Beware of Project Dependencies


Managing Project Dependencies

Managing project dependencies are an important part of portfolio planning as well as tactically managing project execution. Unknown dependencies represent a major portfolio risk and in complex environments, inadequate identification of project dependencies can derail projects or programs. Dependencies can be any deliverable, process, standard, technology, or product that is produced by one project team (or work group) but impacts another project or program. Projects that impact other projects may be referred to as upstream projects, predecessors, or givers. Projects that are impacted by other projects may be referred to as downstream projects, successors, or receivers.

Senior leadership needs to proactively manage and monitor project dependencies within the portfolio. If left unmanaged, the negative impact of such dependencies can severely affect schedule, scope, and cost. Schedule slides will be the most common impact when project teams have a technical dependency with another project and need certain deliverables to fulfill the scope of the project, but higher project costs can be incurred when projects are delayed or reworked due to scope changes. When a downstream project is impacted by an upstream project, the dependent project may still be able to move forward with reduced scope or an expensive scope change required to accommodate a work around as a result of the dependency. I have seen expensive work-arounds implemented as temporary (i.e. “throw away”) solutions that would not have been developed had the upstream deliverables been ready on time.

Proactive management of project dependencies can significantly reduce these risks and expenses. Senior leaders should ask the right questions at gate reviews such as, “what is the real impact to this project if upstream project deliverables are not ready in time?” Will it impact the schedule by a week? By a month? Or longer?” “Are workarounds available if upstream project deliverables are not ready in time?” “If yes, what is the cost of the workaround?”

Thorough investigation and planning is needed in order to mitigate against these risks. Good portfolio planning will give decision makers the information they need to launch the right new projects at the right time and sequence the work in the right order to minimize schedule delays, scope change, and budget increases. When it makes sense, a program manager may be needed to oversee the execution of related projects and help manage dependencies between multiple projects. Furthermore, without understanding the relationships between projects, senior management may make a decision regarding one project without understanding the downstream repercussions to dependent projects.  Having this information will also help decision makers make better decisions about in-flight projects. Understanding the impacts of one project on another project is very important, but may be missed unless dependencies are proactively tracked and managed.

The Types of Project Dependencies

There are several types of dependencies that portfolio teams should be aware of:

  • Technical dependencies: “a relationship between two projects that affects the technical outcome of project deliverables”. A technical dependency exists when one project cannot move forward (easily) without a deliverable from another project. This is similar to a finish-to-start relationship common in project schedules, except that it exists between projects. Example: in the IT environment projects may need certain infrastructure to be in place before the project solution can be released. If another project is responsible for setting up the new infrastructure, then there is a hard dependency between the two projects. Having multiple dependencies of this type only compounds the problem and quickly increases the complexity of completing the project on time, within scope, and within budget.
  • Schedule dependencies: (sometimes referred to as a synchronization dependency): “a relationship between two projects where the timing of one project impacts the outcome of another project”. A schedule dependency occurs when project deliverables are needed at the same time in order for both projects to finish. An IT example would be one project decommissioning a system but waiting on another project to complete a data warehouse needed to archive the legacy system’s data. This type of dependency is similar to a finish-to-finish relationship common in project schedules.
  • Resource dependencies: “a shared critical resource between two projects”. A resource dependency only exists when critical resources are shared between projects. This dependency type is often managed at the portfolio level and resource manager level, but project teams should be aware of shared critical resources. If one project is off track and needs additional unplanned effort from critical resources, the other projects may be impacted as well.
  • Information dependencies: this is a less critical relationship, but may be worth noting so that important information is communicated to the impacted projects in a timely way. There are two aspects of an information dependency:
    1. Information shared from one project to another that would impact the latter’s scope or approach to completing the project. An informational dependency commonly exists when there is a known touch point between two projects and is based on changes to engineering standards, operational procedures, architecture, security, etc. For example, one project is working on changes to certain standards and procedures that affects another project. The upstream project team may not yet know what the final deliverable or solution is, but a downstream project knows that the results may impact its project’s design. There may not be a technical deliverable as described above, but changes to standards and procedures could create future re-work, so both project teams need to stay in close communication.
    2. The need to incorporate the capabilities and knowledge gained through another project. In this instance, important information gained from one project team should be passed on to another project team. This may occur more often in engineering environments.

In addition to the various dependency types, it is also important to denote the level of impact for each dependency. This is similar to project risk management where the level of impact varies from risk to risk. Impact could be measured in terms of schedule delays, scope impacts, and cost. Mature organizations may use more sophisticated methods of measuring impact, but less mature organizations can utilize a simple high, medium, low scoring to denote levels of impact. In the next post we will cover the tactics of managing project dependencies.

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Portfolio Optimization—Data and Constraints


In our hyper-accelerated business world, data analysis and data visualization are exceptionally important. In the realm of project portfolio management (PPM) and PMO’s, organizations need robust data analysis to strengthen decision making and improve strategic execution. The key is to have the right processes in place to collect the right data and ensure that the data is of good quality. As I have said before, data collection is not free; any data that is collected but not actively used is a waste of organizational resources. Knowing what information is needed to drive better decision making will help ensure that only important data is collected. Therefore, organizations should wisely consider what metrics, analytics, and reports are most important to senior leaders and then develop or improve the processes that drive the collection of that data. The power of having good portfolio data is to conduct strong portfolio optimization.

3 LEVELS OF ANALYSIS

Once organizations have a stable foundation for PMO/PPM data collection, they can embark on the data analysis journey. The graphic below highlights three levels of data analysis:

  • Descriptive analysis—this helps answer the basic “what has happened?” This level of analysis is the most basic as it is fact-based and is required for developing key performance indicators and dashboards.
  • Predictive analysis—this helps answer a more important question, “what will happen?” With sufficient data, organizations can begin to predict outcomes, especially related to project risk and project performance and the impact to project delivery as well as the portfolio as a whole.
  • Prescriptive analysis—this helps answer a more difficult question “what should we do?” This requires more detailed and advanced analysis to determine the optimal path against a set of potential choices. Prescriptive analysis of the portfolio provides significant benefits by enabling organizations to choose the highest value portfolio and choose a group of projects with a higher likelihood of success.

pmo-analytic-capabilities

 

PORTFOLIO OPTIMIZATION

Portfolio optimization is major part of the prescriptive analysis described above. Organizations should endeavor to get to this point because it delivers substantial value and significantly improve strategic execution. In order to optimize any part of the portfolio, organizations must understand the constraints that exist (e.g. budgetary, resource availability, etc.). These constraints are the limiting factors that enable optimal scenarios to be produced. There are four basic types of portfolio optimization described below:

  1. Cost-Value Optimization: this is the most popular type of portfolio optimization and utilizes efficient frontier analysis. The basic constraint of cost-value optimization is the portfolio budget.
  2. Resource Optimization: this is another popular way of optimizing the portfolio, and utilizes capacity management analysis. The basic constraint of resource optimization is human resource availability.
  3. Schedule Optimization: this type of optimization is associated with project sequencing, which relates to project interdependencies. The basic constraints of schedule optimization are project timing and project dependencies.
  4. Work Type Optimization: this is a lesser known way of optimizing the portfolio, but corresponds to a more common term, portfolio balancing. The basic constraints of work-type optimization are categorical designations.

APPROACH

The following diagram summarizes the above points and highlights how having the right data inputs combined with constraints and other strategic criteria can produce optimial outputs across four dimensions of portfolio optimization.

PMO Analytic Framework for Portfolio Optimization

Point B Consulting’s 5-step methodology for conducting PMO analytics enables organizations to realize the full potential of their analytic processes.

  • Define: Determine the performance criteria for measuring PMO/PPM success and develop a set of questions / hypotheses for further modeling and investigation
  • Transform: Gather and transform all available resource, project, business data for further visualization and analysis
  • Visualize: Inventory all projects with related resources and highlight key trends/insights based on project and business data
  • Evaluate: Develop analytic framework to test, adjust, and optimize against tradeoffs between project sequencing, resource allocation, and portfolio value
  • Recommend: Develop a final set of project prioritization recommendations for desired future state

 

In summary, portfolio optimization delivers significant strategic benefits to any organization, but getting the right processes in place to collect good data is not easy. Having the right data can enable your organization to know what is happening to the portfolio (descriptive analysis), what could happen (predictive analysis), and what senior leaders should do (prescriptive analysis).

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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 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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Five Uses of a Prioritization Scoring Model


Project prioritization is one of the most common topics in portfolio management literature. Within the context of project prioritization is the matter of scoring models because scoring models are the most widely used approach to prioritize projects. Although there are a lot of opinions on the effectiveness of common scoring models, they are nonetheless the most common method for prioritizing projects. However, most people may not realize the many uses of a scoring model and how it drives better decision making beyond project prioritization. In this post, we will look at five uses of a scoring model.

1) Project prioritization is the most common reason for using scoring models. As we saw in a previous post, project prioritization is for resource allocation. Since portfolio management is about delivering the most business value through projects, it is logical to ensure that resources are spent on the most important work. Ranking projects helps provide a common understanding of what is most important in the organization and scoring models are one of the easiest ways of establishing a rank order. For more information on using prioritization scoring models to rank order projects, please see Mastering Project Portfolio Management.

2) A prioritization scoring model is also used for project selection. The idea is to rank projects from highest value to lowest value and select projects until resources run out. This approach has merits over other approaches that do not sufficiently take account of strategic drivers. However, it can be shown that even simple optimization techniques can yield a higher value portfolio at the same cost. For organizations that do not employ portfolio optimization techniques, using a scoring model to rank order projects and fund projects until resources runs out is a reasonable way to go.

3) Portfolio optimization is very useful for identifying higher-value portfolios than merely using scoring models as discussed in the previous paragraph. The scores for each project can represent a “utility score” which can then be used as the input for the optimization calculations. In this way, projects are optimized based on all the scoring inputs, not merely on net present value or some other financial estimate. For more information about this technique, please refer to Richard Bayney’s book Enterprise Project Portfolio Management: Building Competencies for R&D and IT Investment Success.

Efficient Frontier Example

4) A prioritization scoring model can also be used to make go/no-go decisions at gate review meetings. There are at least two ways to accomplish this:

A) Organizations can predetermine a threshold score that projects must exceed in order to be considered for inclusion in the portfolio (known as a scoring hurdle).

B) An alternative approach is to use a scoring range to provide better input to the decision makers. In other words, if the scoring range were from 0 to 100, scores below 30 might represent high-risk/low-value investments that should otherwise be rejected, but may only get approved if there were other intangible factors not considered by the scoring model. Projects in the middle range of scores might be approved with more scrutiny, and projects in the upper range would likely get approved. The prerequisite to taking this approach is to have an adequate number of historical scores from past projects to compare against. Statistical analysis would further help refine this approach. Another assumption is that the scoring model would have to remain fairly consistent over time with few changes. Otherwise, historical scores could not be used to determine the correct range unless special adjustments are made to the scores.

5) Finally, scoring models provide the input to build risk-value bubble charts, which provide great visual information to senior leaders. The scoring model needs to contain both value elements and risk elements as inputs for the diagram. Normally, these scores are summed to become a single number, but with the risk-value bubble chart, we need to break out the total value score and the total risk score in order to correctly plot the data on a chart. With further data elements such as strategic alignment and expected cost (or return), more information can be displayed on the bubble charts (see example below).

Portfolio Bubble Chart

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Book Review-A Fish In Your Ear


After reading the first three chapters of A Fish In Your Ear, I stopped reading it for about a year. A lot of time is spent discussing the psychology of decision making, which is not often covered in the PPM literature, but it wasn’t enough to keep my attention. I came back to the book a year later and am glad I did because the best part of the book is in chapters 4-7.

Chapter 4 describes the importance of managing portfolio data, data integrity, and how to collect the right data. He opens up the chapter with a great quote by Bill Gates, “How you gather, manage, and use information will determine if you win or lose.”  Early on Menard mentions that an organization’s central nervous system is its information management system and that an organization is only as effective as its knowledge is good.  After a solid discussion on variables, data integrity, data-quality influencers, and other items he concludes the chapter on data collection. The list of questions in this section is one of the gems of the book. Menard does a great job of highlighting how asking the right questions can uncover the data needs of the organization.

A Fish In Your Ear

Chapter 5 builds on chapter 4 and discusses decision criteria. Having the right information is important, but it is even more important that senior leaders have defined and agreed-upon criteria to discriminate between projects. In the middle of the chapter he gives a great explanation for why having clear objectives is a necessity for making the right decisions. “Once we clarify our objective and can clearly state and compare it to alternatives, it becomes a guiding star helping us navigate to our chosen destination.”

Chapter 6 continues with a good discussion of data visualization. I fully agree that in order to make sense of so much data, it has to be visualized. Not only GenSight, but companies like Tableau are working hard to help users visualize data. The results can be very enlightening. In this chapter, Menard discusses the various elements to help visualize data: color, shapes, size, and matrices. He concludes with visual rules: give people what they want, show what matters, make it rich, make it valid, and have a purpose.

Chapter 7 focuses on portfolio selection. He brings up two burning questions early in the chapter: “will this portfolio deliver our strategic goals?” and “do we have enough appropriate resources to execute the portfolio?” The first question touches the matter of what the organization should do, the second on what they can do. The second half of the chapter provides a great discussion on the matter of portfolio optimization.

In short, chapters 4-7 of A Fish In Your Ear are worth the price of the book and provide some of the best explanations of collecting and utilizing portfolio data that I have read. Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

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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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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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Bubble Charts and Normalization


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.

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Can we absorb all the changes?


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

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

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

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What is Strategic Execution?


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.

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Project Portfolio Management (PPM) – Are we using the wrong Terminology?


I believe that clear terminology and efficient communication are important to have effective operations. I also believe that the term “project portfolio management” is an excellent term to describe the function because it explains what the managers should already be familiar with: maximizing value for the organization through optimizing human and financial resources.

When I explain the concepts of project portfolio management, I point out that our projects help accomplish our strategic objectives and that those projects represent investments by the company both in terms of financial resources and human resources. I go on to explain that our project portfolio is also analogous to a financial portfolio where we balance our investments (long-term and short-term, high risk and low risk) and have the same goal—to maximize value.

The key then is to drive maximum value out of those project investments and PPM helps us do that. I finish by discussing our portfolio management lifecycle which consists of four major steps:

1) Selecting the right projects (selected projects must align with the business strategy and meet other important criteria. The result: the portfolio will contain a higher percentage of winning projects)

2) Optimizing the portfolio (All the steps necessary to construct an optimal portfolio given current limitations and constraints)

3) Protecting the portfolio’s value (During the execution of an optimized portfolio, the aggregate project benefits (portfolio value) must be protected. This occurs by monitoring projects, assessing portfolio health, and managing portfolio risk)

4) Improving portfolio processes (Higher portfolio maturity translates into a greater realization of the benefits of project portfolio management)

I have not had any trouble presenting the concepts of PPM, but communicating concepts and getting increased participation are two different things.

I think the problem could be somewhere else however. In a classic portfolio management article by Rachel Ciliberti <http://www.ibm.com/developerworks/rational/library/apr05/ciliberti/index.html#N10094>, she points out that PPM is a blend of management disciplines that combines:

1) A business management focus to ensure that all projects and programs align with the portfolio strategy.
2) A general management focus for managing an organization’s resources and risks.
3) A project management focus for reviewing, assessing, and managing projects and programs to ensure they are meeting or exceeding their planned contribution to the portfolio.

Most good managers will not have any trouble with the first two points. However, a number of managers may not understand the project management language well enough and that may be a stumbling block.

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The Efficient Frontier Will Get You to the Green


According to Merkhofer, “the efficient frontier is the bounding curve obtained when portfolios of possible investments are plotted based on risk and expected return. The efficient frontier shows the investment combinations that produce the highest return for the lowest possible risk. The goal for selecting projects is to pick project portfolios that create the greatest possible risk-adjusted value without exceeding the applicable constraint on available resources.”

In both the PPM literature and portfolio tool brochures, one would be led to believe that the application of the efficient frontier will provide the final answer of which projects to select. While doing more research on efficient frontier techniques, I started considering the work that still needs to be done once an ‘optimal’ solution has been developed that maximizes value under current constraints. Unless skill sets are included in the optimization, more time will be needed to determine if resources are available to execute the “optimal” portfolio. Additionally, the efficient frontier does not help with project sequencing, therefore further analysis will be required to properly sequence the ‘optimal’ portfolio. This is not to say that the efficient frontier technique should not be used, only that it still takes a little more time to complete the optimization exercise once the ‘optimal’ list of projects have been selected.

In fact, the efficient frontier approach can actually save management a lot of time and discussion by pointing to a set of projects that delivers maximum value for a particular level of spending. Instead of fighting for what should be included, the discussion can be focused on those projects that bring the portfolio off of the efficient frontier (such as mandatory projects that don’t provide much value). To use a golf analogy, using the efficient frontier will not give you a ‘hole in one’, but it will get you to the putting green nearly every time in one stroke. Every golfer would like that.

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