This month on ProjectManagement.com we’re talking about portfolio management. Portfolios are ways to organise the business of change so that companies can achieve their strategic objectives. You are probably most familiar with portfolios made up of projects and programmes. The OGC, the group behind the PRINCE2 standard, defines portfolio management like this:
“Portfolio management is a coordinated collection of strategic processes and decisions that together enable the most effective balance of organisational change and business as usual.”
But portfolios can do more than just manage change as a result of projects. Portfolios can also be used to make investment decisions, and managing work by portfolio is one way to get a view of financial data.
Pat Durbin and Terry Doerscher, in their book, Taming Change with Portfolio Management, write this:
“No matter how you characterise your portfolio objectives, almost all portfolios include some form of financial data as one or more of the parameters used for analysis. Aligning financial information to the demand-related information structures offers you a way to improve the quality and visibility of information about money, the most ubiquitous portfolio characteristic.”
They go on to say:
“As a basic accounting practice, every organisation has a mechanism to allocate and track money based on how it is distributed to the organisation. While this organisational view of financial expenditures shows you how money is spent, it does not show you why.”
For most project managers, what happens at portfolio level is a bit of a mystery. We get on a do our jobs, delivering the stuff that is required for the project, and let other people work out how it all joins together into an organisational and business strategy. As a result, portfolios can seem a bit remote from what we do day-to-day.
However, you have to realise that whatever you do as a project manager automatically feeds in to the bigger picture. If you don’t know what that bigger picture is, you can’t be sure that you are achieving it in any way. That doesn’t mean that you have to have an intimate understanding of what is going on ‘way up there’ but I do think you should have some understanding of how what you do contributes to the organisational strategy.
This does work both ways. After all, as Durbin and Doerscher say, there is no way that portfolio managers can tell why money is being spent just by looking at a corporate balance sheet. The story behind the expenditure is your story. It’s project business cases and project budgets that explain why money is being spent. They can’t get to the bottom of where the money is going without your input. It is the project manager and the project team members who play a critical role in making all this happen. It’s your tracking that shows how the budget is being spent, if it is realistic and whether or not the project will meet its goals. It’s your evaluation and recommendations that may lead to a project being sped up so the company gets the benefits earlier, or slowed down if something else takes priority for the resources, or stopped completely. Numbers are just numbers – without the narrative, there is no way of telling whether the project, programme or portfolio is performing as you would expect.
Of course, those in charge of corporate financial portfolios may not agree with how the money is being spent. If that’s the case, there are routes to redeploy those funds and resources using the standard corporate governance channels like project steering groups and boards. It could result in your project getting shut down, and if that does happen you should ask why. It could simply be that the company has a higher priority project elsewhere and your project has drawn the short straw. Don’t take it personally.
Management by portfolio is becoming more and more common. As businesses shift towards managing knowledge work, portfolios become the sensible way to get things done. Project managers have a huge part to play in making sure that portfolio managers have the information they need to make the right decisions. Just make sure that when you tell your story it’s a good one!
The OGC’s Portfolio, Programme and Project Office (P3O) guidance includes some information about project management maturity. Maturity is measured on a 5 point scale from Level 1 (not very mature) to Level 5 (very mature) against 7 areas – in P3O speak, ‘perspectives’.
One of the perspectives is financial management. Here’s how you should be performing at each of the different levels.
There is a “general lack of accountability” for monitoring what project budgets are spent on. Projects have few, if any, financial controls and generally don’t have formal business cases. This means it is hard for the company to properly assess potential projects and decide where the organisation’s funds should be spent.
There are a few more business cases around, although there is no standard template. The best business cases will explain the rationale for the project but not necessarily have a lot of financial information in. Still, it is something to go on when deciding what investment decisions to make.
Project managers are applying financial controls haphazardly, depending on their previous experience and skill level. Contingency planning and risk management are done without much consideration of costs. For example, contingency budgets are just made up, instead of being calculated on the basis of likely risk.
There are standards for business cases and how to get business cases approved. Business cases have one owner. Project managers manage cost and expenditure – and there are corporate guidelines that show how to get these done. There will be links to the Financial department or other teams who carry out financial controls.
Level 4 (this is where you should be aiming, if you aren’t already here)
There are processes in place to enable the organisation to prioritize investment decisions. In other words, the financial information available prior to a project starting is good enough to work out whether it is a strategically important project, given the available funds and resources. Project budgets are managed well by project managers, and there are tools in place to enable tracking and comparison of financial information.
Level 5 maturity is a significant jump up from Level 4 and really focuses on complete management and control at an organisational or portfolio level. Financial controls are integrated with the company’s general financial management plans and approaches. Estimates are accurate and produced using estimation techniques which are regularly reviewed: the information feeds into generating better estimates in the future. Most importantly, the organisation can show that project management and the projects that are delivered offer value for money.
I think most companies are a long way from Level 5, but in many cases they don’t need to operate at that level to be effective and to do a good job. Where do you think your company falls within the financial maturity model? Let us know in the comments.
You’ve got a big pile of projects to do, and more requests coming in all the time.
There’s not enough money or people to go round.
What should you keep? What should you scrap?
Take a look at the existing projects. Are any of them underperforming? What can you cancel? Can you salvage the work in progress to get something out of it before it’s cancelled?
Are there any in-flight projects that can be suspended until more resources are available? Can you speed any of them up to make people available for other work more quickly?
Look at the new requests. What can you reject straight away? What’s a good project, but can be deferred?