Voices on Project Management

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Voices on Project Management offers insights, tips, advice and personal stories from project managers in different regions and industries. The goal is to get you thinking, and spark a discussion. So, if you read something that you agree with--or even disagree with--leave a comment.

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Cameron McGaughy
Marian Haus
Lynda Bourne
Lung-Hung Chou
Bernadine Douglas
Kevin Korterud
Conrado Morlan
Peter Tarhanidis
Mario Trentim
Jen Skrabak
David Wakeman
Vivek Prakash
Christian Bisson
Cyndee Miller
Shobhna Raghupathy
Rex Holmlin
Roberto Toledo
Taralyn Frasqueri-Molina
Wanda Curlee

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7 Ways to Align Portfolio Management with Strategy

by Jen L. Skrabak, PMP, PfMP

Successfully implementing strategic initiatives is a high priority for most organizations; however, few organizations are doing it well, if at all. In fact, only 10 percent are aligning portfolio management with strategy implementation.

Based on my experience, there are seven critical success factors to align portfolio management with strategy:

1. Agility: This is a broad umbrella for organizational culture and processes that are nimble and versatile. Being nimble suggests speed in reacting and being versatile suggests flexibility and adaptability. It’s crucial to build a nimble and flexible organization and portfolio management processes to take advantage of internal or external changes. Portfolio management must be seen as the enabler of strategic change and anticipate iterative, incremental and frequent adjustments to the portfolio.

2. The 3 C’s: Culture, Change Management and Communications: The “triple threat” of portfolio management is having all three components work in harmony to enable the strategy. Culture can be thought of as the personality and habits that an organization embodies, and although it may be difficult to describe, it can be seen and felt when walking around an organization. It’s been commonly cited that up to 97 percent of the employees in an organization don’t understand the strategy, and over 90 percent of mergers and acquisitions fail due to culture clashes. 

Rather than letting culture just happen by accident, organizations should consciously build and shape the culture of the organization. And, of course, the culture must be socialized through communications and change management to not only convey the right messages and keep employees engaged, but also recognize and reward the right behaviors.

3. Governance: Good portfolio management processes ensure these core governance functions are implemented:

·         Oversight: Leadership, guidance and direction. The key is being involved (through visible engagement and support in problem solving and removing barriers), not just informed (receiving status reports).

·         Control: Monitoring and reporting of key performance indicators, including leading (not lagging) indicators. Too often, portfolio managers report on scope, time and budget status, however, those are all retroactive events. Although course corrections can be made, it is too late to be proactive and, as we all know, it’s easier to stop a project’s problems earlier rather than later. Leading indicators, including risk exposure, incremental value delivered and requirements volatility, are predictive.

·         Integration: Alignment to strategy, as well as organizational ownership of the changes that the portfolio is implementing, should be driven by portfolio governance.

·         Decision Making: While empowering teams to make day-to-day decisions, broad decisions also need executive and management support to ensure buy-in across the organization.

4. Value: The value to the organization depends on performance of the portfolio holistically, not individual components. It starts with ensuring the right programs and projects are selected. Sometimes, the focus is on an individual project’s ROI instead of the fact that although a project may have a positive return, it should be compared against competing projects’ risk, return, and alignment to strategy.

5. Risk Management: There should be a balance of the negative and positive. Mitigate threats and take advantage of opportunities. Value is ultimately the result of performance x risk/opportunity.

6. PPPM Maturity: Portfolio, program and project management (PPPM) maturity ensures the process and talent exist to deliver the programs and projects reliably. Maturity is not measured by a single dimension such as the success rate of the “triple constraint.” Instead that measure includes speed to market, customer satisfaction and strategy enablement.

7. Organizational Structure: When building an organization to enable a strategic initiative (a type of portfolio), an organization should be defined by verticals of end-to-end processes and horizontal enablers. Horizontal enablers are common support elements that span across the verticals organized by the work instead of the functional area—such as change management, reporting, training.

How do you align portfolio management with strategy? I look forward to your thoughts!

Posted by Jen Skrabak on: October 20, 2016 08:38 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)

What Do Next-Gen Project Leaders Look Like?

by Dave Wakeman

Care to do a little thought experiment with me? Let’s imagine what the new and improved next-gen project leader should look like. And let’s come up with a few key attributes that would make this new and improved project leader successful.

Here are a few of my ideas about how to achieve success in the future of project management:

1. Emphasize strategic ownership of your projects and your role in the organization.

I know that I’ve been hitting a constant drumbeat over the last few months about the need for project managers to become more strategic in their thinking and their actions. For good reason: As our businesses and organizations become more project-focused, the need to think and act strategically becomes a key factor in our success or failure.

One way you can jump on this before everyone else does is by always taking the initiative to frame your projects in a strategic manner when dealing with your sponsors and key stakeholders. Work with sponsors on ways that you can manipulate and focus your projects strategically.

2. Less domain knowledge and more business acumen.

The project management role in an organization has changed. Even in industries that have long embraced project management principles and the job title (e.g., IT), technical knowledge aspects have become less important because of specialization.

What has replaced the emphasis on specialization in the project manager’s role? An emphasis on strategic thinking and business acumen. This is likely to accelerate to become the new normal.

You can take advantage of this trend by working to think about your projects as tools to increase the value of your company and its products and services to your customers and prospects.

3. Communicate or die.

This last point shouldn’t be a surprise. Being a good communicator has been the differentiator between successful and unsuccessful project managers as long as project management has been a thing.

But as our world becomes more interconnected through technology, with teams dispersed across continents instead of floors, the ability to effectively communicate is going to be more and more important. And the ability to be that communicator is going to have a bigger and more meaningful impact on your career and your success in your organization.

What qualities do you think next-gen project leaders require? Please post your comments below! 

By the way, I write a weekly newsletter that focuses on strategy, value, and performance. If you enjoyed this piece, you will really enjoy the weekly newsletter. Make sure you never miss it! Sign up here or send me an email at dave@davewakeman.com! 

Posted by David Wakeman on: May 23, 2016 10:14 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Why I’ll Be in Arizona Next Week

By Wanda Curlee

I’m a big fan of PMI’s annual PMO symposiums. I presented at last year’s symposium in Miami, Florida, USA and I’ll be presenting in Phoenix, Arizona, USA next week at this year’s event.

Why do I make the trip each year? There are many reasons. Each symposium acts as a crossroads of sorts between general management and project management. Each gives me a chance to speak with senior leaders in a one-on-one environment. And copies of PMI’s latest installment of the Thought Leadership Series, which features in-depth original research and analysis, are given out to attendees.

This year’s series is on “The Power of Project Portfolio Management.” As a certified portfolio manager, I want to leverage that research to increase my ability to provide powerful portfolios for my current company and future clients.

Last year, the symposium focused on talent management, and PMI’s talent triangle was a focal point. That, coupled with the introduction of the portfolio management certification (PfMP), made for an exciting and fruitful experience.

Senior leaders from many organizations discussed the value of the talent triangle and how portfolios, programs and projects help drive the talent in their respective organizations. Hearing executives discuss and present the practical side of what the project management discipline has done for their organizations was invaluable.

But the bit that I found most fascinating had to do with corporate citizenship. When running a portfolio, trust should be established so that program and project managers are willing to give back funds in excess of actual projects and programs.

It’s an odd concept, but when followed on a quarterly basis, it builds the understanding that more projects and programs can be funded and—most important—there are funds on hand if you find your project or program is in trouble. There’s no concept of shoot the messenger.

This year’s PMO symposium, held from November 8th to the 11th, will once again draw senior leaders from an impressive array of organizations. The networking opportunities will be vast.

If you’ll be in Phoenix, stop by my educational session on why a portfolio manager should be the CEO’s best friend. Yes, I truly believe that portfolio management can drive better management of corporate resources and increase the bottom line for all companies. Resources are finite at every company—and portfolio managers work to allocate them efficiently.

If you don’t agree with something I say, speak up—I’m there to learn, too.

Posted by Wanda Curlee on: November 05, 2015 07:22 AM | Permalink | Comments (4)

5 Things Unsuccessful Portfolio Managers Do

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 (14)

4 Tips for Selecting the Right Projects and Programs for your Portfolio

By Jen L. Skrabak, PMP, PfMP

Organizations struggle with selecting the right projects or programs for their portfolios. We see this in project success rates that haven’t increased much beyond 64 percent during the last four years, according to PMI’s Pulse of the Profession® 2015 report). We also see this in the companies that have faded from relevance or been obliterated by the pace of innovation and change—remember Blockbuster, Meryvn’s, RadioShack and BlackBerry?

The challenge is to select the right projects or programs for the right growth, placing the right bets that will pay off in the future. Here are four tips to help you do this.

1. Choose Projects and Programs You Can Sustain.

Know your organization’s current strengths and weaknesses; don’t be overly optimistic. It’s great to have stretch goals, but remember that the benefits of your project have to last.

Don’t forget about culture. Sometimes the primary reason a new project or program result doesn’t stick is that the organization’s culture wasn’t there to support it.

Organizational change management, including a defined communications and stakeholder engagement strategy, is crucial on large-scale projects and programs where hundreds if not thousands of processes may be changing in a short amount of time.

In addition, establishing a culture of project management with engaged sponsors, mature project and program management practices, and strategically aligned portfolios helps sustain projects and increase success rates.

2. Know Your Portfolio’s Upper Limit

Don’t only focus on a portfolio goal such as, “Achieve US$100 million in portfolio ROI in 2015.” Also focus on the portfolio’s upper capability.

The upper limit of your portfolio may be defined by budget, capabilities (skills or knowledge), capacity (which can be stretched through new hires or contractors) or culture (existing processes, organizational agility and appetite for change).

Define your portfolio’s upper limit and the highest resource consumption period and plan for it, rather than the initial ramp. Taking a typical adoption curve for a new project or program, your portfolio upper limit may look something like this:

3. Don’t Be Afraid to Admit Mistakes—and Fix Them Quickly

When we initiate projects and programs, and they’re not performing as expected, how quickly do we course correct, and if necessary, pull the plug? Having shorter weekly or monthly milestones and project durations is better than longer ones.

But are you equipped to act quickly when those weekly milestones are missed? How many weeks do you let a failing project go on, hoping it will get back on its feet, before ending it?

I have seen projects and programs that are not yielding the expected value being allowed to continue. Often, the sponsors still believe in the value of the project, even in the absence of metrics showing financial results. This is why setting clear financial performance metrics and monitoring them throughout development and delivery is so important: they can help project practitioners kill a project quickly if needed.

I once worked for a company that was experiencing 25 percent year-over-year growth for its products. It was a frenetic time of hiring new people, building new plants, and initiating billions of dollars in investment for new projects and programs.

However, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration required a new warning on one of the company’s flagship products, its sales dropped 25 percent (US$2 billion annually) almost overnight. Projects and programs in flight were asked to take a 10 percent, and then 20 percent, reduction in their spending while still delivering the planned results. Planned projects and programs were suspended.

While it was difficult, the organization passed the test with flying colors. In part, this was because it didn’t spend time lamenting environmental factors but instead worked to address them—quickly.

4. Measure Your Averages

It’s not about the one big project or program success, but the successes and failures averaged over a period of time (say, three to five years). Don’t just focus on the big bets; sometimes slow and steady wins the day. 

How do you pick the right projects and programs for your portfolio?

Posted by Jen Skrabak on: April 21, 2015 01:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (8)
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