The Art of Project Management: the Seige of Portfolio Management

Carl Manello

The general, unable to control his irritation, will launch his men to the assault like swarming ants, with the result that one-third of his men are slain, while the town still remains untaken. Such are the disastrous effects of a siege. Sun Tzu

Our executives are not irritated generals. Our delivery teams are not swarming ants. However, Sun-Tzu’s metaphor can be overlaid on the concept of portfolio management quite easily. A company that cannot manage the demand funnel and does not align its projects to strategies or corporate goals may end up driving its leadership to “irritation.” If the irritated company then launches projects—which are not aligned and not prioritized—the project portfolio may seem like a swarm response: trying to fulfill everyone’s request for everything wanted all at once. To this end, the project delivery engine of the company will seize up. Projects will fail and team members will pay the price (though hopefully, none will be slain).

I’ve written before about portfolio management and its importance. As a key practice in an effective organization, portfolio practices sit at the very beginnings of governance, oversight, and control. What is key, and possibly not clear from my earlier missives, is that portfolio management is not limited to information technology projects. On the contrary, an enterprise may deliver on initiatives that have little or nothing to do with IT projects. Therefore, the more inclusive the portfolio management process, the more robust the views of enterprise spend, resource commitment, value realization, and other operational efficiency metrics will be.

Whether a project is IT centric or only tangentially includes IT should not matter. Projects should align to strategies; they should align to goals; and they should be tracked for what they deliver back to the company. Otherwise, how would an executive team know if it was running the “right” projects? How indeed! One of the first steps to ensure the “right projects” are selected is to define a standardized and objective set of criteria against which to assess proposed initiatives.

As I’ve noted in Pilgrim’s Promise for Project Portfolio Management, it all comes down to “producing results by making smart choices.” While many companies select the right initiatives for today by listening attentively to the demands of the day, that process does not provide an over-the-horizon view of what the company will be engaged in. In an effort to plan for capacity and capability to meet the demand of new projects, that longer-term view on what is coming (and what ranks at the top) is critical. However, with a more complete view of demand, how can companies choose between dissimilar projects? For example, how can one chose the HR system upgrade over the customer-facing application for fulfillment? Can we really compare apples to oranges?

Simplifying the comparison

In order to create a more level playing field, a first step is to develop the criteria against which one can assess all projects. This set of decision making “levers” will enable decision makers to establish an unconstrained view of which projects rate highest and add the most value, and which ones rank lower. Slalom has helped a number of companies pick the best decision levers. We’ve also helped them by creating the mechanism to operationalize those selection levelers with tools.

But project selection is only a first step. Portfolio management is more than decision-making levers and it’s more than a portfolio management tool (for more on the PPM process, see this white paper at To create a robust portfolio management framework, process is required and governance must be established (which includes a staged approval). With this three-part equation (levers+process+governance) an organization will be able to realize the value of portfolio management.

To keep the machinery of delivery from seizing up, not only do we need to keep it well-oiled and maintained, but we need to ensure that what goes into the machine is appropriate. The decision-making levers help companies vet the right inputs (from the potentially vast array of initiatives in the demand pipeline), and the prioritization process and governance are the grease that enable the approach to run smoothly. To paraphrase Peter Drucker, the decision levers help us choose the right things; the “grease” helps us do those things right.  With this approach, we’ll be able to avoid a siege on the project delivery team(s), and we’ll hopefully avoid any casualties in the process as well.

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.

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