewed introductory portfolio management reports that convey the basic dimensions of the portfolio. In the second report we reviewed treemaps and advanced pareto charts that can help identify outlier projects worthy of more scrutiny. In this post we will look at the most common report for project portfolio management, portfolio bubble charts.

SUMMARY

The risk-value portfolio bubble chart represents a portfolio view of all projects and puts projects into one of four quadrants based on value and risk; this is important for identifying projects that drive overall greater value to the organization compared to other projects as well as highlight projects that should likely be screened out.

BENEFITS OF PORTFOLIO BUBBLE CHARTS

One of the key benefits to a portfolio bubble chart is to quickly show the balance of the current portfolio.  Using portfolio bubble charts with the portfolio governance team can focus conversations to help better manage the portfolio. When reviewing projects that are in the higher-value/ lower-risk quadrant, the portfolio governance team should ask the question, “how can we get more of these types of projects in the portfolio?” Likewise with the lower-value/higher-risk projects, the portfolio governance team should ask how to avoid those types of projects. These discussions will greatly enhance the management of the portfolio and enable the portfolio governance team to “manage the tail” and ensure that only the best projects are selected and executed.

DATA NEEDED

There are four primary data elements needed to build the risk-value bubble chart: value scores for each project, risk scores for each project, categorical data, and the project cost or financial benefits of the project (commonly used for bubble size). In an older post, I wrote in detail on how to build such a chart in Excel and the notion of normalizing the data. A prioritization scoring mechanism is typically required to build the best portfolio bubble charts.

Portfolio Bubble Chart Example
Portfolio Bubble Chart Example

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Communicate Portfolio Value


I recently finished a project helping a CPG organization within a large retail company implement a product portfolio management process. The company as a whole tends to avoid developing business processes, but this CPG organization recognized the need for greater process discipline around its product pipeline and work in-take. Any endeavor to implement portfolio management can be difficult due to the organizational change component, but one factor that makes it easier is to communicate portfolio value.

Portfolio communication is a significant component of good portfolio management and often requires communicating along the four PPM lifecycle steps shown below:

Communicate portfolio value
Communicate portfolio value

However, as it relates to managing organization change, to communicate portfolio value is to communicate how the portfolio process benefits the organization. Success stories must be shared to reinforce how new changes should be welcomed and adopted.

Communicate Portfolio Value Through Success Stories

Within the first few weeks of the new process, a project manager told his peers that the work in-take processes actually helped him determine that a new product he was about to propose was not a good project after all. He elaborated by saying that the extra rigor required him to ask tough questions about the value of the project, which led him to the conclusion that his proposed product was not worth bringing to market! Prior to a product portfolio approach, numerous project managers would have brought forth new product ideas with little governance or oversight. Now, with greater scrutiny over new product proposals, it was easier to determine early on whether a product idea was worth going after or not. This kind of testimony should be widely circulated throughout the organization to help communicate the value of the portfolio process.

Another project manager approached me recently to share another success story about how his project team believed that making a change to a single product would result in a one-time costs saving of $100,000. However, as a result of the increased cross-functional collaboration required by the new Stage-Gate process, the project team discovered that these changes could be applied to an entire product line resulting in an annual savings of $1,000,000. This was a huge win for the team and is another success story to help the entire organization adopt the Stage-Gate/product portfolio process.

Summary

To communicate portfolio value is not just about communicating the value of the portfolio, or of the individual project components in the portfolio, it also involves communicating the value of the entire portfolio process. This creates positive momentum for helping organizations adopt new processes, resulting in greater success in the future.

Who in your organization manages portfolio communication? How effective is the portfolio communication at your company?

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Portfolio Review Meetings


Portfolio Review Meetings

Portfolio review meetings are a great way to review and assess the entire project portfolio with the governance team. Unfortunately in practice, these meetings can be overwhelming, time consuming, and unproductive. There are many ways to conduct a portfolio review meeting, but one of the key questions of the governance team is “what do they want to accomplish at the end of the portfolio review”? For some organizations, portfolio review meetings are about getting project status of every project in the portfolio. For other organizations, portfolio review meetings are designed to evaluate each project in the portfolio with the intention of updating priorities.

Options for Portfolio Review Meetings

With this background in mind, we can look at four options for conducting portfolio review meetings:

  • OPTION 1: A review of all in-flight projects, current status, relative priority, business value, etc. Some projects may be cancelled, but the primary purpose is to inform the LT of the current in-flight projects.
  • OPTION 2: A partial review of projects in the portfolio consisting of high-value/high-risk projects. This provides more in-depth information of critical initiatives and may result in a possible change of priority of certain projects.
  • OPTION 3: A high-level review of all projects in the portfolio with the intention of updating project priorities for every project in the portfolio.
  • OPTION 4: A review of portfolio scenarios that meet current business needs followed by a selection of a recommended portfolio

Option 4 comes courtesy of Jac Gourden of FLIGHTMAP in a 2012 blog post and is the best approach I have seen for conducting portfolio review meetings. I also have sat through long sessions (although not all-day sessions) of reviewing all the projects in the portfolio and it can be painstakingly tiring. Moreover, these types of portfolio review meetings wear out governance team members and do not yield much value.  While there is certainly a time and a place for review the status of all projects or conducting a lengthy review for the purpose of re-prioritizing projects in the portfolio, taking a strategic view is the way to go. Rather than merely focusing on individual projects, a portfolio team can compile a few portfolio scenarios that should be reviewed by the governance team. In many instances, there is significant overlap between the portfolio scenarios, but the emphasis is on the business goals of the portfolio and how a portfolio scenario supports a certain goal. Some examples of portfolio scenarios include:

  • Revenue Growth Scenario
  • Customer Growth Scenario
  • Market Growth Scenario
  • Reduced R&D Spend Scenario
  • Balanced Portfolio Scenario

These scenarios are easier to produce when efficient frontier analysis is applied. Even after a portfolio recommendation is accepted, there is further work to screen out the projects not included in the portfolio, and in some cases to make worthy exceptions for some projects that would have otherwise been removed from the portfolio.

 

 

What do you think? Have you tried this approach before? How successful was it? Let me know.

 

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Gate Review Filters


Gate reviews are a critical component of project selection. A winning portfolio must contain winning projects, therefore the project governance board must be able to discriminate between good projects and great projects. The decision gate process enables the project governance board to review these projects based on preselected strategic criteria at the gate reviews of the decision gate process. At each of those gates, important project information is provided to the project governance board to make a go/no-go decision related to the project. Without this mechanism, unnecessary or poorly planned projects can enter the portfolio and bog down the work load of the organization, hampering the benefits realized from truly important and strategic projects.

The ability to screen out misaligned projects is based on the types of decision making criteria used for gate reviews. Another way to look at the criteria is that they act as gate review filters.  For instance, some companies may have no filters and approve every project; another company may only judge projects based on financial contribution and screen out very fewer projects; whereas other companies will makes gate decisions based on financial contribution, investment risk, and resource availability. We can see this by the image below.

Gate Review Filters

Types of Gate Review Filters

There are many types of decision making filters available for companies to use, the key is to apply the filters that match the organization’s current maturity and culture. Let’s take a look at a few gate review filters (not an exhaustive list):

1)      Financial filter: this gate criteria requires some sort of financial analysis to determine the profitability (or value) of the project. Applying financial hurdle rates may be one way of screening out lower value projects. Using financial benefit (e.g. net present value) is one approach to rank ordering projects.

2)      Strategic filter: most companies implementing PPM recognize the need to evaluate projects in light of strategic goals and objectives. However, if the criteria is not detailed enough, most projects can be shown to align to strategy to a certain extent.

3)      Risk filters: risk criteria at gate reviews should really be thought of as investment risk. Detailed project risks may or may not be known, but based on the type of project being proposed and the initial analysis the riskiness (or risk nature) can be understood. Depending on the risk tolerance of the organization, more projects may be screened out based on the riskiness of the project.

4)      Resource filters: a more advanced criteria is resource availability or the utilization of key resources who are currently unavailable. Since many organizations do an inadequate job of measuring resource utilization, this filter may not be used as often.

5)      Portfolio filter: for simplicity, a portfolio filter takes an aggregate portfolio view when reviewing individual projects. It measures what the impact to the portfolio is rather than only evaluating the individual merits of the project. It also relates to the balance of the portfolio (short-term versus long-term, risky versus safe, good distribution among business units, etc.).

As organizations mature their project selection process, more gate review filters (criteria) should be used to ensure that right projects get included in the portfolio. More criteria often means fewer projects get approved which means that the project pipeline more closely resembles a “funnel” rather than a “tunnel” (see this post for details).

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The Purpose and Goal of Prioritization


Prioritization is about focus—where to assign resources and when to start the work. It is not about scoring methods and ranking mechanisms.  Without defining project priorities, it is difficult to effectively distribute personnel to carry out the highest valued projects. Project priorities enable management to assign their employees to the most important projects. Gaylord Wahl of Point B says that priorities create a ‘true north’ which establishes a common understanding of what is important. Prioritizing projects enables organizations to make the best use of company resources. Without a clear and shared picture of what matters most, lower-value projects can move forward at the expense of high-value projects. Again, prioritization is about focus—WHERE to assign resources and WHEN to start the work. Prioritization and resource allocation go hand in hand.

Resource Priority and Schedule Priority

In the diagram above we see that prioritization relates to resource priority and schedule priority. Resource priority drives the question, “where are we going to invest our resources now?” The fundamental resources are money and people. Since there is often more work to be done than there are resources available, senior leadership needs to provide guidance of where to investment money and where to allocate human resources.  This requires an understanding of how to get the most important work done within existing capacity constraints. However, not all projects can be initiated immediately. Prioritization can also help direct the timing and sequencing of projects. In some cases, high priority projects may have other dependencies or resource constraints that require a start date in the future. In other cases, lower priority projects get pushed out into the future. In both cases, schedule priority helps answer the question “when can we start project work?”   Having the right human resources available to do project work is a critical success factor. High priority projects have a higher likelihood of success due to adequate staffing. Lower priority projects may face more resource contention and have a higher risk of project delays due to inadequate resource time. Lower priority projects that get pushed out into the future have an even lower likelihood of success since these projects face challenges around project initiation and higher resource contention.

The purpose of prioritization is to allocate resources to the most important work. Prioritization provides focus—WHERE to assign resources and WHEN to start the work. The goal of prioritization is to accomplish the most important work to deliver maximum business value. Although prioritization is a critical need in many organizations, in the next post we will highlight cases where prioritization is a waste of time.

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PMI Standard for Portfolio Management Third Edition


The PMI Standard for Portfolio Management Third Edition is the first edition that is worth buying. Having read the 1st and 2nd editions and reviewed the exposure draft for the 2nd and 3rd, PMI has come a long way with the third edition. Nearly all the major components of portfolio management are referenced in this edition (gate reviews being the most significant omission). At the time of this review, I am preparing for the PfMP exam and have read over most of the 3rd edition twice and have studied several sections in detail. It is still not perfect as there are several inconsistencies and items I consider too theoretical (hence the 4 out of 5 star rating), but overall it is a worthy addition to the portfolio management library. 

Chapters 1-2 do a great job of giving an overview of portfolio management with the roles and responsibilities needed to make it work. Chapter 3 also does a pretty good job of creating a structure around which to organize the remaining chapters by setting each of the five knowledge areas (Portfolio Strategic Management, Portfolio Governance Management, Portfolio Performance Management, Portfolio Communication Management, and Portfolio Risk Management) in a table with the three process groups (Defining, Aligning, and Authorizing/Controlling). Chapters 4-5 in my opinion are the weakest parts in the book. There are some great additions such as the portfolio strategic plan and the portfolio roadmap, but some of the strategic processes seem out of order (e.g. prioritizing projects before they have been evaluated by a governance board) or are omitted (e.g. gate reviews). In addition, the Portfolio Charter deliverable is just too theoretical for most organizations to adopt. Chapter 6 does a good job of addressing resource capacity management and benefits realization (two big omissions in previous editions). I found chapter 7 to be very useful related to portfolio communication and I got fresh insight on portfolio risk management from chapter 8.

In short, the PMI Standard for Portfolio Management Third Edition is worth buying and offers great information for portfolio management practitioners.

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Book Review – IT Governance


Book review of IT Governance by Peter Weill and Jeanne Ross (Harvard Business School Publishing, 2004)

IT Governance

Synopsis

“IT governance is the most important factor in generating business value from IT.”

“Good governance design allows enterprises to deliver superior results on their IT investments.”

“Effective IT governance is the single most important predictor of the value an organization generates from IT”

The quotes above should draw attention to the importance of well defined and well communicated IT governance. Although not exciting, IT governance helps generate greater value from IT. The authors define governance as “specifying the decision rights and accountability framework to encourage desirable behavior in using IT.” “Governance determines who makes the decisions. Management is the process of making and implementing the decisions.”

Much of the book is spent developing two questions. The first question focuses on the types of decisions that must be made to ensure effective management and use of IT. The authors answer this question by describing five key areas of IT governance that require decision making:

IT Principles—a related set of high level statements about how IT is used in the business.

IT Architecture—the organizing logic for data, applications, and infrastructure, captured in a set of policies, relationships, and technical choices to achieve desired business and technical standardization and integration.

IT infrastructure—determining shared and enabling services.

Business Application needs—specifying the business need for purchased or intentionally developed IT applications.

IT Investment and Prioritization—choosing which initiatives to fund and how much to spend.

The second question addressed in the book focuses on who makes these decisions. The authors address this question by describing six archetypes (decision-making styles) used by enterprises in IT decision making:

Business Monarchy—top managers

IT Monarchy—IT specialists

Feudal—each business unit making independent decisions

Federal—combination of the corporate center and the business units with or without IT people involved

IT Duopoly—IT group and one other group (for example, top management or business unit leaders)

Anarchy—isolated individual or small group decision making

Much research and analysis was made by the authors in connecting the decisions being made with the right decision makers. They conducted an extensive survey of over 250 companies across 23 counties. Based on the results, they concluded that the best performers conducted IT governance differently from the low performers and drew conclusions of what distinguished the two groups.

Commentary

IT Governance was very useful to me personally as it is the most thorough work on the topic that I have read and provided a lot of good insight into how to make governance work. Project portfolio management (PPM) is tightly linked with IT governance, “Portfolio management without governance is an empty concept” (Datz). In order to make portfolio management processes successful a proper governance structure must be in place. Project governance is very much about the types of decisions being made and the people who participate in the decision making. The Project Management Institute’s Standard for Portfolio Management 2nd Edition briefly discussed governance but did not go into the same level of detail as this book. Another well respected PPM expert, James Pennypacker, developed a portfolio management maturity model which identifies governance as a key criteria. This book strongly supplements that maturity model.

This book enlarged my view of IT governance particularly with the five key areas of: IT Principles, IT Architecture, IT infrastructure, Business Application Needs, IT Investment and Prioritization. PPM is very focused on the last area of investment and prioritization, but the four preceding areas lead up to the point of making the investment decisions. It was very clear that a governance structure needs to be set up to account for all five areas.

This book also strengthened my view concerning the people involved with governance. I liked the quote stating, “IT governance is a senior management responsibility. If IT is not generating value, senior management should first examine its IT governance practices—who makes decisions and how the decision makers are accountable.” Governance cannot be delegated to someone else. The authors made it very clear that one of the critical success factors of IT governance is the involvement with senior/executive leadership. Without the adequate leadership, solid governance is likely to fail. In addition, “If business leaders do not assume responsibility for converting [IT capabilities] into value, the risk of failure is high. With high risk comes the likelihood of frustrated business leaders who often respond by replacing the IT leadership or abdicating further by outsourcing the whole ‘IT problem’”. Here the point was made that outsourcing IT may come out of a frustration by the business leaders with IT. Yet, the source of the frustration may very well lie in the poor governance structures established.

Another striking point that affects my current work is the need for improved communication with senior management. Governance communication cannot happen too much. The authors found that “the best predictor of IT governance performance is the percentage of managers in leadership positions who can accurately describe IT governance.” They found that most senior managers could not explain their own governance processes, which would explain why their IT governance doesn’t work properly. These points reinforce my need to continually educate senior management and communicate both the process and the results of our governance procedures so that we have greater project success.

The book was reasonably well written. Although the content was great, I felt that the case studies and diagrams were really lacking. I normally like case studies, but I do not feel that the cases used in this book added any value to me. Many of the diagrams could have also been explained better. As far as improvements, the topic of project portfolio management was barely discussed and is quite important in terms of executing strategic change within an organization. I overlooked it because of the book’s value to the topic of governance, but I definitely feel the authors should have spent more time on this topic. Otherwise, this is a great book for a topic that is overlooked but very necessary. I would definitely recommend it to anyone that is involved with portfolio management or any part of IT governance.

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Portfolio Management V-Model Part 1


I recently constructed a portfolio management-oriented V-model. The traditional V-model has been used in software and product development, but this PPM variant differs in that the end result comes together at the point of the V. This is not an exhaustive list of PPM components, but does represent critical components and how they come together to drive better decision making resulting in optimal strategic execution. The model also makes a big assumption that the organization has sufficient strategy development capabilities in place.

Let’s work backwards (from the point back to the tips of the V) to understand how components on the left side supports the model.

 PPM V-Model

One of the primary goals (if not the foremost goal) of portfolio management is to execute strategy. There is an important distinction between strategy creation and strategic execution. Possessing a strategy (and spending the energy to create one) is meaningless if the organization cannot accomplish the strategic goals. Although many people acknowledge that strategic projects are vehicles for a accomplishing a strategy, senior leadership needs to make the right project decisions at the right time to advance the goals of the company. Hence, making smarter and better decisions is a precursor for solid strategic execution.

In order to make smarter and better decisions, the right data needs to be available at the right time. I have written about this in the past. Senior leaders should know what data is important and valuable for making the right decisions at the right time. Data collection costs money as does data analysis. Organizations should be mindful of the amount of effort needed to collect data and only collect data that is most important to the company. In another post, I wrote about a virtuous data cycle by which senior leaders need to actually use the data collected, communicate that the data is being used, and explain how the data is being used. This will encourage higher quality data collection resulting in better decision making. However, in order for the right data to be collected at the right time, processes need to be in place to facilitate the data collection process. Processes for work in-take, business case development, status updates, and resource management help provide the right data in the portfolio management lifecycle to promote better decision making.

The next post will explore the right side of the model and tie all the points together.

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