Project Management

5 Things Unsuccessful Portfolio Managers Do

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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 (15)

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Yes, it's balance which demands utmost importance.

Thanks for your comment Manas, definitely balancing supply and demand for the portfolio is important, as well as work-life.

I love this article! Great job! There’s a huge difference between a ambitious goals and unattainable goals

very interesting article. I think unsuccessful portfolio managers are based on a short-term instead of having a long-term vision

Thank you for your comment Lourdes, I definitely agree that there's a big difference between stretch goals and impossible ones.

Thank you Fosco, that's a great add - having short sighted objectives instead of longer term ones can inhibit success.

Good points Gen. I have seen Portfolio Managers do Micro Management rather than providing guidelines. I believe Portfolio Managers should ensure enough time for thinking on how to make difference, what could be the future. Making free from day to day activities, micromanagement so as to think of Business Strategy, Alternatives/Options could be more helpful.

Thanks for your comment Parag. Good point on focusing on the big picture/stragtegy vs micromanaging execution of projects and programs.

Thanks for starting the conversation on what Portfolio Managers should not do and what they should do. I think they should also stay flexible in managing the portfolio in light of disruptive technologies that can impact the portfolio mix and focus on managing strategic change based on changes in the organization’s strategy to these external events.

Gerald, thanks for your comment. Good point on agility, including continuously monitoring the external/internal environments and adapting to changes.

Good list. I think I'd add:
6) keep informationt to themselves and fail to develop their staff. One of the best pieces of career advice I ever got was to train someone to do my job so that I could be promoted without my boss/es wondering who could do my old job.
7) fall to listen to to people in lower positions in their organization. I heard of an organization which cut hundreds of thousands off their operating budget, because a senior executive took the time to listen to someone on the cleaning crew, who had an idea about waste management and removal.

Great points, Michael. Keeping information to oneself is an old practice which still very much in practice even today by modern managers. It gives a false sense of power to such kind of managers.
Person who does the job, knows the best. Many of my projects have been saved because I speak to the workers.

Thank you Michael, good adds.

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