Project portfolio management (PPM) helps organizations make decisions that move the needle toward achieving their strategic objectives. In order to make those decisions, senior leadership needs the right information at the right time. This is where PPM systems come in, providing the quality data helping to inform sound decision making. Unfortunately, many companies assume that merely implementing a PPM system will improve their ability to execute strategy. There’s more to it.
Point B’s Perspective
In order for PPM systems to add value, organizations need to consider five important factors: business drivers, reporting, data, processes and people.
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 three major sub-components to pipeline management: ideation, work intake processes, and phase-gate reviews illustrated in the figure below.
Ideation – The Starting Point of Pipeline Management
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.
Opportunity Management – The Backlog of the Project Pipeline
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.
Work Intake – The Entry Point of Project Pipeline Management
The work intake 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 phase-gate, but can also be a standalone process. When used with ideation and phase-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.
Phase-gates (also known as Stage-Gate™) are a critical component of project 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.
Pipeline Management and Portfolio Maturity
Pipeline management supports portfolio definition (as seen by ideation, opportunity management, work intake, and Stage-Gate) but also portfolio optimization in relation to project sequencing and project dependencies. Pipeline management is one component of healthy portfolio maturity and you should regularly assess the maturity of your portfolio management processes.
A common method for getting visibility of the active work in your pipeline is a portfolio roadmap. This tool will highlight when major initiatives start and stop and can further support work intake.
“A fascinating trend is consuming Silicon Valley and beginning to eat away at rest of the world: theradical simplification of everything.”
PPM vendors would be wise to take notice of this article by Fast Company. Portfolio management is not rocket science, yet many of the software offerings on the market can be difficult to use. Unfortunately, very few of the vendors have a user experience in place that matches the current expectation of software. As this article points out, this leaves the door open for better vendors to come in. There were several noteworthy quotes which I will share below:
“Ultimately, any market that doesn’t have a leader in simplicity soon will”
“If you’re not the simplest solution, you’re the target of one”
“Any product with an interface that slows people down is ripe for extinction”
A related article by the NY Times, stated that design now rivals technology in importance. These articles highlight the shift that is taking place with technology and software. Merely having the best technology or the most functionality is no longer good enough; design is critical. More specifically, user experience is critical for new software going forward. Unfortunately, for the current portfolio management vendors, this means some expensive re-designs of existing systems.
User experience is a key component of PPM 2.0. Companies need solutions that are easy to use and will garner strong user adoption. I know from extensive first-hand experience with one of the “leaders” in the portfolio management space, that being a “leader” means nothing, delivering useful solutions means everything. Powerful solutions need to be simple. Simplicity is important because without it, user adoption suffers and the benefits of portfolio management decline. Many of today’s “leaders” led the charge as part of PPM 1.0. However, with the emergence of cloud, mobile, and social, PPM 2.0 promises even more value with easier to use solutions.
Data represents a major facet of successfully implementing project portfolio management (PPM). In a previous post, I discussed how data drives the portfolio management engine and some of the key components for getting good data into the tool. Some important portfolio data types includes: financial data, resource data, schedule data, and benefits data. Leadership plays a pivotal part in the whole process from determining which data is needed to using the data for better decision making. This post will concentrate on the last part of the process—how to use the portfolio data.
Use the Portfolio Data
Data quality is never perfect at the beginning of a portfolio management process. Collecting data takes time and effort, and with so much demand on individual’s time, people do not want to waste time collecting data that is unnecessary or won’t be used. This is why it is so important for senior leaders to use the portfolio data. When leadership uses the data, they will understand what data is truly needed for higher quality decision making. Moreover, once the data gets used, the gaps in the data will be readily apparent and will give senior leaders an opportunity to reinforce the importance of the portfolio processes (that collect the data in the first place). However, using the data is only the first step in a three step process. Next, leadership needs to communicate that the data is being used.
Communicate that You Use the Portfolio Data
Communicating that the portfolio data is being used is a conscious effort on the part of the senior management team, but is something very easy to do. It can also easily be overlooked. Think about it. Project managers and resource managers can put data into the PPM system not knowing if it is simply going into a black hole or is actually helping the organization. Without communication, they may never hear whether the data is actually being used. A prime example occurs with resource data and capacity management. In order for capacity management to be successful, good data is needed, which takes a lot of effort by project managers and resource managers. If the project managers and resource managers do not believe that the data is actually being used, there will be less effort going forward in entering and maintaining the data. Even when an organization is mandated to use a PPM system, the data can be compromised by a small number of people who do not take the process seriously. Communicating that the data is being used is necessary for reinforcing the importance of the portfolio processes, yet senior leadership needs to take one more step—demonstrate how the data is being used.
Demonstrate How You Use the Portfolio Data
Communicating that the data is being used is good, but demonstrating how the data is being used is even better. This will send a clear message to the organization of how important it is to maintain accurate and up-to-date information in the portfolio system. If the data is being used to drive decisions around strategic project investments, staffing plans, bonuses, etc., then people will be more likely to spend the time to enter, update, and maintain the data. However, if the data is used to create a report that merely scratches the itch of a curious executive, then the people involved with the portfolio processes won’t have much interest in making sure that the data is accurate and up-to-date.
Using portfolio data, communicating that the portfolio data is being used, and demonstrating how the data is being used are the responsibilities of senior leadership. None of these steps are difficult, but need to be taken on a regular basis if the organization wants to be successful with portfolio management. Collecting data comes at a price, and if the data isn’t being used, it is better for the organization to stop wasting its time and focus on things that move the organization forward. A small amount of effort on the part of the senior leaders can go a long way toward making portfolio management successful and useful. Data is the fuel that runs the portfolio engine. Bad data will clog the engine; good data will help the organization sail forward. Using the data, communicating that the data is being used, and demonstrating how the data is being used will not only make the difference in being successful at portfolio management, it’s also smart business.
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:
Schedule data (forecasts and actuals)
Financial data (estimates and actuals)
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.
I am attending my first Gartner conference and have included some of the highlights from day 1 below:
It’s about risk. Don’t apply process overhead to low risk efforts.
Today’s status has something for pleasing everyone, but the full truth for no one.
Don’t ask everyone to ‘run’ when walking is ok.
Business cases may be ‘adorable’ but emotions still drive executive decision making.
Take a holistic approach–focus on outcomes first, process second.
Power PMO (Matt Light – Gartner )
Defective business cases lead to defective portfolios.
“Only when you see value are you able to tell what is waste and then start to get rid of it”
Portfolio value at the beginning of the project lifecycle is not approving wasteful projects
Portfolio value at the middle of the project lifecycle is cancelling or fixing poorly performing projects
Portfolio value at the end of the project lifecycle is reviewing the project benefits and results
PPM Maturity Workshop (Donna Fitzgerald – Gartner )
Don’t throw process at a level 1 organziation
Slow down just enough for level 2 organizations
“Real” portfolio management begins at level 3.
No individual heroic effort will get you to level 4. The enterprise must go with you.
Level 5 (if achieved) only lasts a few years and will fail after key senior leaders leave.
PPM Governance (Robert Tawry – Gartner )
Either get your process well established first OR buy a tool that is easily configurable.
You can optimize resources for speed or efficiency. If you optimize for speed, contributors should only work on 1 project. If you optimized for efficiency, you should do 3 or less projects simultaneously.
Atul Gawande, a well-respected surgeon, is the author of The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Done Right. The book is focused on using checklists as a means of improving quality and reducing defects in such areas as hospitals, businesses, construction projects, airplane flights, etc. Moreover, a number of gripping stories help to convince the reader of the benefits of using checklists across these varied disciplines. The entire book is fascinating and deliberate on its message of using checklists, but the book takes a very interesting turn in chapter eight to see the application of checklists in the business world.
In short, checklists=discipline. The checklist helps business professionals be as smart as possible and helps teams improve their outcomes without any increase in skill (p. 168). I love these quotes because it shows that anyone can improve their outcomes today through the use of a simple tool. In the age of complexity, simple tools like a checklist can give someone an advantage over people who think they can remember all the critical details all the time. Using a checklist doesn’t mean that someone no longer has to think about basic tasks, rather, it marks the most critical steps (steps that should never be missed) so that more time can be devoted to the critical thinking, based on experience and training. Sadly, many surgeons (and business professionals) have ignored the checklist because they want to ‘be in control’ and not bound by something that appears to be petty.
Chapter eight also highlighted the experience of three investors who used checklists when evaluating companies in which to invest. They noted that the checklists improved their efficiency, allowing them to comb through far more prospects because by the third day it would be very clear which companies were worth continued evaluation and which ones should be dropped. This compares very well with project portfolio management and the benefits of using a checklist at gate reviews. When due diligence is performed, misaligned and doomed projects can be caught earlier on so that critical resources can be put on winning projects. If organizations are disciplined enough to learn from past mistakes and capture the potential pitfalls of projects, they could significantly increase the value delivered through the portfolio of projects. To repeat, this requires discipline.
In my experience as a portfolio analyst, I have seen checklists used in various ways:
1) Project deliverable checklists to ensure that the right deliverables are produced at the right time.
2) Decision-Gate content check lists to ensure that the right information is communicated during gate reviews.
3) Implementation checklists to ensure that all the necessary steps have been taken (e.g. training, documentation, support) in order to implement the project solution in production (operations)