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.

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

Recent Posts

Startups and Project Management: They Aren’t Opposites

4 Tips for Selecting the Right Projects and Programs for your Portfolio

A True Story of a Bad Sponsor

How To Keep Yourself, and Your Team, Energetic and Engaged

The Techniques That Don't Resolve Conflict

Startups and Project Management: They Aren’t Opposites

By Wanda Curlee

Project management is partly about establishing and documenting processes and procedures, and maintaining configuration control. Startup companies, on the other hand, often pride themselves on entrepreneurialism, a lack of required processes/procedures and flexibility.

But processes and procedures are not the antithesis of entrepreneurship and flexibility. In fact, project, program and portfolio management can help a startup manage growth.

When a startup’s leadership allows change to happen without any processes, strategy or structure, the organization will struggle. Project managers can help provide structure, while also demonstrating how to adapt to change.

For example, if the organization has 20 employees today but expects to add 180 in the next two years, how exactly will this growth occur? Will all new employees be hired in month 24? Do all resources need the same skills? Does training need to be done? This is where project managers can help.

Later in the organization’s growth, executives, with the help of project managers, can put together a roadmap to deal with issues like sales, IT and system needs, and travel policies. At this point, it may be time to turn to a program manager responsible for the overall strategic view of the program, rather than individual projects.

The program manager may work directly with leadership or report to a portfolio manager. The program may be to deliver organizational change, including IT, processes/procedures, staffing, etc. When I was a program manager, I focused on realizing benefits and the roadmap.

For example, when a small company becomes medium-sized, the number one issue might be staffing to meet sales needs. Let’s say the program manager’s roadmap showed that the second quarter of the program was when benefits would be realized from sales and increased staffing would occur.

If the program manager realizes that sales are occurring much faster than predicted, he or she would discuss alternatives with leadership. One option might be to slow sales; another might be to slow down the development of processes and procedures, and focus more resources on hiring the correct individuals to continue to drive sales.

Finally, the portfolio manager can drive strategic change in a startup growing into an established organization. The portfolio manager listens to leadership’s strategic goals. With a small company that is transitioning fast, the strategic goals should not change often, but can be fluid.

The portfolio manager assists the C-suite with governance and understanding how to select projects/programs to drive to the final result—checked growth without going bankrupt. She will also put governance in place to report to the investors, leadership and stakeholders. With a portfolio manager bridging strategy and execution, the fledgling organization can increase its chances of growing rapidly—and successfully.  

Posted by Wanda Curlee on: April 23, 2015 07:16 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

4 Tips for Selecting the Right Projects and Programs for your Portfolio

By Jen L. Skrabak, PMP, PfMP

Organizations struggle with selecting the right projects or programs for their portfolios. We see this in project success rates that haven’t increased much beyond 64 percent during the last four years, according to PMI’s Pulse of the Profession® 2015 report). We also see this in the companies that have faded from relevance or been obliterated by the pace of innovation and change—remember Blockbuster, Meryvn’s, RadioShack and BlackBerry?

The challenge is to select the right projects or programs for the right growth, placing the right bets that will pay off in the future. Here are four tips to help you do this.

1. Choose Projects and Programs You Can Sustain.

Know your organization’s current strengths and weaknesses; don’t be overly optimistic. It’s great to have stretch goals, but remember that the benefits of your project have to last.

Don’t forget about culture. Sometimes the primary reason a new project or program result doesn’t stick is that the organization’s culture wasn’t there to support it.

Organizational change management, including a defined communications and stakeholder engagement strategy, is crucial on large-scale projects and programs where hundreds if not thousands of processes may be changing in a short amount of time.

In addition, establishing a culture of project management with engaged sponsors, mature project and program management practices, and strategically aligned portfolios helps sustain projects and increase success rates.

2. Know Your Portfolio’s Upper Limit

Don’t only focus on a portfolio goal such as, “Achieve US$100 million in portfolio ROI in 2015.” Also focus on the portfolio’s upper capability.

The upper limit of your portfolio may be defined by budget, capabilities (skills or knowledge), capacity (which can be stretched through new hires or contractors) or culture (existing processes, organizational agility and appetite for change).

Define your portfolio’s upper limit and the highest resource consumption period and plan for it, rather than the initial ramp. Taking a typical adoption curve for a new project or program, your portfolio upper limit may look something like this:

3. Don’t Be Afraid to Admit Mistakes—and Fix Them Quickly

When we initiate projects and programs, and they’re not performing as expected, how quickly do we course correct, and if necessary, pull the plug? Having shorter weekly or monthly milestones and project durations is better than longer ones.

But are you equipped to act quickly when those weekly milestones are missed? How many weeks do you let a failing project go on, hoping it will get back on its feet, before ending it?

I have seen projects and programs that are not yielding the expected value being allowed to continue. Often, the sponsors still believe in the value of the project, even in the absence of metrics showing financial results. This is why setting clear financial performance metrics and monitoring them throughout development and delivery is so important: they can help project practitioners kill a project quickly if needed.

I once worked for a company that was experiencing 25 percent year-over-year growth for its products. It was a frenetic time of hiring new people, building new plants, and initiating billions of dollars in investment for new projects and programs.

However, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration required a new warning on one of the company’s flagship products, its sales dropped 25 percent (US$2 billion annually) almost overnight. Projects and programs in flight were asked to take a 10 percent, and then 20 percent, reduction in their spending while still delivering the planned results. Planned projects and programs were suspended.

While it was difficult, the organization passed the test with flying colors. In part, this was because it didn’t spend time lamenting environmental factors but instead worked to address them—quickly.

4. Measure Your Averages

It’s not about the one big project or program success, but the successes and failures averaged over a period of time (say, three to five years). Don’t just focus on the big bets; sometimes slow and steady wins the day. 

How do you pick the right projects and programs for your portfolio?

Posted by Jen Skrabak on: April 21, 2015 01:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

How Portfolio Managers Do What the CEO Says

By Wanda Curlee

In a recent Forbes article, PMI CEO Mark Langley talked about why employees don’t do what their CEOs tell them to on major projects. Mr. Langley said three major factors cause company leadership and other employees to fail to follow the CEO’s strategic lead:

• CEOs are busy and once the direction is given, they are off to the next situation.

• Implementing strategy is difficult.

• Governance is not in place to fulfill the CEO’s direction.

This got me thinking about ways a CEO can use portfolio management as a means to drive direction. 

A robust portfolio management office should be the gateway for the CEO’s strategic direction. Ideally, the CEO would set the strategic direction, and the portfolio manager would take this direction and drive forward. Simple, right?

In reality, the CFO, the business unit presidents and other corporate officers on whose support the portfolio manager depends have good intentions, but day-to-day activities can often take over.

To prevent this, the portfolio manager needs the CEO’s backing and needs to regularly meet with him or her. The portfolio manager also needs to understand the strategy, know how to define the strategy into programs and projects, and stay within the budget. 

Doing all this at once is akin to a conductor’s role with a symphony. All parts of the orchestra must follow the conductor’s lead. If the brass section plays faster than the string section, the music doesn’t sound good, and some listeners would blame the conductor. The portfolio manager plays a similar role.

Just like a good conductor, communication is key to the portfolio manager’s job. The portfolio manager must know how to speak to the various stakeholders to keep them informed and focused in the correct direction to carry out the CEO’s strategy.

A CFO will want financial information and may become distracted if the portfolio manager discusses scheduling in detail. Corporate officers need strategic information, the program manager needs a mixture of strategic and tactical info, and the project manager needs tactical info and an understanding of a project’s business value. The portfolio manager has to communicate at these various levels many times during the day. 

Governance is another key. Governance reviews projects and programs to ensure they meet the strategic goals of the CEO. Those that do not are rejected and are not done. Governance also assists the governance board in determining if the slate of projects and portfolios selected and within the budget allocated are the ones that should be approved. The portfolio manager normally does this for the CEO and presents the slate to the governing board. 

Once the projects and programs are approved, the portfolio manager is constantly evaluating the portfolio to ensure it meets the CEO’s strategic goals and reviewing the company’s landscape for newer projects and programs that may need to be a part of portfolio, based on the same strategic goals. In all these ways, the portfolio manager can serve as the conduit for the CEO’s strategy.

As Mark Langley said, it’s hard work. The portfolio manager is ensuring the right work is done while the project and program managers are ensuring the work is done right. Each has to do their part, and each part is hard. But with all in harmony, the organization will better realize the business benefits for more projects and programs.

Posted by Wanda Curlee on: April 01, 2015 07:35 AM | Permalink | Comments (9)

Unleash Your Creativity to Ensure Portfolio Success

By Jen L. Skrabak, PMP, PfMP

Portfolio management is in large part about enabling innovation. And innovation starts with creativity. What’s the difference between innovation and creativity? As economist and Harvard Business School professor Theodore Levitt once said, “Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.”

Because projects and programs are the vehicles for implementing new ideas, creating new products or services and transforming current state, portfolio management enables innovation.

Creativity is not enough (this is the title of an article Professor Levitt wrote in 1963). Put another way, “Ideas are useless unless used” (another Levitt quote). Good ideas must be realized to mean something.

Since project and program management are all about executing a vision, value creation and benefits realization, they provide the natural vehicle for translating ideas into reality. 

Portfolio management translates the right ideas into reality within the confines of organizations. It’s about order, process, structure and ROI.

Change Your Vantage Point

Of course, there’s always a danger of too much order and process stifling creativity. So how do we unleash creativity? Sometimes we’re our own obstacle to becoming more creative.

I believe the key to unlocking creativity is to increase our vantage points. A vantage point is just a way of observing our surroundings, facts and other information in order to create our reality.

When faced with a challenge, sometimes our tendency is to trick ourselves to view it as something we’ve seen before. Our brain does this in order to save us time. But this tendency to go on autopilot inhibits new ways of thinking and solving problems.

To see what I mean, get a piece of paper and draw a coffee cup. Did you draw the cup like this?

Most people do, since it’s how coffee cups are usually depicted. Now imagine the same coffee cup viewed from the top down.

 

Your vantage point matters—it frames the problem, which in turn impacts the solutions you can brainstorm.

Here’s another way of thinking about vantage points. In 2014, there were more than 108 billion business emails sent and received each day. (This doesn’t include instant messages, personal emails, social media messages and other electronic communications.)

We’re all inundated with data, information and images—your brain receives 11 million pieces of information every second from your environment. Yet it can only process 40 pieces of data per second. Which means it has to choose which tiny percentage to focus on, and which huge chunk to ignore.

How you see your reality is a choice. 

What you choose to focus on shapes how you perceive and interpret your world. Your ability to train your brain to see other vantage points is critical to innovation and creativity, and ultimately your portfolio success.

Seeing your problems, your business, your team and yourself from different vantage points increases your creativity and innovation and accelerates results. Just like any other skill, creativity is something you can develop over time. Why not start now?

Posted by Jen Skrabak on: March 30, 2015 02:54 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Taking It to the Next Level: Portfolio Management

By Wanda Curlee

 

As a project manager, you may have worked within a program or portfolio, or both. You may have seen what seemed to be a successful project slowed or canceled, and been confused or upset by this. Why would higher-ups end a project that’s proceeding within scope and budget and on schedule?

The answer, most likely, has to do with the project’s position relative to the organization’s strategy and the portfolio in which the project resided. While working in the for-profit world and consulting on U.S. government projects, programs and portfolios, I’ve learned that program and portfolio managers in all sectors have to make tough decisions about which projects to deprioritize or cancel.

Back when I was a project manager — I earned my Project Management Professional (PMP)® in 1993 — I found myself on the receiving end of bad news from program and portfolio managers. I responded by asking questions to learn as much as I could from the portfolio or program manager. My initial goal was to mature my project management skills, but I ultimately decided I wanted to work at the portfolio level.

Portfolio management is an area of growing interest within organizations and at PMI. The institute’s newest certification, the Portfolio Management Professional (PfMP)®, is an expression of that. I had the opportunity to help define the PfMP® by serving on the core team that established the first iteration of the certificate, which launched in August 2014.

Some may think PMI mainly offers specialty certifications, such as risk (PMI-RMP)®, schedule (PMI-SP)® or agile (PMI-ACP)®. In fact, the PfMP offers a different kind of path, one that can help practitioners build a more strategic mindset and skill set within the world of project management.

Portfolio Management 101

So what do portfolio managers do?

First of all, a portfolio manager normally works for a C-level executive or a business unit head. While project/program management experience is not a requirement to be a portfolio manager, it can be a valuable entry point.

The portfolio manager structures the portfolio to meet the strategic needs of an organization. She views projects and programs from a strategic perspective. Whereas the project manager is worried about doing things right, the portfolio manager is worried about doing the right things.

Each of these roles is very important to the success of the organization. Let’s go back to the scenario above, where a project manager is annoyed by the cancellation of a project that was tracking well.

Think about it from the portfolio perspective: The portfolio manager may have canceled your project because another business unit started implementing something similar. The portfolio manager has to decide which project should continue and which shouldn’t.

Ready for a Career Pivot?

Okay, perhaps you’re ready to move into portfolio management. What’s the best way to transition out of the project level?

In my case, I looked for projects that matched the strategic needs of the organization. I tried to work at companies that were growing or changing. I volunteered to take the helm of projects that seemed difficult. Eventually, I managed my first portfolio.

Above all, I recommend pushing yourself to maximize experiences that help you understand the business. Strive for positions that expose you to strategy.

Also, remember that your expertise in project management can help you stand out from other portfolio manager candidates. You know how to measure success, and you have the discipline to run governance for a portfolio.

Is it worth your while to strive for the PfMP credential at some point? In one word: yes. I believe it will come to be recognized as the mark of in-depth portfolio management skill and experience.

Why do I think that? Well, back in 1993, when I earned my PMP, there were fewer than 1,500 people with that credential. Today, of course, more than half a million people have a PMP.

The PfMP is just getting started, but we’ve already seen a 57 percent jump in certifications since its official launch last year. By definition, there will always be fewer portfolio managers than project managers in the world — but I see a bright future for this line of work.

Posted by Wanda Curlee on: February 12, 2015 01:11 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)
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