Project Management

Taking It to the Next Level: Portfolio Management

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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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As you mentioned " 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.",
Can we consider that PfMP is something different and requires special experience, or it is a series of managerial levels and experiences in order to be a PfMP?

Hello Wael - Good question. Yes, you need special experience whether you go through the project management discipline or through the business line. You MUST have strategic experience with competing priorities. Depending on the types of projects//programs/PMOs you have led, the business experience can be demonstrated. Many large projects/programs and enterprise level PMOs give you the strategic experience needed to be a portfolio manager and therefore, the business requirement. On the flip side, if you were in project management and then left, you can still be a portfolio manager. Again, your business experience will define your ability to meet the demands for portfolio management. The business positions must have a strategic component that have different priorities.

Hello Wanda, thank you for your article. I would appreciate if you could elaborate a little bit about how you see the decision making process and collaboration between a portfolio manager and a program manager. Taking the example of the cancellation of a project would be fine.

Hello Johan - A good item to discuss but can depend much on the culture of the organization. I have seen where projects/programs are just told one day they are cancelled. The project or program manager has no idea what has happened and this may be true for the project/program sponsor as well. To the other extreme there are those portfolio managers that closely work with program/project sponsors. When a portfolio manager finds a need to adjust the portfolio it may be a black or white situation or it could be something that needs more finesse. For example, let's say the portfolio's strategic objective is to implement the best sales tool that will increase sales by 10%. The Portfolio manager consolidates all the projects/programs related to the effort. A year after the Portfolio has been in existence, the Portfolio Manager becomes aware of a different sales tool being implemented by a business unit. The Portfolio Manager should assess both sales tools being implemented. The program/project sponsors should be contacted and the situation discussed. The Portfolio Manager will provide a recommendation to the portfolio governance team. The recommendation should not be a surprise to either of the sponsors affected. Once the decision is made, it may be that individuals from one of the projects/programs can be diverted to whichever is kept; thereby minimizing the effect on program/project resources.

I hope this helps. Let me know if you have any other questions.

A project team can really be dismayed with the cancellation of a project - especially if the project is progressing and the change is a big surprise. I admire that author's maturity and professionalism to embrace such situations as learning opportunities. Good examples for all of us to consider. I agree that the PfMP certification will become increasingly important.

David - Thank you for the kind comments. I have been the project manager on a project that was going great and out of the blue was cancelled. This was a tremendous learning experience for me once I was over the shock and grief. The project team should have time to deal with the upheaval but in these ever changing times that does not always occur.

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