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

Don’t Shout the Loudest—Think Ahead

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

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)

How Portfolio Managers and Business Analysts Can and Should Collaborate

By Jen L. Skrabak, PMP, PfMP

Just like portfolio managers, business analysts are gaining wide acceptance as a profession. Business analysts can now earn their own PMI certification (PMI-BA) and read their own practice guide (Business Analysis for Practitioners). (Here’s a piece of cultural trivia: Did you know the latest bachelor on the reality TV show “The Bachelor” is a business analyst?)

Portfolio managers should get to know business analysts in their organization, because they can help ensure alignment and management of the portfolio to achieve the organization’s strategic goals and objectives.

What exactly do business analysts do? They, well, conduct business analysis. That’s defined as:

•identifying business needs

•eliciting, documenting and managing requirements

•recommending relevant solutions 

With this in mind, there are four major ways that portfolio managers can leverage a business analyst:

1) Develop Pipeline Opportunities

Business analysts can play a critical role in analyzing business problems and opportunities that will eventually be used to initiate projects and programs in the portfolio. Product or technology roadmaps can outline potential projects or programs that will be initiated at future points. They’re also valuable during a project because they can support proposed changes to a project scope (which will affect the overall portfolio) and ensure that the business justification for the project or program remains valid. 

Many business analysts are embedded within business areas and are critical to early identification and understanding of future opportunities or changes to the portfolio.

2) Define Needed Business Capabilities

We often think of business analysts as documenting business requirements.  Those requirements are built upon an understanding of which capabilities are needed for a particular business domain. 

Typically, capabilities are based on the goals and needs of a particular business area. Those needs may be depicted through business domain capability maps, end-to-end process flows or functional diagrams. An assessment of whether the capabilities currently exist or not becomes the basis for identifying priorities and gaps (in processes or talent). It can also be used to benchmark against other companies.

3) Develop Business Cases 

With their high-level understanding of the goals, objectives and needs of the enterprise, business analysts can assist in defining the justification for the proposed solution. The basis of a business case is the needs assessment. This process seeks to understand the underlying business problem, assess the current state and perform a gap analysis against the future state.

In addition, the proposed solution (see #4 below) is needed for high-level cost estimates that become the basis for the numerator of the ROI. The potential return (denominator of the ROI) is also based on an analysis of the impact of the solution on the current process.

4) Perform Solutions Analysis

One type of solution analysis is to assess a variety of options to go from the current state to future state. (For example, process changes vs. system implementations.) Business analysts can work with business stakeholders to define immediate solutions (quick wins that may be process changes) or longer-term solutions (new products or systems). 

Business analysis outputs provide the context to requirements analysis and solution identification for a given initiative or for long-term planning. Business analysis is often the starting point for initiating one or more projects or programs within a portfolio. The analysis is an ongoing activity within a portfolio as the business environment changes and more information becomes available, creating new competition and strategies.

How do you work with business analysts? Share your experiences and best practices in a comment below. Also, if you’re looking to learn more about how business analysts can support practitioners, check out this pmi.org webpage.

Posted by Jen Skrabak on: September 01, 2015 04:37 PM | Permalink | Comments (28)

ICANN and the Need for Portfolio Management

By Wanda Curlee

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) oversees the Internet’s system of domain names, which include .com, .edu, .gov and .mil, among others. More broadly, the not-for-profit organization aims to keep the Internet “secure, stable and interoperable,” while promoting competition.

Unfortunately, for several reasons ICANN is in the midst of organizational change. ICANN’s current president and CEO announced in May that he’ll be leaving the organization next March, and the search for a new CEO will start soon. More countries are voicing their desire for free or low-cost Internet access and more domain name categories, while pushing their agendas. The disruptive potential of the Internet of Things is making ICANN leadership think as well.

All this change is driving change within ICANN—and creating a wonderful opportunity for portfolio managers.

ICANN needs to focus on strategic goals, which need to tie back to its charter. A strong portfolio manager should be able to assist the new CEO in pursuing and achieving strategic alignment. The portfolio manager will focus country representatives and those that work within ICANN to ensure that projects and programs meet a strategic need.

The organization may require more than one portfolio manager. There may be one master portfolio with several sub-portfolios focusing on specific strategies or goals. Alternatively, there may be several portfolios reporting straight into the C-suite.

The new CEO and other executives will provide strategic direction, and the portfolio manager should have their ear. While executives resolve strategic issues and travel to give presentations, work with governments and testify before government agencies, the portfolio manager is focused on driving strategic initiatives to the finish line.

The portfolio manager is the person at the helm turning strategic goals into results while making course adjustments when necessary. This is accomplished with a healthy governance structure, an understanding of the industry and environmental factors, and constant communication with the C-suite sponsor and major stakeholders.

I’ve focused on ICANN here, but this scenario is largely true for many organizations operating in the dynamic IT and telecommunications industries. The CEO and other executives' suite collectively serve as the captain, while the portfolio manager provides guidance to maintain a healthy bottom line while still achieving the organization’s strategic objectives.




Posted by Wanda Curlee on: July 17, 2015 08:23 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

"It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you place the blame."

- Oscar Wilde