In a recent LinkedIn discussion, questions were asked about the short-comings of prioritization matrices. I would like to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of using such a tool for portfolio management. Firstly, a prioritization matrix differs from a more traditional scoring approach in that it offers a limited number of priority selections. The most simplistic prioritization matrix has three choices, low, medium, and high. Of course, to be effective, every choice should have some predefined criteria. Otherwise, the matrix is of little value because decision makers can have wildly different views for what is of high importance versus low importance.
Prioritization matrices have three primary strengths: simplicity, speed, and applicability to all types of work. Prioritization matrices are easy to understand and simple to use. Calculations are not required for determining the relative priority of a project. Basic criteria should be developed for each part of the matrix, but once complete, decision makers can apply the criteria to various types of work. Because of its simplicity, prioritization becomes a much faster exercise and allows decision makers to quickly distinguish important projects from less important projects. In addition, various kinds of work can be prioritized using a prioritization matrix. With a traditional scoring model, it is difficult to evaluate “keep the lights on” type of work, but with a prioritization matrix it is easier to compare priorities for project and non-project work.
Prioritization matrices are unable to produce a rank ordered list of projects in a portfolio. At best, such a matrix can provide a categorical ranking of projects in the portfolio, but this won’t help prioritize projects within the same category. Prioritization matrices cannot do a good job of evaluating projects based on multiple criteria, and therefore cannot do a thorough job of distinguishing important projects from less important projects. When evaluating multiple large projects, a scoring system will provide a more accurate analysis over a prioritization matrix.
When Should a Prioritization Matrix Be Used?
Prioritization matrices are good for organizations new to the portfolio management process. Due to the simplicity, organizations can quickly get the benefit of prioritization without spending the time to do a thorough scoring of each project. Even in organizations where projects are scored and ranked, prioritization matrices can be used for “pre-screening” purposes to do a preliminary prioritization. This would be commonly used in a stage-gate process before a formal business case has been developed. A governance team could quickly determine a categorical priority for the project at an early gate review. Prioritization matrices can also be used to triage large volumes of project requests to focus the organization on the hottest projects. I have seen this approach used in an organization that received a high volume of small project requests. In this case, scoring would be an over-kill; the organization just needed to determine the most important work at that time.
From a very pragmatic point of view, getting the right data at the right time is at the heart of good project portfolio management. If the right data is not available for decision makers to use, the issue will be mediocre results at best. Portfolio management is about selecting the right projects, optimizing the portfolio to deliver maximum benefit, protecting portfolio value to ensure that that value is delivered, and improving portfolio value by maturing organizational processes. At every step, data is required. The quality and quantity of data correlates to portfolio maturity. Some less mature organizations will collect insufficient data which leads to sub-optimal decisions. Other organizations may try to collect too much data before they are ready to utilize it and can do more harm than good by burning out employees with burdensome processes. Mature organizations will have the discipline and rigor to collect the right amount of quality data.
Therefore, understanding the data needed upfront is a success factor for portfolio management. There are several types of portfolio data:
- Strategic data
- Resource data
- Schedule data (forecasts and actuals)
- Performance data
- Financial data (estimates and actuals)
- Time tracking
- Request data
Senior management bears the responsibility for identifying the right data to be used in the portfolio management process. In addition, senior leadership needs to drive the accountability for collecting the right data. Without active engagement and feedback from senior management, data quality can suffer.
Organizational processes are very important for ensuring that the right data is collected. Selecting the right projects requires that good data is collected about each candidate project. Such data must be relevant to the senior management team that makes portfolio decisions. Data that is not used for decision making or information sharing is considered a waste. Collecting data comes at a cost, and organizations need to put the right processes in place in order to collect good data. From this angle, portfolio management processes are about collecting a sufficient amount of the right data. Without good standards and processes, important portfolio data will be collected inconsistently resulting in confusion and possible error.
Portfolio tools have a very important place in the portfolio management ecosystem, but only after leadership has identified what is required and lean processes have been created to facilitate data collection. Portfolio systems store and transform project and portfolio data for general consumption (aka reporting and analytics). For less mature organizations with fewer data requirements, simple portfolio systems such as Excel and Sharepoint can be used in the portfolio process. Maturing organizations should select portfolio software that meets the needs of its data requirements.
Lastly, senior leadership needs to use the data in the system for making better portfolio decisions. Strong portfolio systems will generate the reports and analytics necessary to support better investment decisions. Good data is the fuel that makes the portfolio engine run! Without good ‘fuel’, senior management will be unable to drive the organization toward its strategic goals. The data perspective of portfolio management begins and ends with senior leadership.
Benefits and Beyond: Rethinking the Strategic Value of Project, Program, and Portfolio Management (Mark Langley-PMI and Matt Light, Gartner )
- We need to be able to answer the question, “Why did we do what we did?”
- Benefits realization is a process throughout the project management lifecycle (among high performing organizations) not just at the end.
- We have an increased need for leadership.
- We need two types of project managers: those who are project capable, and a select group of turn-around artists who can also train/mentor junior project managers.
- Benefits realization = ACCOUNTABILITY, which requires a ‘culture of PPM’
- Organizations should match talent with appropriate projects
- If you don’t have a business case, you are guaranteed to not know whether you achieved anticipated value
- Finally, it requires leaders to deliver benefits
Follow the Yellow Brick Road (Michael Hanford, Gartner )
Pros and Cons of Centralized PMO
- Pros: Can develop a better project management culture faster, everyone reports to the same director
- Cons: business knowledge ages, disconnected group from the rest of the business
Identifying and Harnessing Complexity in Projects, Programs, and Portfolios (Robert Handler, Gartner )
- See: A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making for more information on the Cynefin model
- Work in the Simple area of the Cynefin model should not be projectized
- 80% of projects reside in the complicated area
- 20% of projects are likely in the complex area (but drive 80% of the value).
PPM Marketscope (Daniel Stang, Gartner )
- Out of the box report is weak for many PPM vendors
- Most companies never get past time tracking
- It can take 3+ years to resolve resource management challenges
- With new implementations, start small and provide ‘just enough’ visibility
In a previous blog post, I commented on doing portfolio management ‘by hand’ to learn the processes before adopting a robust portfolio tool. In a recent discussion on LinkedIn, one consultant commented that this most successful PPM software implementations occurred when companies took a phased approach to ease in the new solution. The first phase involved simpler tools to allow the organization to become familiar with portfolio management, followed by the full implementation with the advanced PPM capabilities.
After reading this I felt that there was a lot of wisdom in such an approach. Firstly, it gives the organization time to develop their own portfolio processes without the burden of learning a new tool upfront. Secondly, it allows stakeholders (ie. Project managers, steering team, etc) to understand portfolio processes and be comfortable using them. Third, based on the early experience with project portfolio management, the organization will better understand their own requirements for a full fledged tool.
In a great article on IT Project Portfolio Management, Jonathan Feldman asks organizations to consider the problem they are trying to solve and start with high level data rather than getting too detailed. “If you know what the end goal is, you can start to quantify how close you are to that goal”. Great advice as this too points to the need for a phased approach to implementing portfolio management.
What are your lessons learned with your portfolio management implementations?
Bubble charts are common place in portfolio management processes. Without a designated portfolio management tool, I have designed bubble charts by hand using Excel and PowerPoint. To determine a ‘value’, we use our prioritization value scores and compare that among projects. We have risk scores as part of our prioritization criteria that drive the ‘risk’ portion of our bubble charts. The challenge in the past was how to interpret a score. Is a score of 500 good or bad? Since my organization was experimenting with a new prioritization process, we didn’t know what was good or bad. Therefore, I made the decision to normalize the scores so that we could fairly compare good or bad projects within the portfolio rather than try to determine a threshold for ‘good’ projects. This has been helpful in identifying which projects drive more overall value to the organization compared to other current projects in the portfolio. The downside of this however, is that you are always going to have a few projects that look bad. Until now, I had been normalizing only among current projects in the portfolio, yet it suddenly dawned on me this morning, that I should also normalize among all projects, past and current in order to understand whether we get more value now than in the past.
One advantage of a bubble chart is to locate those projects that are higher value and lower risk and ask the question, “how can we get more of these types of projects in the portfolio?” Likewise with the lower value higher risk projects, we should ask how to avoid those types of projects. By normalizing with respect to past and current projects, we will see whether or not the projects are moving toward the higher value lower risk quadrant.
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.
Strategic execution must accompany strategic planning, otherwise the strategic objectives and goals simply becomes words on a page. In my experience, I have seen companies post their strategies on a wall without any method or approach for ensuring that those strategies are accomplished. About 30 years ago, a survey was conducted highlighting that about 90% of strategies were never fulfilled. Unfortunately, there is little indication that this figure has dropped much. Hence, there is a strong need for strategic execution.
While ‘strategic execution’ may come across as a mere buzz word, some explanation will help articulate what strategic execution is about. Execution-MIH, specialists in the field of execution management, would describe strategic execution as the ability to translate strategy into reality. It is one thing to develop a strategy, it is another thing to make it actionable and achievable. “[Execution management] is not just accomplishing a task or a goal, but also to achieve the underlying business objectives…Good execution management will focus on the WHAT as well as the HOW of an achievement.“ Too often, executives focus on the what, but pay too little attention on the how.
Gary Cokins, a strategist at software company SAS, has pointed out that decision makers need discipline to utilize a comprehensive performance management approach described as “a closed-loop, integrated system that spans the complete management planning and control cycle.” Project portfolio management (PPM) is the comprehensive performance management approach that Gary Cokins is referring to and is the bridge between strategic execution and operational excellence. Having articulated the strategic goals and objectives for an organization, projects and programs are launched that directly accomplish the goals and objectives. These projects and programs become the HOW referred to above. Although some strategic decisions are related to policy changes, most strategic goals require work to be done for its fulfillment. Projects and programs therefore help get this work done, and thus become the vehicles for strategic execution.
In summary, strategic execution is how companies accomplish their strategies. It begins with strategy development and continues with strategic planning. This information feeds a portfolio management system which identifies the best projects and programs (including priority and sequence) and optimizes against resource capacity. The completion of these projects and programs signals the transition of the project work into operations. Once all of the necessary projects and programs related to a particular strategy are complete, the organization should realize the benefits of its strategy.
When I think of strategic leadership, particular characteristics stand out that influence the type of leader I would like to be; I will touch briefly on each point.
1) “Walk the talk”—this relates to how real and genuine a leader is, otherwise the ability to lead will diminish due to hypocrisy. A couple examples may help illustrate the point. When a PMO manager or executive states that earned value management is important, yet rarely reviews the data, and worse, never acts on the data, the manager sends a message that is full of “talk” with no “walk”. Or, when senior managers try to maintain a semblance of governance yet make exceptions to the process, the hypocrisy weakens the governance process.
2) Accountability—a leader not only needs to hold himself/herself accountable in order to walk the talk, but also needs to hold other people accountable. There is a lot to say about accountability, but strategic leadership will drive accountability within the organizations. This is not easy, and requires my third point, backbone.
3) Backbone—refers to the leader’s ability to stay true to their values and decisions in the face of opposition or pressure. Portfolio management is a cross roads of many facets of the business. A good strategic leader may get caught in the cross fire between organizations, but will not back down until problems can be reviewed and resolved.
More to come on strategic leadership…
Leadership differs from management, most of us agree with that. In regards to portfolio management, strategic leadership is critical. Peter Drucker has an infamous quote about the difference between leadership and management, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” The distinction between project and portfolio management has also been made with a similar quote, “Project Management is about doing the work right, portfolio management is about doing the right work.” While I wouldn’t minimize the need for project leadership , I would argue that strategic leadership at the portfolio level is critical for making portfolio management sucessful. If we equate the two quotes above, we can see that portfolio management is very much related to effective leadership, because good leaders make sure the right work is getting done.
A lot of articles and books have been written on portfolio management mechanics (“how to”), but very little time has been spent on strategic leadership in relation to portfolio management. In a very general way, we can agree that portfolio management is about doing the right work , but people have to decide what work gets done. Without effective leadership, the right work may not get done (due to pet projects, short-sightedness, etc.).
In a recent discussion on LinkedIn regarding portfolio tool implementations, one consultant commented that the most successful deployments have been done in phases with an upgrade to a more sophisticated tool being done after improving process maturity.
Such an approach makes a lot of sense and could be likened to using a calculator after learning how to do math by hand. I think the analogy is appropriate. Educators encourage kids to learn the basic and important mathematical skills before using a calculator so that they understand foundational concepts.
The same could apply to project portfolio management in the sense that organizations are better off learning the portfolio mechanics and process disciplines ‘by hand’ before jumping into a dedicated portfolio tool. I believe that those organizations that learn to do PPM ‘by hand’ will end up maturing faster and/or utilizing a full fledged portfolio tool better than had they gone straight to the sophisticated software. The advantage is in learning the processes behind the tool. “A fool with a tool is still a fool”, but if the ‘fool’ can learn portfolio processes, the organization will not ‘toy’ around with portfolio software but will yield greater results due to the process maturity.
I personally have learned a lot by creating portfolio charts and calculating prioritization scores ‘by hand’. As a result, I have a much better understanding of what a dedicated portfolio tool should do based on the processes we have developed.