What does it mean to manage a portfolio? And what does portfolio management look like? For most of my career I have been involved with IT portfolios that were a blend of business-led projects and operational work. However, portfolios can be department-based, geography-based, customer-based or whole-company, or even another split. Basically, a portfolio is just a way to group work to make it easier to manage, monitor and control.
I think there are 6 main responsibilities for a portfolio management team. I’m sure there are more, but these are the main things that I feel form the priority To Do list for people in that role. The 6 features that make up portfolio management are below.
1. Assessing ideas for projects
Ideas for projects can come from anywhere, but often they come from people already working within the organisation, who are involved in projects somehow. For example, project or product teams could be working on one initiative, receive a change request, and realise that would make a great addition to scope, even if it cannot be incorporated into the project right now.
The portfolio team should be on the look out for relevant project suggestions, making it easy for people to put forward new ideas. Then they should review and assess suggestions. That list then feeds into the next key feature of portfolio management: deciding which projects to do.
2. Prioritising projects
Next, we have prioritisation. Part of the role of the portfolio team should be prioritising the order of projects and deciding when projects should start. Some lower priority projects might need to be started work if, in fact, they provide the infrastructure or enabling architecture for more important projects. The team should consider the whole portfolio and make choices based on that, as well as the relative priority of individual projects.
3. Strategic integration
Projects don’t exist in isolation, so although the portfolio team may have quite a lot of say over what gets done and when, based on the results of their assessment, there’s also a job required to align what project work is proposed with the rest of the business strategy. This draws on the ‘run the business/change the business’ approach, where some teams focus on delivering new stuff and others focus on keeping the business going. Either way, both ‘sides’ of the organisation should talk to each other.
The purpose of the alignment is to make sure the overall strategy can be delivered, but also to make sure risk management is carried out in a ‘whole company’ way. It’s no good having a risk-heavy portfolio if the operational side of the business is also falling on the side of taking chances. Overall, the organisation’s work should balance a risk profile that is acceptable to the leadership team. Perhaps they are OK with taking risky measures – I wouldn’t be though.
The whole point of using portfolio management techniques is to improve oversight and decision making – in other words, to put decent governance in place. That includes project steering groups or project boards (and the programme equivalent) as well as monitoring the delivery of the work inside the portfolio.
Monitoring and oversight might be a light touch or involve multiple layers of approvals, depending on the investment and method, and the consequences of decisions taken. It will help to have some documentation here to spell out exactly what is required.
5. Tracking results
Yes, benefits tracking! Someone has to be responsible for tracking benefits, and the portfolio management team is in a good place to be able to do that at a portfolio level. You may have individual programme managers or department heads tracking benefits for their areas, but if you want to see the results at an organisational level, this data needs to be consolidated at the top. And de-duplicated, because you don’t want benefits to be counted twice (I’ve been there – it doesn’t look good).
6. Portfolio management processes
Finally, the portfolio management team is responsible for the management of the portfolio. I know, it sounds obvious to write that but someone has to be the gatekeeper and guardian of the processes, life cycles, review process, approvals, funding requests, paperwork and people. The day-to-day operation of the portfolio is also a key responsibility.
In your experience, what else do portfolio teams take responsibility for? What are the other key features of working in portfolio management? Let us know in the comments below!
There are loads of things that make a project complex, and in the past I’ve written about criteria for complexity and what ‘true’ complexity means.
However, I’m now leaning towards the opinion that if you think it’s complex, it’s complex. The benchmark from which to approach managing complexity is whether you are worried about it being complex. Because if you are struggling with all the moving parts, then other people in your business probably are as well, and you all need strategies to get things feeling more comfortable.
OK, your project might not tick all the boxes for ‘pure’ complexity as defined by academics, but who cares about that, right? We want YOUR project to be successful, and that means meeting you where you are, and dealing with the stakeholders and the situation you find yourself in.
So when you’re feeling like things are getting out of control and the complexity level on your project is spiralling, what can you do about it? The infographic below sets out – in a high level way – three ways you can start to approach complex situations. Ultimately, the aim is for you to feel like things are under control.
Take whatever steps you need to that help you identify where the complexity is coming from and then break it down to deal with each part.
There’s more information about how to reduce complexity on projects in this article.
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Experienced project managers will agree that complex projects are a headache for lots of reasons. Complexity adds all kinds of challenges and cost. But if you can reduce that complexity then you can take some of the stress out of your project.
“If you can understand it, you can move on to reduction.”
Here are 3 ways to reduce complexity, once you know what is making your projects complex.
1. Resolve It
Just fix it. Make it go away. Use a different technology that is tried and tested. Add more time to the schedule. Throw money at the problem. Whatever it takes.
Unfortunately, many project complexities can’t be resolved like this, but it is definitely worth a try in the first instance.
2. Reduce It
Make the complexity less severe, with less of an impact on your project. This really does rely on you fully understanding what’s behind the complexity so that you can unpick it and come up with some strategies to chip away at it.
Harvey Maylor gave a presentation at a PMI Global Congress where he shared the results of some work he had done in this area. He talked about running 43 workshops with 1100 managers and in those sessions they were asked what percentage of the identified complexities in their projects they would be able to resolve or reduce.
I was surprised that they reported that they could reduce 82% of project complexities. Even if they were wrong by a factor of 2 that’s still 40% of complex issues that could be managed down.
What’s left when you reduce complexity is residual complexity (like residual risk). That might need a different approach or strategy to address, but it’s likely to be less of a headache to put in place than having to deal with the complexity in its entirety.
Having said that, the third complexity reduction technique isn’t really a reduction technique at all…
3. Live With It
You’ve identified it. You can choose to manage it and run with it, working out a practical response to dealing with rather than passively doing nothing.
One strategy that Maylor talked about is actively choosing the right person to sponsor and lead the project when complexity is involved. Different types of complexity issues require different skills at the top.
For example, a project that is complex for socio-political reasons needs a charismatic leader who can work with stakeholder groups to share the vision and sell the benefits. A project that is structurally complex needs a sponsor with great technical skills, someone who can juggle multiple parts and bring them back together as a whole. A project that struggles with emergent complexity requires a strategic thinker, someone who can see the bigger picture and make connections.
Getting the right team in place and framing their involvement in the project in the right way can help mitigate the impact of complexities if you can’t manage them out in any other way.
In this video I talk about the different types of complexity that you might face on your projects, as inspired and defined by Cranfield University.
PMI has produced a whole practice guide on managing complex projects. Navigating Project Complexity: A Practice Guide, takes you through how to assess your project in the complexity stakes and then put together a robust project management approach to handle the areas that might be difficult.
But it all starts with building a working environment that fosters the culture for complex projects to succeed.
The conditions for success
PMI identifies six conditions that, if present, will increase your chance of success on a complex project. Let’s take a look and see what they are and how you can recreate them in your own environment.
It won’t come as much of a surprise to know that strong leadership is going to really help you develop and deliver a complex project. A good leader should:
Read more about the four traits of great leaders here (hint: it’s an attitude).
When working on a complex project, one of the key things a leader can do is to tell everyone that it’s an important initiative. Even if you can’t plan it to a fine degree of detail, at least set the leadership agenda so everyone is aware that it’s a huge strategic priority.
2. Portfolio management
Get portfolio management.
OK, that’s harder to do than it is to write. Portfolio management gives you the tools to navigate through complex project situations because:
A culture that fosters collaboration is going to be able to successful negotiate the complexities of projects far more successfully than one which prefers knowledge silos.
Encourage communication between team members and also up to the project sponsor and program or portfolio team. Use change management practices to ensure that new ways of working are properly embedded. As a project manager, work with an open door policy both within your own team and also supporting cross-functional working across diverse teams as well.
4. Performance measurements
You can cope better with complex situations if the structure is in place to measure them. Performance metrics give you the chance to understand the health of the project at a given point in time. Then you can act to address that if necessary.
Set up your performance measurements (get some tips from Gartner’s experts for setting up project metrics here) before your projects go too far. Typical things that you would want to measure are:
Complex projects would also benefit from using Earned Value Management too. Actually, the list of things to measure for complex projects is quite similar to what I’d expect more straightforward projects to be measuring.
5. Align organisational structures
Typically you’ll be managing projects within a projectised, matrix or functional organisation. The structure you use depends on the culture of the business, geography and lots of other things. However, for complex projects you may find a different-to-normal set up works better.
A flatter structure may work well with a distributed project team. There may be more delegated authority than normal. In my experience co-locating the team works well, as does arranging the resources under the line management control of a project manager so that managing the resources involved becomes easier.
In short, set up your complex project in any way you like that makes it easier to manage. The point is to take complexity out with your management structure, not make the situation worse!
Carry out an assessement of the skills available in the team toensure that you have the right resources available to you. Ideally, you should do this before the project really begins, otherwise you could find yourself committed to delivering project tasks and no one capable of doing them.
It’s fine to bring in external help if you feel that would bolster your internal team, but remember that long-term you should aim to be supporting this change initiative yourselves, so build in knowledge transfer from external resources.
By focusing on these six areas, you can create an environment for your project where even complex initiatives are more likely to succeed.
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