Managing a portfolio of projects is more challenging when projects are cross-functional. Whenever there are several stakeholders with various perspectives, objectives and strategies, there is a greater chance of project failure. At a recent seminar, 52 participants identified the key elements to successfully manage a portfolio of cross-functional projects. Based on their responses, I identified five best practices.
Alignment is not a onetime step performed at the start of a project; it's an ongoing process. CIOs and business managers need to work closely to ensure that cross-functional projects have strong alignment with stated business objectives and strategies. My analysis of more than a dozen portfolios that range in size from 75 projects to 287 projects shows that a considerable number of projects have minimal to poor alignment. Most of these projects originate as pet projects or, over time, fall out of alignment because of changes in organizational objectives and business strategies.
The right community
Since most mission-critical projects -- even at small and midsized organizations -- are no longer solely related to the functional needs of a single department or business unit, managing these projects requires cross-boundary buy-in and support. It's necessary to have skin-in-the-game involvement from a variety of business stakeholders -- those who typically would rather not be bothered by requirements definitions, prototype testing, pilot deployments and other day-to-day activities required for project success. It's the responsibility of CIOs to make sure the right people are on board and to provide them with whatever education they need.
CIOs need to work diligently with their business counterparts to identify high-value projects. A percentage of projects within a portfolio should be high value (i.e., provide business benefit and return on investment). Unfortunately, a disproportionate amount of IT budgets and resources are still allocated to the kinds of projects that keep the business running, diverting resources from projects that enhance the business. Such lopsided portfolios may produce modest long-term benefits, but they provide little opportunity for growth.
The so-called low-hanging-fruit projects require little effort and involve minimal financial and technological risk. A proven method to identify the low-hanging-fruit projects: IT and business-area subject matter experts should meet in well-facilitated brainstorming sessions where the focus is to identify opportunities. The opportunities are then vetted through the project approval process.
Project governance -- the authority to make timely decisions -- is often left off the table. When issues arise (as they certainly will), project team members then scramble to find out who has ultimate decision-making authority. Another reason for negotiating and documenting authority is that over the project lifecycle, decision-making authority may shift among the players, leaving project team members in the lurch as they struggle to interpret and incorporate the decision of the day. Astute CIOs will negotiate decision-making authority early, and they will document and widely distribute governance procedures.
With their own success and failure in cross-functional projects, participants confirmed that these issues determine the outcome of a project. Learn from their experience, and increase your own chances of success.
Gopal K. Kapur is president of the Center for Project Management in San Ramon, Calif., and author of Project Management for Information, Technology, Business and Certification. To comment on this story, email ProjectExpert@ciodecisions.com.