Voices on Project Management

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Voices on Project Management offers insights, tips, advice and personal stories from project managers in different regions and industries. The goal is to get you thinking, and spark a discussion. So, if you read something that you agree with--or even disagree with--leave a comment.

About this Blog


View Posts By:

Cameron McGaughy
Marian Haus
Lynda Bourne
Lung-Hung Chou
Bernadine Douglas
Kevin Korterud
Conrado Morlan
Peter Tarhanidis
Mario Trentim
Jen Skrabak
David Wakeman
Roberto Toledo
Vivek Prakash
Cyndee Miller
Shobhna Raghupathy
Wanda Curlee
Rebecca Braglio
Rex Holmlin
Christian Bisson

Recent Posts

Can We Use the Principles of Newspeak for Good?

The Customer Is Always Digital—So Make the Experience Right

Reality Check: Stop Being So Optimistic

PMO of the Year Winner Calls Out Executive Support

Less Really Is More When It Comes to Yogurt — and Project Portfolios

Why I’ll Be in Arizona Next Week

By Wanda Curlee

I’m a big fan of PMI’s annual PMO symposiums. I presented at last year’s symposium in Miami, Florida, USA and I’ll be presenting in Phoenix, Arizona, USA next week at this year’s event.

Why do I make the trip each year? There are many reasons. Each symposium acts as a crossroads of sorts between general management and project management. Each gives me a chance to speak with senior leaders in a one-on-one environment. And copies of PMI’s latest installment of the Thought Leadership Series, which features in-depth original research and analysis, are given out to attendees.

This year’s series is on “The Power of Project Portfolio Management.” As a certified portfolio manager, I want to leverage that research to increase my ability to provide powerful portfolios for my current company and future clients.

Last year, the symposium focused on talent management, and PMI’s talent triangle was a focal point. That, coupled with the introduction of the portfolio management certification (PfMP), made for an exciting and fruitful experience.

Senior leaders from many organizations discussed the value of the talent triangle and how portfolios, programs and projects help drive the talent in their respective organizations. Hearing executives discuss and present the practical side of what the project management discipline has done for their organizations was invaluable.

But the bit that I found most fascinating had to do with corporate citizenship. When running a portfolio, trust should be established so that program and project managers are willing to give back funds in excess of actual projects and programs.

It’s an odd concept, but when followed on a quarterly basis, it builds the understanding that more projects and programs can be funded and—most important—there are funds on hand if you find your project or program is in trouble. There’s no concept of shoot the messenger.

This year’s PMO symposium, held from November 8th to the 11th, will once again draw senior leaders from an impressive array of organizations. The networking opportunities will be vast.

If you’ll be in Phoenix, stop by my educational session on why a portfolio manager should be the CEO’s best friend. Yes, I truly believe that portfolio management can drive better management of corporate resources and increase the bottom line for all companies. Resources are finite at every company—and portfolio managers work to allocate them efficiently.

If you don’t agree with something I say, speak up—I’m there to learn, too.

Posted by Wanda Curlee on: November 05, 2015 07:22 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

5 Things Unsuccessful Portfolio Managers Do

By Jen Skrabak, PMP, PfMP

I am amazed that so many projects and programs (and by extension, portfolios) are still so challenged. Forty-four percent of projects are unsuccessful, and we waste $109 million for each $1 billion in project expenditures, according to the 2015 edition of PMI’s Pulse of the Profession.

One solution that the report identifies is mature portfolio management processes. With that in mind, I’ve come up with a list of five things that unsuccessful portfolio managers do—and what they should focus on doing instead.

1.  Worry about things they can’t change.

Unsuccessful portfolio managers worry about the past or dwell on problems outside their immediate influence. Successful portfolio managers learn from the past and move on. Sometimes, failures turn into lessons that create the foundation for future growth and opportunity.

Portfolio managers should stay focused on what can we influence, negotiate and communicate, as well as what we can start, stop and sustain. Every month or quarter, assess the processes, programs and projects in your span of control. Decide which to start, stop and sustain, and develop action plans around those decisions (including dates, resources required and collaborators).

2.  Give up when things get too hard.

It may be easy to throw in the towel when conditions become challenging. But the hallmark of a good portfolio manager is the ability to find solutions.

Sometimes, our immediate reaction to a proposal is to think the timeframes or goals are not possible. However, when we get the team together to focus on what can be done, we come up with creative solutions. It’s necessary to gather the facts and do the analysis instead of jumping to conclusions.

3.  Set unattainable goals.

There’s a difference between a stretch goal and an impossible one. Sometimes, projects or programs don’t start off as unattainable (see #2 above) or undoable, but they become so.

Although we may be good at starting projects or programs, there’s not enough emphasis on stopping them. The environment (internal or external) may have changed, key resources may no longer be available, organizational priorities may have shifted, or the business buy-in might take too long. Rather than calling attention to the situation and recommending a “no go,” unsuccessful portfolio managers tend to press on with blinders. This wastes time and resources.

Once I was managing a $500 million portfolio of international expansion programs and projects. The portfolio sponsor told me, “I want to know if we’re falling off the cliff.” Although we hope our programs or projects never get to that point, his words did clearly specify the role I was supposed to play.

4.  Stay in your comfort zone.

It’s easy to create a portfolio in which the potential for risk and failure is low. But that means we may be missing out on opportunities for innovation or great returns. Advocating change in your portfolio requires taking calculated risks that you can learn from or will pay off in the longer term. The successful portfolio manager will advocate taking good risks (aka opportunities) instead of blindly going forward with bad risks.

Taking advantage of opportunities is the key to transformation and reinvention. It’s essential to any organization that wants to survive long-term. For example, who could’ve predicted just a few years ago that Amazon, Netflix and even YouTube would become rivals to TV and movie studios in providing original entertainment? This required calculated risk taking.

5.  Forget about balance.

Balance is important, whether it’s balancing your portfolio or balancing your work and your life. If you’re not performing your best because you’re not taking care of yourself, it’s going to affect your portfolio. Especially with technology blending our work and personal time, it’s sometimes hard to think about balance. One survey showed that we’re checking our phones up to 150 times per day. But remember the basics: eat well, exercise, take time to de-stress, and set aside time for yourself, family and friends. 

What do you notice unsuccessful portfolio managers do, and what would you recommend instead? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Posted by Jen Skrabak on: October 10, 2015 11:12 PM | Permalink | Comments (14)

From Birth to Adulthood: How to Mature Portfolio Management Practices

By Wanda Curlee

When we talk about project, program and portfolio management, the word “maturity” often comes up. But with respect to portfolio management, the newest of these three disciplines, what does “maturity” really mean?

For starters, it means time. Simply aquiring a portfolio management tool doesn’t align the portfolio to the strategy, as Dr. Mark Mullaly noted in a projectmanagement.com blog post earlier this year. Alignment typically doesn’t happen overnight or even in one year. Implementation of strategy normally comes with organizational change, and most humans do not like to change.

Here’s a look at a typical portfolio management developmental process.

The Early Years

Immature portfolio management practices are normally less than three years old. I think of this as the toddler stage. Getting to the next stage of maturity takes a committed C-suite that believes that a portfolio manager can balance the checkbook while delivering strategic benefits.

Remember, no company or individual has a blank check to fund all projects and programs. There must be mutual trust between the portfolio manager(s) and the C-suite. The C-suite must provide the portfolio manager with the authority and support needed to get real traction.

Traction should follow from a defined governance structure, rudimentary metrics, and programs and projects adhering to the governance structure. As Andy Jordan notes, without successful projects, portfolio management will not succeed. Project leaders need to realize that the portfolio manager drives the organization’s strategic execution.

Project managers may see this as an attack on their independence or worry that a project will be cancelled, Mr. Jordan adds. With a cancellation, a project manager and team may be placed on the bench. Organizational shifts are uncomfortable.

Throughout this state, it is imperative that portfolio managers demonstrate value to project and program managers, according to Mr. Jordan. One way to do this is to constantly communicate to these practitioners that they must see everything they do through the lens of the customers’ wants and needs.

Growing Pains

The next step is what I call the teenager stage. This phase takes between three and five years, during which—as any parent knows—rebellion can happen.

An important way to avoid rebellion is by making sure project and program managers see themselves as invaluable. They have the ability to see opportunities and risks that the portfolio manager cannot see. The portfolio manager must create this dialogue, which is part of maturing in the teenage phase.

Throughout this phase, the portfolio manager is working to overcome the remaining naysayers while tweaking the process, procedures, governance and metrics. This will take time as well, just as it takes a teenager time to mature into a young adult.


The final phase is, of course, full maturity. This is not a time for stagnation—if that takes hold it will be the death of the portfolio management team. Stagnation means the portfolio isn’t nimble or reactive to change—the opposite of agility.

Mature portfolio management means calibrating the portfolio as frequently as necessary to fit a changing strategy. Strategy today is not the strategy of yesteryear. Depending on the industry, the strategy may change every year. If there’s upheaval in the industry, strategy could change even quicker.

Can you fathom Apple updating its strategic goals only every three to five years? I can’t either. Reaching maturity for the portfolio manager means truly understanding the industry, becoming entrenched with the C-suite, making changes to the portfolio management process to increase delivery to the stakeholders. It means being agile enough to understand that change is needed.

During the process of portfolio maturation, the portfolio manager needs to consider portfolio rebalancing. This is a relatively new concept, and it was discussed during a breakout session at PMI’s PMO Symposium last year. 

The presenter suggested reviewing the portfolio mix at least quarterly to ensure strategic alignment. The larger point is that, as portfolio management matures, project and program managers should become more comfortable in re-estimating on a quarterly basis. By doing so, those projects and programs that are under-running may give back dollars to the portfolio.

Why is this important? First, it means that excess funds can be used for any projects and programs that are overrunning. But more importantly, these funds can be used to start new projects and programs to deliver increased benefits.

Posted by Wanda Curlee on: September 23, 2015 08:40 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

What Project Managers Can Learn From One Very Successful College Football Coach

by Dave Wakeman

I’m always looking for a way to tie project management to college football, and the start of football season is a great time to do just that. I went to the University of Alabama, which has been on one of the greatest runs in college football history over the last nine years. This is due in part to the vision of coach Nick Saban.

If you don’t know much about college football and Nick Saban, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with project management. But Saban’s success stems in part from his coaching philosophy, which he calls “The Process.” His reasoning is straightforward, as he once said: “Process guarantees success. A good process produces good results.”

Here are several lessons project managers can learn from coach Saban’s process.

Culture is everything: Every organization has a culture. Some are well thought-out, methodical inventions imprinted through consistent actions and accountabilities. Other organizations, not so much.

At the University of Alabama, “The Process” is at its heart a cultural tool that seeps into every action that every member of the football program takes over the course of the year. Saban is consistent in his discussion of creating a culture that allows his team to focus on the aspects of their “jobs” that create success.

As a manager and leader of your projects, you might be able to deliver the same sort of project culture by clearly stating your expectations for communications, reporting or meetings—or all three.

Regardless of your priorities, take a look at how you can communicate the kind of project culture you want to create.

Success is a process: As leaders, we have to balance two competing interests: the long-term success of our projects and our organization and the short-term tasks involved in delivering us to the long-term outcomes.

One of the big things Saban has done at Alabama is emphasize setting long-term goals for each team and the program, while also consistently focusing his players on the task at hand. This most readily plays out in his insistence that his players focus only on winning the play of the moment, treating each play as its own mission and never looking at the scoreboard.

You might help your teams by setting clear long-term project goals, but then breaking them down into phases with each phase having its own individual stages with a beginning and end. More emphasis should be placed on the specific stage than the overall project.

Communication is key: The image of Saban as a fiery hard-to-please taskmaster may have some validity. But one thing that often goes unnoticed is that he’s typically toughest on his teams when they’re winning and have a tendency to lose focus. When the team is losing a game, he tends to be very encouraging and measured.

As the leader of your team, you can put this idea to work by looking at the way you communicate with your own team and think about what is and what isn’t effective. Maybe you’ll find you’re pushing when you should be nurturing or nurturing when a good push is needed.

Even if you don’t like Alabama, Nick Saban or football, you can and should learn lessons from college football. A great college football team is very similar to a great project team, and a great coach has to be a great project manager.

For your enjoyment, here’s a 60 Minutes TV show profile of University of Alabama’s team from a few years back:

Let me know what you think in the comments! And, most importantly, Roll Tide! 

By the way, I've started a brand new weekly newsletter that focuses on strategy, value, and performance. Make sure you never don't miss it, sign up here or send me an email at dave@davewakeman.com! 

Posted by David Wakeman on: September 09, 2015 02:27 PM | Permalink | Comments (8)

The 3 Things That Transcend All Project Approaches

by Dave Wakeman

Recently I had the chance to engage with Microsoft’s social media team about some of the issues I have been covering here. Their team brought up a question you may have asked as well: How do you differentiate between “digital” project management and project management?

It’s an interesting question, because I firmly believe all projects should be delivered within a very similar framework. The framework enables you to make wise decisions and understand the project’s goals and objectives.

I understand that there are many types of project management philosophies: waterfall, agile, etc. Each of these methods has pros and cons. Of course, you should use the method you are most comfortable with and that gives you the greatest likelihood of success.

But regardless of which project management approach you employ, there are three things all practitioners should remember at the outset of every project to move forward with confidence.

Every project needs a clear objective. Even if you aren’t 100-percent certain what the “completed” project is going to look like, you can still have an idea of what you want the project’s initial iteration to achieve. This allows you to begin work with a direction and not just a group of tasks.

So, even if you only have one potential outcome you want to achieve, starting there is better than just saying, “Let’s do these activities and hope something comes out of it.”

Frameworks enable valuable conversations. I love talking about decision-making frameworks for both organizations and teams. They’re valuable not because they limit thought processes, but because they enable you to make decisions based on what you’re attempting to achieve.

Instead of looking at the framework as a checklist, think of it as a conversation you’re having with your project and your team. This conversation enables you to keep moving your project toward its goal.

During the execution phase, it can give you the chance to check the deliverable against your original goals and the current state of the project within the organization. Just never allow the framework to put you in a position where you feel like you absolutely have to do something that doesn’t make sense.

Strong communication is the bedrock. To go back to the question from Microsoft’s social media team about digital vs. regular project management: the key concept isn’t the field or areas that a project takes place in.

No matter what kind of project you’re working on and in which sector you’re in, the critical skill for project success is your ability to communicate effectively with all the project stakeholders.

This skill transcends any specific industry. As many of us have learned, it may constitute about 90 percent of a project manager’s job. You can put this into practice in any project by taking a moment to write down your key stakeholders and the information you need to get across to them. Then put time in your calendar to help make sure you are effective in delivering your communications.

In the end, I don’t think there should be much differentiation between “digital” projects or any other kind of projects. All projects benefit from having a set of goals and ideas that guide them. By trying to distinguish between different project classifications, we lose sight of the real key to success in project management: teamwork and communication.

What do you think? 

By the way, I've started a brand new weekly newsletter that focuses on strategy, value, and performance. Make sure you never miss it! Sign up here or send me an email at dave@davewakeman.com! 

Posted by David Wakeman on: August 30, 2015 09:49 PM | Permalink | Comments (11)

"There is more to life than increasing its speed."

- Mahatma Gandhi