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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Strengthen Talent Management With PPM


Talent Management3Is It Just About Talent Acquisition?

When people refer to the “war for talent” many discussions center on talent acquisition and try to answer the question “how do we hire the best people?” Although talent acquisition is important, talent development and retention are also very important (you want to keep those great people you hired, correct?). Hiring good people is not the most challenging part; because the war for talent is real, retaining talented people is difficult. This is where project portfolio management (or “PPM” for short) strengthens the traditional HR approach to talent management.

In a recent LinkedIn discussion, Emily Smith asked a broad question on how PPM software can impact unemployment rates. My response was that portfolio management as a discipline and PPM software with the right data can significantly improve talent retention and development.  Before we continue down this path, let me quickly summarize project portfolio management. PPM is firstly about doing the right work to accomplish strategic goals, and it is also about focusing resource attention on high priority projects while balancing overall resource capacity. In larger organizations you can imagine how difficult it is just to monitor all of the project work going on and ensure that each project is on track to completion. However, with a little extra focus (and the right software), organizations should also monitor the skills and abilities of the people doing the work and assign people to projects that align with their interests and help them grow professionally. These last points are often after thoughts in project management because of the sheer focus on simply getting work done.

The Value of PPM to Talent Management

Consider for a moment the value to performance management of having an employee report show all of the projects they have been involved with over the last several years with the strategic importance to the organization, the complements given by their project teammates, the skills they have improved and developed, the degree of alignment to professional areas of growth, and even the people mentored during those projects. That would be powerful, and if used correctly, would send a strong message to employees that this company enables them to grow professionally and make a difference through their work. Wow.

Sadly, I don’t know if this system exists. Current HR management systems are not designed as portfolio management systems that would track this level of project detail.  Even having a system that a project manager could use to do a search across the company for people who have particular skills and experience for a new challenging project would be a great enhancement over what we have today—assigning spare bodies just to keep up with the flood of work going on.

Project portfolio management complements and enhances talent management. Do you agree? Tell me how well your talent management processes are going, especially if there is any linkage to project and portfolio management.

 

 

Talent management graphic courtesy of Lean Home Care

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Resource Management and Capacity Planning Handbook


Book Review

The Resource Management and Capacity Planning Handbook by Jerry Manas is the authoritative source for any organization wanting to improve its resource management practices in the context of portfolio management.  The opening chapter does a great job of providing basic context of resource management and capacity planning and strongly leverages a benchmark study by Appleseed RMCP and expert practitioners in the field.

Organizations continue to struggle with the matter of resource management and “when you consider the constant change, lack of visibility into resource capacity, and no sense of which work is most important, the result is a perfect storm of resource management chaos.” In order to address this problem, Manas systematically covers key topics chapter by chapter that provide relevant help to companies seeking to improve. This book is not about mere theory, but gives literally hundreds of practical points based on corporate reality.

Chapter 2 addresses the road to maturity for improving resource management. I am a big believer in assessing organizational maturity, and Manas does a great job of acknowledging that organizations are on a road to maturity, and through the help of expert practitioners, gives examples of how organizations have matured their resource management processes.  The chapter also addresses the matter of time tracking and does an excellent job of providing a balanced view of why to do it and how to make it work.

In chapter 3, Manas presents a systems approach for diagnosing the root causes of poor resource management. He brings out a number of points that should strike a chord in any organizations. In the latter half of the chapter, he uses systems thinking to deep dive on estimating resources and tasks. The Resource Management and Capacity Planning Handbook demystifies the complexities of resource capacity and demand management and offers clear ways for maximizing your limited resources to drive business growth and sustainability.

Chapter 4 addresses the much needed topic of leadership and organizational change management. I was very pleased to see an entire chapter devoted to these two subjects, because most of the time in portfolio management literature, the emphasis is either on process or tools, with little regard for the people dimension (which is very critical). Much of the chapter is spent on the “50 ways to lead your users”, which is a systematic and structured approach to leading change in the organization.

Chapter 5 addresses key roles for making resource management and capacity planning successful. One of the key takeaways is that successful organizations very often have dedicated resources to support capacity planning exercises. He also takes time explaining the expanding role of the PMO.

Chapter 6 is an enjoyable chapter on strategic alignment and how not to manage resource capacity management like failed military leaders in the past.

Chapter 7 is a great chapter focusing on the human side of resource management. As chapter 4 addressed the people side of leadership and change management, this chapter does an equally good job of explaining why it is important for organizations to pay attention to the human side of project execution and resource productivity when trying to improve resource management.

Chapter 8 expands upon a white paper Manas wrote called “the Capacity Quadrant”. This chapter speaks more frankly about the topic of portfolio management and the need for visibility, prioritization, optimization, and integration of the portfolio. I loved his white paper on the topic and felt that this chapter could have been moved up earlier in the book to provide a clearer view of resource management and capacity planning within the context of project portfolio management.

The final chapter, chapter 9, concludes with industry specific challenges of resource management and capacity planning. This chapter turned out to be the cherry on top as it provided insight into unique challenges faced by different industries. Learning about challenges faced by other industries actually gives greater context to the capacity planning problem and puts readers on the alert for identifying and solving these problems in their own company.

My Conclusion to Resource Management and Capacity Planning

The Resource Management and Capacity Planning Handbook is a must-have book for PMO directors and senior leaders struggling with making the best use of limited resources. Jerry Manas has a great writing style that makes the book easy to read and easy to understand. He also does a fantastic job of blending theory with reality by explaining key topics and then providing numerous tips on how to be more successful with resource management.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Project Pipeline-Funnel or Tunnel


Project pipeline management is an important component of project portfolio management (PPM) and involves steps to ensure that an adequate number of projects are being evaluated and screened out at various stages of the intake process to meet strategic objectives.  Other factors such as organizational budget and resource capacity also come into play so that the organization is not overloaded with work, which can be a risk factor for completing organizational and strategic goals.

The question you should ask yourself today is whether or not your organization’s project pipeline resembles a funnel or a tunnel. In theory, as projects pass through the work intake process, those that do not meet key criteria or are deemed of lower value should be screened out. This would cause the project pipeline to look more like a funnel (shown below).

Project Funnel

Unfortunately, in reality, this is not often the case. I know of one large Fortune 500 company that killed three times (3x) more projects after they were authorized than when they were initially being evaluated.  In this case, there is hardly a funnel, but more of a tunnel (shown below)  in which most projects get approved. This can cause organizational chaos since more work is authorized than people have time to work (a capacity management issue).

In a future post we may explore success factors for managing the project pipeline, but for now it is sufficient to highlight two success factors: strong strategic leadership and clear screening criteria. When senior leaders can say “no” to projects for the right reasons, this will foster a leaner project pipeline and healthier project portfolio. Clear screening criteria make it easier for senior leadership to say no to misaligned projects, which requires a solid understanding of organizational goals and objectives.

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Portfolio Planning vs Strategic Planning


Too often, the modus operandi for many organizations is to receive requests and filter them through a stage-gate process in order to evaluate the merit of the request and select the right projects. If the project is selected, a project team is assembled and the project planning begins. There is nothing wrong with this process, in fact, it is an important component of portfolio management.  The shortcoming relates to the lack of strategic planning and portfolio planning.

Strategic planning occurs once a strategic direction has been established within the organization. It is beyond the scope of this post to discuss how strategy is developed. Rather, our focus is on executing the strategy. The primary assumption is that strategies have been developed. From here, the senior leaders should be able to outline the major items they believe are necessary to accomplish or fulfill the strategy. These major items help define what the company intends to do on a larger scale (“the big whats”).  Going one step further, the senior leaders may have an idea of when these major items need to be initiated. With this information, a strategic roadmap can be built to lay out when major components of the strategies should be executed. This strategic roadmap is a critical component of strategic planning.  At this point, we are looking at strategic components from a 50,000 foot view. Few details may exist for each major component listed. If more information can be provided, all the better. The critical point is that the senior leaders outline some of the major items needed for the completion of the strategy.

Before the traditional portfolio management practitioners raise their arms in protest, I would point out that all of these projects will be reviewed like any other project and need to be prioritized. The creation of a strategic roadmap does not violate key PPM principles. Rather, the strategic roadmap aids the portfolio planning process by acknowledging major efforts that need to be undertaken. Without this view, it is all too easy for decision makers to approve projects (perhaps the right projects) at the wrong time. The creation of a strategic roadmap is a proactive step of leadership to better manage the portfolio. It is far easier to anticipate resource shortages when you can see all of the major efforts on the horizon. It is also easier to acknowledge the need for strong prioritization when key strategic projects compete for resources with smaller projects. The strategic roadmap is a key deliverable of the strategic planning process and is a major input for good portfolio planning.

Portfolio planning at a more tactical level helps senior leadership know when projects will get worked. Portfolio planning improves overall portfolio success by taking into account the limited resources (financial and human) and comparing this against known project dependencies in order to properly sequence projects. Strategic planning is proactive work that outlines the major components needed to accomplish strategic goals. Strategic planning will not account for the numerous small projects that get requested throughout the year (that’s the role of the portfolio management process).   Portfolio planning utilizes select information from all project requests (large and small) to sequence the projects (based on dependencies, resource constraints, and priorities) in a way that creates an ideal portfolio at a given point in time.

Portfolio Planning3

The chart above highlights three parallel steps of the planning process: strategic planning, portfolio planning, and project planning. Strategic planning often covers a 1-3 year planning horizon (or longer) and is generally longer than portfolio planning and project planning (except for large and/or complex projects).

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Greater Value From Portfolio Management Systems


Portfolio management systems have a very real place in making PPM processes successful. These systems have the potential to drive value in a number of ways, some of which are highlighted below:

1) Enterprise repository (“single source of truth”)—having a single system that contains up-to-date and accurate project and portfolio data is valuable. Gone are the days of maintaining multiple versions of static Excel files that contain the current “authorized” list of projects. This value is magnified the easier it is to access the system and the greater the number of users who access the system.

2) Process enabler—on top of merely storing project and portfolio data, portfolio management systems can better enable portfolio processes through workflow automation. This is particularly useful for stage-gate project reviews that have a number of review steps and need approval by multiple parties.  Portfolio management system can also better enable project management and capacity management processes. Thus the tool reduces the amount of work needed to carry out these processes, reducing lead time and costs.

3) Portfolio tools—portfolio management systems commonly come with tools that make portfolio management easier overall. One clear example is portfolio optimization, which is difficult (if not impossible) with spreadsheets and other databases. Portfolio management systems can make this otherwise difficult job easier by providing the tools needed to effectively get the job done.

4) Reporting and analytics—one of the greatest benefits of utilizing portfolio management systems is to get accurate and up-to-date reports on the status and health of projects, programs, and portfolios. Buying a portfolio management system and not utilizing the reporting capabilities or analytics is like buying a car with only two gears—you’ll make progress but not as quickly as you will by providing decision makers with insightful information and up-to-date reports.

The critical question then is, “how much value are you getting out of your portfolio management system?” If the cost of the system plus the cost of entering data plus the cost of maintaining the system exceeds the value of the information coming out of it, senior leadership either needs to reconsider its ways or change its portfolio management system.

As we discussed in an earlier post, leadership plays a huge part in making sure the right data gets fed into the system at the right time. Yet, leadership plays just as big of a role in making sure the organization gets value from its portfolio management system. Let’s quickly review the four areas where companies can derive value from portfolio management systems and the potential risks.

1) Enterprise repository—if employees and managers do not access the system often, or if there are competing places to get similar project and portfolio data, the system loses value.

2) Process enabler—if project and portfolio processes are not regularly followed, then the effort to load the system with data to enable those processes is a waste of time.

3) Portfolio tools—if the organization does not leverage the tools available in its portfolio management system, then it paid extra money for tools it doesn’t use.

4) Reporting and analytics—if senior management does not pull reports and use the data, then all the effort to ensure that quality data is going into the system is a waste of time. Even worse, if management does not communicate that it uses the data and demonstrate how it uses the data, the organization easily becomes skeptical of the value of portfolio management.

What value do you currently get from your portfolio management systems? Have you encountered any of the problems mentioned above?

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Tactical or Strategic PPM


Fundamentally, portfolio management is about strategic execution and maximizing value to the organization through important project investments. Through various processes, leadership teams can determine how well their project investments align to key strategic goals. Optimization techniques can further enhance the value of the portfolio, ensuring that organizations get the biggest bang for their project buck. Nevertheless, some organizations turn to portfolio management to merely help at the tactical level—getting projects done—and are less concerned with using portfolio management for strategic execution. Organizations should be mindful of their portfolio management approach—is it strategic, tactical, or both?

Tactically, portfolio management as a discipline can help organizations execute projects through better portfolio planning which includes: short-term resource capacity management, managing dependencies, and sequencing projects.

1) Resource capacity management from a short-term tactical perspective (less than six months) enables organizations to minimize over-utilization and unnecessary multi-tasking, both of which increase the risk of failed project delivery. By protecting organizational capacity, projects are more likely to have key team members available when needed to accomplish project work. In addition, fewer projects usually means less multi-tasking which is a known killer of project success.

2) Managing dependencies at the portfolio level starts with identifying all the upstream and downstream relationships to each project in the portfolio. More dependencies means more complexity and increases the overall risk to portfolio success. This is not merely a program management function, but is part of portfolio planning because such dependencies can span across the entire portfolio. When organizations understand the dependencies between projects, the portfolio management team (PMT) can make better tactical decisions to ensure that upstream projects do not negatively impact downstream projects.

3) Project sequencing is another part of portfolio planning because it is related to managing dependencies. Some dependencies affect project schedules (finish-to-start, finish to finish, etc.) and in order for these projects to be successful, project sequencing needs to be managed. The PMT should understand these relationships in order to initiate projects at the right time otherwise projects could be launched too soon only to find out that other work needs to be completed first (resulting in delays and likely re-work).

Although project portfolio management (PPM) has been traditionally performed to support strategic execution, some organizations may use a sub-set of the portfolio processes and adopt a more tactical approach to portfolio management. While this may seem less than ideal to seasoned portfolio management practitioners, it still yields benefits for existing projects and programs, and can ensure greater success than if no portfolio processes were utilized.

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The Value of Time Tracking


What is the real value in tracking time for project and non-project work?  The fact is collecting accurate time measurements across an entire organization can be time consuming and potentially expensive. Collecting time for the sake of collecting time is a huge waste of good organizational energy. I have compiled a list of six reasons for tracking time with the corresponding assumptions for each benefit.

1) Calculate variance metrics (e.g. earned-value management)

Assumption:  managers or project managers actually use the variance reports to take good corrective action. Some organizations collect earned value metrics or other variance metrics but do little with the data. “Doing” earned value management is a waste of time unless positive action is taken as a result.

 

2) Calculate time to complete (based on effort-driven scheduling)

Assumption: project managers have built an effort-driven  schedule. I have never met a project manager that built a truly effort-driven schedule, let alone use time tracking to drive estimated completion dates.

 

3) Track overall project costs

Assumption: it is important to track actual project costs. If a customer will be billed for work done on a project, then it makes sense to track time. However, for many organizations that serve internal organizations, trying to track actual costs may not be the best use of company resources. Of course senior leadership would like to know the final cost of a completed project, but the big question is how will that information be used in the future to drive strategic decision making? Very few organizations look back at completed projects to get a better understanding of the cost of similar future projects. Unless there is high data integrity and dedicated resources to analyze historical data, you are far better off improving your resource estimation and capacity planning processes as this will improve portfolio decision making.

 

4) Track capital expenditures

Assumption: capital expenditures are a recurring part of doing business. With the tax benefits associated with capital expenditures, time tracking here makes a lot of sense and can be limited to the people associated with development, not for every person on the team.

 

5) Collect historical data for future parametric estimating

Assumption: organizational discipline is in place to use historical data for parametric estimating.  As good as it sounds, parametric estimating requires a high degree of discipline and rigor to make it successful.  Only mature organizations will be able to do it.

 

6) Collect resource data for capacity planning purposes

Assumption: capacity planning is being done in the organization. Even though capacity planning is done with forecasted resource estimates, using historical data can help managers better understand how much time a resource really spends on project work. This information can then be used to block out non-project time, with the balance of time available as the resource’s project capacity.

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What Are We Optimizing? Part 1


Portfolio optimization entails all the steps necessary to construct an optimal portfolio given current limitations and constraints. These steps occur repeatedly in the portfolio management lifecycle and work in tandem with Stage-Gate processes for selecting the right projects. The purpose of optimization is to maximize the portfolio value under certain constraints. Understanding and managing these constraints is critical for making portfolio optimization a useful component of the portfolio management process.

We can optimize a portfolio in multiple ways:
1) Cost-value optimization (aka ‘efficient frontier analysis’)
2) Resource optimization (aka ‘capacity management’)
3) Schedule optimization (project sequencing)
4) Work type optimization (portfolio balancing)

The question then is, when we are optimizing the portfolio, what is it that we are optimizing? Many portfolio management computing systems promote efficient frontier analysis which commonly focuses on cost-value optimization. However, as useful as this is, it does not often take into account resource optimization, schedule optimization, or even work-type optimization.  It is possible for portfolio systems to include some of these constraints, but most are not advertised in that way.

Furthermore, it is fundamental to understand the limitations and constraints on the portfolio, for without knowing the constraints it is not possible to optimize the portfolio and maximize organizational value.  The constraint for cost-value optimization is the available budget. This helps us determine an optimal budget based on limited financial resources. The constraint for resource optimization is human resource availability. This can be measured in a number of ways and will be discussed in another post. Optimizing against critical resource availability is recommended. Schedule optimization is focused on project timing and dependencies. Work type optimization is focused on categorical designations (i.e. portfolio balancing—how much do we want to invest in key areas).

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The Goal of Resource Capacity Management


Resource capacity planning is a hot topic in portfolio management discussions because it is one of the key steps for optimizing the portfolio, but it is also one of the most difficult processes to perform. For most organizations that operate in a multi-project environment, project demand far outweighs resource supply. Overloading the project pipeline puts added strain to organizational resources and reduces the likelihood of portfolio success. In organizations where human resources are over-utilized, excess overtime and recovery exercises can become common because project teams do not have enough time to complete all work on time. This can lead to delayed projects, and in the long-run, burns people out and lowers morale. Having under-utilized human resources can also be a problem, but not quite as serious as over-utilized resources.

The primary goal of portfolio management is to maximize the value an organization can deliver through its projects based on limited resources. The goal then of resource capacity management is to protect capacity in order to optimize the portfolio. In other words, the portfolio steering team needs to be very careful about approving projects that overload the system as this can very quickly increase the risk of not meeting portfolio commitments. Approving the highest value projects without overloading the system is a key success factor for portfolio management. The fundamental point is to make sure the organization is executing the most important work within the limitations of its current resource capacity. Therefore, capacity management therefore helps answer two fundamental questions:

  1. When do we have capacity to commit to additional work? (Portfolio oriented for portfolio optimization)
  2. Are resources available to complete our committed work? (Project oriented for project execution)

The first question is portfolio oriented because it is looking into the future to understand when new project work can be accepted into the portfolio. This step is critical because it directly affects project execution. Managing resource capacity at the portfolio level helps control work in progress (WIP). Controlling WIP directly benefits project execution because it limits the amount of bad multi-tasking. When resources are significantly over-committed, some activities do not receive adequate attention, thus raising the risk of schedule slides. Therefore, the first step in capacity management is to control the WIP by only approving projects when resources are available or when lower priority work is put on hold in order to free up additional resources for higher priority work. Understanding the organizational resource capacity helps draw a boundary (a constraint) around the amount of project work that can be reasonably accomplished by the organization. Without any boundaries, management may unknowingly authorize more project work and overload the system.

The second question is focused on short-term resource availability and is project execution oriented because the project manager needs to understand if resources are available to accomplish near-term work. If WIP is controlled, then fewer resources should be over-allocated, thus promoting more successful project completions.

Capacity Management Example

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