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Project and portfolio management dead? Try these PPM process tips

Do you think that project and portfolio management is dead? If you do, it could be your approach that's to blame. Try these tips to breathe some life into your PPM process.

Is project and portfolio management (PPM) dead? Are we the ones who killed it? Let me share a couple of recent experiences that make me think so.

First, I was asked by a CIO to assess his company's PPM process. This IT executive felt his company was no longer getting much value out of its PPM structure. How did he come to that conclusion? For one, the members of his company's PPM steering committee were finding every possible reason and excuse not to attend their own regularly scheduled meetings. This CIO knew for sure the process was in trouble, however, when the vice president of marketing explained that he had missed the most recent prioritization session because "my dog ate my portfolio status report."

Next, the CFO of a private equity firm asked me if I would validate the criteria she was going to use to select a new enterprise system. As she started to read through the selection scoring system she had devised, my mind started to drift -- and drift badly.

In her system, this CFO had included more than a dozen categories, then had developed a weighted scoring system that would result in a precise answer as to which software the firm should purchase and implement. As she was explaining the elegance and completeness of this approach, I interrupted and asked her how she had come up with it. She proudly responded, "This is the same scoring system we use for PPM decisions."

Reflecting on these two experiences is what caused me to think that PPM is dead and that we are the ones who killed it. I have identified some reasons for a PPM system going bad. Here are four of them:

  • PPM that is overly complex. If it takes more time to score a project than it takes to complete it, you need to simplify your PPM system.
  • PPM that isn't timely. Given today's rapid technology and business cycles, you need to prioritize projects and make decisions nearly continuously. One of the reasons our CIO peer's PPM had lost its value was that the company needed to make decisions much more frequently than was allowed by the scheduling of the steering committee.
  • PPM that involves the wrong people. The right people are the ones who can make a good, timely decision. This might not be anyone on the current PPM or steering committee if they are too far away from the context needed for such decisions.
  • PPM that is counter to the decision making culture. If the organization makes decisions in a very decentralized or federated way, a centralized PPM process might be the wrong approach.

Nevertheless, the concept of prioritizing and managing our project portfolio remains important. What can we do to overcome its current weaknesses? First of all: Simplify, simplify, simplify. Because complexity is one enemy of agility, I have found that I can improve PPM's relevance and timeliness if I eliminate as much complexity as possible.

For example, I have replaced scoring systems and ROI analyses with questions like these: Is this the right thing to do? If we don't do this, what opportunities will we miss? Can we live without doing this? It certainly takes a lot less time to ask and answer these questions than it does to gather the data need to perform a weighted average analysis of fifteen different scoring dimensions. (And to be honest, it wasn't like the complex scoring models actually helped us make better decisions.)

Because we don't have to spend hours, days, weeks or months gathering the data to make a decision, we also can prioritize the projects in our portfolio much more frequently. In fact, as PPM shifts from analysis to collaboration, that can be done nearly continuously. Need to make a decision right now about whether to shift a project's priority? Get the right people together and decide.

Of course, we still need to document and distribute the results but our decision making no longer is paced by the schedules of the steering committee members. This nearly continuous PPM also allows us to use more modern PPM tools. You might want to try out Software as a Service tools, or ones that are mobile or based on social networking frameworks. In our anytime, anywhere world, it only makes sense that we can make decisions, check status and review results the same way we do almost everything else.

For the CIO whose PPM steering committee members were finding excuses to duck out of their own meetings, I suggested that he shift to a more on-demand PPM process that probably would involve a different set of decision makers. He could keep his steering committee as a sounding board, but to keep pace with the cycle of business, he needed to involve people who had a more immediate context for reviewing and prioritizing his portfolio.

For the CFO who asked me if I would validate her setup for scoring enterprise systems, I recommended a scoring model based on identifying one or two principal discriminators. In other words, what were the one or two most important decision drivers? Cost? Ease of implementation? Compliance with existing architectures? Need for a specific feature? Then she should select the system that delivered best on only those one or two things. Because all other considerations were less important, she could ignore them.

Niel Nickolaisen is CIO at Western Governors University in Salt Lake City. He is a frequent speaker, presenter and writer on IT's dual role enabling strategy and delivering operational excellence. Write to him at [email protected].

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