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


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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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.


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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Pipeline Management-Stage Gates Part 2

Stage gates are a governance structure to evaluate, authorize, and monitor projects as they pass through the project lifecycle. In the last post, we looked at the first four reasons for establishing a stage gate process in the organization. In this post, we conclude with the last four reasons for establishing a decision gate process.

5) Greater visibility of important projects
The stage gate process provides much needed visibility to the entire organization of what  projects are being reviewed and what is the current status of each project. Without a decision gate process, it is easy to lose track of projects, and even worse, shadow projects get approved without formal reviews, eroding portfolio value.

6) Monitor the progress/outcome of project work
A stage gate process not only allows greater visibility of work, but also provide a mechanism for tracking progress and status of projects at different phases of the process. Projects that have been stalled in a particular phase or are in difficulty can receive help from , senior management faster because the projects are being monitored.

7) Improves communication throughout the organization
Communication throughout the organization is improved and strengthened by providing greater visibility of projects in the stage gate process. By utilizing a common project language and having a consistent process, employees will better understand the work being done across the company.

8 ) Provides structure to the project management process
Finally, the stage gate process provides structure for the project management process by determining a minimal set of project deliverables needed for gate reviews. Although the decision gate process by itself does not replace a formal project management methodology, it does standardize the process for bringing projects through each review phase, thus reducing confusion and strengthening the project management process.

Do you have a decision gate process in your organization? How well is it working? Let us know.

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Pipeline Management-Stage Gates Part 1

Stage-Gates™ 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. There are eight reasons for developing a decision gate process, and Part 1 looks at the first four reasons:

1.    Screen out misaligned projects
A Stage gate process functions as a filter to screen out poorly aligned projects. Every organization will have more projects than it can execute, which requires the PMT to carefully select which project enter the portfolio. Some projects may look good on paper but are completely misaligned from the organizational objectives and strategies. When organizations have well established evaluation criteria, decision gates are an excellent way of filtering out these misaligned projects.

2.    Control the flow of incoming work 

Stage gates are also a valve to control the number of projects entering into the portfolio. Even if every proposed project is a winner, the organization still has limited capacity to execute the work. Therefore, projects need to be initiated at the right time so that the organization is not overloaded with work. This process works in parallel with portfolio planning (discussed in the next chapter) to authorize projects at the right time.


3.    Enables management to direct (steer) the scope of project work
Stage gate reviews afford senior management an opportunity to direct the scope of projects. There will almost always be more than one way to execute a project. Mature and successful organizations review the statement of work for each project and identify “must have” versus “nice to have” components of scope. This is important because it gives the PMT options when selection projects and does not force them into making “all or nothing” decisions.

4.    Evaluate and prioritize workload
Stage gate processes provide decision makers with project deliverables that contain key project information. The deliverables themselves ensure consistency in the process and helps ensure that a good project plan is in place. This information also directly feeds the prioritization process (which will be discussed in a later chapter). Without good project information, prioritization is inconsistent and poorly conducted. This information also helps the PMT commit the right resources to the right projects at the right time.

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Project Pipeline Management

Project pipeline management is an important component of project portfolio management (PPM) because it encompasses the work needed to “select the right projects”. Pipeline management involves steps to ensure that an adequate number of project proposals are generated, evaluated, and screened out at various stages of the intake process that meet strategic objectives. There are four major sub-components to pipeline management: ideation, work in-take processes, and Stage-Gate™ reviews illustrated in the figure below.

1) Ideation
Ideation is the process by which new project ideas are generated. This is slightly different from the work in-take process by which project requests are formally brought forward to a governance board. Ideation is important for collecting the best ideas from the organization, for collecting a sufficient number of project proposals to generate higher quality projects, and to maintain a healthy organization by engaging employees to submit their ideas.

2) Opportunity Management
Opportunity management complements ideation and further strengthens the project selection process. Some ideas may be great, but for one reason or another, the timing is not right or some other constraint makes the execution of the idea difficult or impossible. For this reason, organizations should establish a “parking lot” of good ideas waiting to enter the project pipeline. This parking lot is really a collection of all of the opportunities waiting to be captured.  The processes for managing opportunities are similar to the processes for managing risks except that opportunities are future events that could produce positive outcomes for the organization. Opportunities often fall into the “should do” or “could do” categories, but enable organizations to achieve more or perform better than planned. Without an opportunity management process, organizations risk losing visibility of potentially beneficial future projects.

3) Work In-Take
The work in-take process refers to the steps of developing a project proposal and bringing it to the governance board for a go/no-go decision. This process works in conjunction with both ideation and stage-gate, but can also be a standalone process. When used with ideation and Stage-gate, the work in-take process helps bridge these other two processes together.  The work in-take process is important so that all project proposals are created in a consistent manner with common tools and processes. The unintended consequences of not having a work in-take process include organizational confusion, time delays, and quality erosion.

4)  Decision Gates
Decision gates (also known as Stage-Gate™) are a critical component of pipeline management. A winning portfolio must contain winning projects, therefore the portfolio management team (PMT) must be able to discriminate between good projects and great projects. The decision gate process enables the PMT 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 Portfolio Management Team 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.

Project Pipeline Management


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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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