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.
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?
By Jen L. Skrabak, PMP, PfMP
As you reflect on 2014 and prepare for the New Year, consider these eight resolutions for your project portfolio in 2015.
1. Be a portfolio leader. Don’t just manage the portfolio — lead it by thinking in terms of profits and losses. In that sense, how does it compare to other portfolios or business units? What was your 2014 return on investment, and what is your 2015 estimated return? Is this within your organization’s expectations? What projects/programs were a drag and should be stopped? What projects/programs have the potential to generate the most returns and can be a calculated risk? (A calculated risk has a reasonable probability of generating a return; of course, what is “reasonable” depends on your organization’s risk appetite and threshold.) If you were an investor, would you invest in your portfolio? Asking these questions may help you decide what to do differently in 2015.
2. Accelerate the business. Ensure strategic alignment by thinking about your portfolio as dynamic and agile — an accelerator to business goals and objectives. How can you free up resources to innovate rather than just keep the lights on?
3. Sell your portfolio’s value by understanding your audience. Speak the organization’s language while remembering the 5 C’s: clear, concise, credible, creative and compelling:
Clear— Frame the discussion in terms the other party can easily relate to and understand.
Concise— Long decks and presentations will lose your audience. Think elevator speeches: If you can’t sum it up in a sentence or two, it’s probably too complicated to understand. And if it’s too complicated, then you will not have the opportunity to influence, let alone reach agreement.
Credible— Know what you’re talking about and be prepared. This means doing your homework before coming to the table.
Creative— Look beyond the obvious to find the solution.
Compelling— Always know what’s important to the other party and what will drive them to action. Tease out the underlying need instead of only the stated desire. Understand what your bottom line is, and theirs.
4. Establish a culture of innovation. Do this, and you can deliver long-term as well as quick wins.
5. Make data-driven decisions.Look at the facts to drive decisions, not emotions. Don’t get attached to pet projects.
6. Engage with the world.Go beyond stakeholder engagement at work. Don’t forget about yourself, your home and your community.
7. Trust your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. That little voice is an early indicator — listen to it. Sometimes when we forge ahead against our instincts, we find out later that it would have been better to take another course.
8. Find meaning in your portfolio. Your portfolio delivers the impossible — innovative projects and programs that have not been done before. What achievements in the past year were key to the organization, in terms of values, culture and feeding creative juices? How can you do more of that in 2015?
The most powerful — and most commonly misunderstood — measurement of project progress is earned value metrics, the way of measuring actual versus planned progress.
"Earned value" is so attractive because the term conjures positive visions, emotions and expectations on what earned value metrics will do. But in reality, if a project manager does not measure and then present the metrics properly to project sponsors, the numbers can produce unpleasant mood swings, premature celebrations and raging arguments.
I have found that project managers who successfully track project progress with earned value metric share a common practice: They allocate the same effort to the meaningful presentation of earned value and its implementation. Consider these basic tips for making earned value actually mean something:
1. Qualify activities that earn value. One of the quickest roads to failure is to include all project activities in determining earned value. This can set up the false indication of true progress by incorporating administrative tasks like the kick-off meetings, project status meetings and other activities that are not central to actual progress. To avoid misleadingly optimistic earned value, include only core items when determining earned value — for example, high- effort and -risk activities, and external dependency milestones.
2. Set standard earned value ranges. Another common trap in calculating earned value is allowing optimistic or downright untrue declarations of progress. You've all probably heard, "We are 99 percent complete, and all we have left to do is..." time and time again.
To avoid this trap, set up conservative ranges of progress completion. For example, you may set a conservative percentage-complete tier of 75 percent if a deliverable is completed, and designate the remaining 25 percent to the approval process by the project sponsor.
3. Clearly communicate earned value to project sponsors. Speaking of project sponsors, one of my all-time favorite earned value moments occurred recently during the first progress status meeting. After several weeks of high expectations around earned value, the project manager stood up and said, "Our SPI is .92." Needless to say, this abbreviated report of the schedule performance index caused a long silence, puzzled looks and furrowed brows among project sponsors. Avoid such tense moments by communicating to project sponsors, in terms they understand, what earned value can and cannot do. Add relevance and context by combining earned value with other project readout content, and tailor your communications to sponsors through visualization techniques. For example, present a graph showing the schedule of planned value against the actual earned value of these deliverables for the project.
Earned value can be one of the most powerful and revealing indications of true project progress — as long as it is properly determined and presented.
How do you measure earned value? What are your tips in presenting earned value to project sponsors?
If you're new to project management, you might be surprised to learn that some projects -- maybe some of yours -- do not generate any actual profits.
That can make it difficult to demonstrate how talented you are as project manager and how great your project delivery team is. So, how can you show you've created value if you cannot show revenue or profits as a direct result of your project?
Look at ROI in a different light. Instead of using profits as a benchmark, consider intangible benefits, such as cost-savings that will result from the project, or a positive swing in public relations or team dynamics
My team and I were working on a project that involved automating a conference room. A user could walk into the room, push a single button and the automation would do the rest. The project didn't generate any profit, but the feedback from stakeholders was 100 percent positive: My team had created an environment that worked as advertised and made users' work lives easier and less frustrating. And that translated to a huge upswing in stakeholder influence.
When we needed buy-in on the next project, the stakeholders were more than happy to offer support. They even understood if the project would affect them negatively (i.e. space being unavailable for use during project, or a feature being disabled for a short time). It may be hard to say that stakeholders' good graces (for example) increased by exactly 42 percent, but it's very obvious when your ability to influence them has increased. Things seem to just run more smoothly.
Have your projects generated intangible ROI? How have your project teams benefited from it?