The Crude Use of Clever Tools

Slalom Consultant Carl Manello

Carl Manello is a Solution Lead for Program & Project Management based in Chicago who enjoys exploring how to tightly couple the art and science of project delivery with business operations.

“The Stone Age was marked by man’s clever use of crude tools; the information age, to date, has been marked by man’s crude use of clever tools.”
–Source Unknown

As part of Slalom’s operational delivery solution, I hold that project selection and the management of the project portfolio are paramount functions for delivering success. However, organizations are continually bemused by the question, “How does one choose the right projects?” The answer is: it is very difficult. And the larger the organization, the more difficult the decisions, trade-offs, and rationalizations. For with a larger organization, there are a greater number of managers, teams, departments, and business units competing for the same scarce resources.

With many inputs and potential outcomes, business initiatives may be under consideration from all areas of the company (i.e., marketing, research & development, production, and support organizations). Is it unfair to compare such proverbial apples and oranges? Can one equate the product R&D project with the project to renew and upgrade technical infrastructure? Certainly there must be some way to compare these. How else will management be able to choose? All efforts cannot be graded as #1’s.

Clever Tools
While working at Slalom Consulting, I have developed a reputation as a “tool bigot”. My skepticism is well known across the gamut of portfolio management tools, program/project management tools, or any other garden variety of project management panaceas. I think my intolerance is well founded. Over the last twenty years, I have seen too many corporations make the same mistake: heavily invest in a software tool which they believe will auto-magically solve all problems. Between the capital outlay and the ongoing maintenance, service packs, and upgrades (or the ongoing software as a service expense), organizations are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and reaping relatively little for the investment.

For companies to develop a strong portfolio management process, I believe they do not need to invest in expensive and sophisticated tools. The best opportunity is to develop  processes that allow the right initiatives to be nurtured, developed, executed, or shut down. If, as the process matures, one is able to apply a tool to improve efficiency or make the practices more effective, I would certainly celebrate that implementation. For wherever well thought out process precedes tool selection and implementation, the odds for success increase significantly. So, lest I be too subtle, I’m advocating strong process as the way to manage a portfolio; not a strong tool.

Business Case and Governance
As discussed in a recent blog post Fighting against the Dark Forces of Business Cases, one of the keys to a strong portfolio management process is the development of a detailed business case. Pro’s and con’s of the project must be weighed in a standardized, repeatable, scalable fashion. Costs and benefits must be assessed (be sure to separate hard benefits from soft ones). Timelines, resource capacity, priorities…All must be brought into the mix to determine what is right. And while some of the best tools on the market (e.g., Microsoft’s SharePoint) can accommodate these processes, the tools themselves become less effective without a process.

Another key of a mature portfolio management practice is the ability for the governance process to allow for the shut-down of a project. The process enables the team to get past sunk costs, strategic drift compensation, and overly optimistic project teams who are trying their best to succeed (but who cannot). In this economy, it is imperative that poorly aligned projects not be allowed to move forward.

So as you look around, notice the root causes of your portfolio management challenges: Are the teams over reliant on a sophisticated tool that is barely useful as a time tracking application? Is there a lack of process to enable good decision making? Is there even a decision-making framework for standardized, repeatable, and scalable decision making in support of the portfolio? Or, are there just the sunk costs, annual licensing, and ongoing support fees for a big tool? Slalom’s operational delivery offerings can help you realize your desire to effectively manage a portfolio and to cleverly manage your sophisticated tools.

For more on this topic, be sure to check out Why Not Portfolio Management? at

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About Carl M. Manello
I am Slalom Consulting's Practice Lead for Delivery Effectiveness. I work to support organizations' capability and delivery maturity -- not just IT organizations -- so that their initiatives run more predictably, efficiently and provide the best results.

11 Responses to The Crude Use of Clever Tools

  1. Avi Kaye says:

    I agree that companies tend to rely on tools more than processes, or look to tools to be a silver

    bullet to solve all their project management woes, but I think that sometimes tools can help

    companies – certainly the smaller ones – understand how to manage their projects, or help the project managers push their teams in the right direction to turn a failing project around. For example, when you have an online collaboration mechanism like Google Docs, you can understand what is the potential of having an entire team editing a doc together (or not, as the case may be :)). My point is although you definitly need to think carefully before choosing a specific tool, there are enough free options today that it’s worthwhile checking them out as part of your research.

    • Avi,

      Thanks for your comment. You are soooo right. There are numerous tools out there, some of which are free or are very low cost. As we improve our capabilities and enhance our maturity in delivery, tools are essential! We just need to make sure we choose them carefully.

      Happy New Year!


  2. Mathanas says:

    I do appreciate every idea that you have always decided to share with us through this blog. It has been of great importance to me for eons. All that I have gained from it has helped me to keep focused on my valued vision. Thanks very much.

    • Mathanas,

      First of all, thank you for your reply. I’m humbled by the fact that I’ve got readers as far off as Kenya.

      Second, I’m very happy that you find these blogs useful in your work. Knowing that the appeal is broad enough to cross boarders and professional areas (since you are an engineer), is very rewarding.

      Happy New Year!


  3. Roger Kastner says:

    One of my favorite clever uses of a crude tool:

    Merry Christmas, Carl!


  4. Pingback: Blog post by Carl Manello :: Project Management Certification Home

  5. Don’t forget my rule of tools use: Never become a slave to the tool. The tool should HELP your processes perform better, not DICTATE your process.

    • William,

      Very True! I think that this what I see happen most often. A tool is selected before the process is set. Then the client becomes a “slave to the tool” given their investment. Definately not the best way to start change.

      Thanks for the comment.


  6. Pingback: Crude tools | Sellartonthe

  7. Pingback: The Art of Project Management: Planning | The Slalom Blog

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