Between Strategy & Projects: When Portfolios Don’t Fit

Mark Mullaly is president of Interthink Consulting Incorporated, an organizational development and change firm specializing in the creation of effective organizational project management solutions. Since 1990, it has worked with companies throughout North America to develop, enhance and implement effective project management tools, processes, structures and capabilities. Mark was most recently co-lead investigator of the Value of Project Management research project sponsored by PMI. You can read more of his writing at

Portfolio management has begun to be considered as ubiquitous in some organizations as project management itself. The inherent presumption appears to be that most organizations need a portfolio management capability if they don’t already have one in place. I’ve been amused to see project managers talking about decisions as being “program level” or “portfolio level”, even in organizations that don’t have any formalized program or portfolio management processes defined. I’ve even seen these observations in organizations with barely functioning project management capabilities.

The assumption that portfolio management does--or should--exist as a universal capability, however, doesn’t square up with reality for a number of organizations. Just because we can name something doesn’t mean it is necessary, or even appropriate. Like project management itself, the management of portfolios--and the value of even trying to do so--is contextual. It depends on the organization, how it manages and what it is trying to accomplish.

This reality got driven home for me a number of months ago when I was working with a client whose strategic planning process I have facilitated for several years. I was in a meeting with my client who indicated that they had just been to a presentation on portfolio management; they were wondering …

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