Back to Blogs

Portfolio Management: Let's Be CLEAR On This

  • Publish Date: Posted about 8 years ago
  • Author: Robert Woods

Portfolio Management: Let's Be CLEAR On This

Working on the right thing, at the right time, with the right people, getting the right results.

Every project manager, program manager, portfolio manager and executive in the world would like to say this is the description of their portfolio of projects.

It’s no surprise the number of organizations that have come to the conclusion that they need to create agility in their product delivery. The world is moving faster than ever and we are all scrambling just to keep up. Those who appear to be leaders in the race are, in fact, also scrambling to keep up. Start-up’s, garage techies and college hopefuls are continuing the wave of innovation into the market which means there are more options than ever for a single need.

The ones who can create a mindset and culture of change and adaptability are the ones who will ultimately survive the longest. Call it the 'IT survival of the fittest', if you will.

Evolutionary or Revolutionary? You be the judge.

While we're racing along, grasping into the air for course and direction, maintaining clarity on our goals becomes paramount. Want to survive? Know where you're headed and quickly adapt as needed. How? Try applying the CLEAR concept of portfolio management.






This concept is based on Agile and Lean principles and scaling them throughout the organization to any portfolio of work. Doing so doesn't have to feel like scaling Mount Rushmore. If scaling Agile feels overly complicated, it probably is.

I often hear of organizations who have seen success at the project level attempt to make the next move to the portfolio level and can't understand why it seems so much more difficult. But by applying these five principles to your portfolio, scaling agility can come naturally as opposed to feeling forced.

We'll start with keeping the portfolio collaborative.

Just like a great user story comes from active and valuable communication surrounding needs, a portfolio shouldn't be derived from a one man think tank. Some of the best product features are the result of the most fierce debates. Similarly, the direction of a portfolio should be based on asking questions, gaining insight, debating value and creating consensus.

This is not the result of one debate, question or decision. A value-based portfolio is the result of constant collaboration. To win a football game, a great team doesn't create a plan and stop talking to each other in hopes the plan works out. They are in constant communication and if things start to go south, they evolve and adapt (we'll get to that later).

As we take the time to debate and collaborate on value, we introduce the concept of working on the right things at the right time. Keeping our portfolio Lean, if you will.

Why are certain meats considered "lean"? No fat. Fat is bad for your health...right?

Make no mistake, it's bad for your portfolio too.

What is fat in a portfolio? Those projects with unclear stakeholders and sponsorship. Those projects that seem to drudge on because we don't know exactly what 'done' really means. Any project whatsoever where those involved day-to-day are asking "why are we doing this" or "who is this for again?" Trim the fat. Get Lean. Make sure in your collaboration sessions that the debates include Minimum Viable Portfolio and don't be afraid to create work in progress (WIP) limits at the portfolio level.

If you think no one person should have more than 3-4 items they are working on at once, it probably makes sense that no one team or group of people have too much on their plate all at once either. Otherwise we run the risk of working on lots and finishing nothing; the x-files projects that had no beginning, nor have an end.

As we learn, we change. We evolve. Evolution in our project portfolio is simply going to happen and the sooner we embrace that reality the better off we will be. To think otherwise would really be naive on our part and could bring an organization to its knees. This concept is quite simply a mindset more than anything. Markets change, customer opinion changes, competition changes, employees change, finances change, and everyone knows technology is in a state of constant change.

If our portfolio of work fails to evolve to those changes we will spend 2 years and millions of dollars on a product no one wants or cares about. Because in two years, the entire world can change; let alone our little corner of the world. Expect to evolve.

If you are rooted in the mindset that your portfolio of prioritized projects will eventually evolve, you can then strategically adapt. Granted, it would seem redundant that I would use the words evolve and adapt, but in this case we are talking mindset vs. action. It's one thing to understand and accept your situation will evolve, but to have the courage to take steps and adapt to the evolution taking place calls for another level of chutzpah.

I give you this example: YOU had the brilliant idea that was sold to all of the executives which was going to change the course of the company. They accepted your proposal and the heavily debated multi-million dollar budget. Half-way through the project you see market and customer demand evolve into something different than what you expected. Will you have the courage to adapt? It's a difficult conversation but one that far too few people are willing to have. The consequences of not having that conversation will always be worse.

If you are striving for constant collaboration, creating a lean portfolio which you know will evolve and have the courage to adapt as needed, what information do you use in order to help everyone at all of the right levels to make those tough decisions?

Your portfolio has to be reportable.

There is a fierce debate taking place in many public corners of the Agile world on what are considered useful metrics. In one corner of the ring we have those who still consider any and all metrics of value somehow and the more you have the better prepped you are to adapt. There are others who feel metrics are evil incarnate. They bring a team down and give executives a false sense of both good and bad. As the theory goes, once a team learns how they are being measured, they will adapt their process to make sure numbers look great, regardless of whether or not the customer is happy with what we're doing.

People need to make hard decisions. To make those decisions you need information. There is no way around it.

What information you ask? That's not for me, or anyone else who does not know the intricacies of your market and organization, to determine. No one person, team, project, portfolio or organization are the same. To say we have the answer to those specific needs means we assume to know all of that information up front. Need I remind you what assuming does?

The real answer to this is to find out what information helps you and your organization be the most collaborative, lean, evolving and adaptable as is possible. That might take a little try, fail, learn, and adapt of its own. It's all about what provides value. If it helps make decisions, there is a value, but if it also makes a team feel overly judged, micro-managed and more concerned about what their burndown chart looks like than what actually got done; weigh the value against cost.

You could argue that there are many more intricate details and motions that may go into scaling agility throughout the organization. You would be right, but tackling a portfolio backlog with the same mindset you would a project backlog allows us to simply change our focus from a smaller to a larger picture.

Think about it...a great product is created collaboratively with little waste. It will evolve and adapt to the users needs and we will make those decisions based on valuable and timely information.

Working on the right thing, at the right time, with the right people, getting the right results. Why wouldn't you want your portfolio to have the same success story?

Are we all CLEAR on this?