Project Rescue Series: Portfolio Size

Companies are faced with a need to constantly be evolving and improving in order to effectively respond to the market. This pressure to evolve usually results in a long list of projects the company wants to complete in order to stay competitive, improve profitability, or respond to regulations. When I joined the board of the PMI Mile Hi Chapter, there was a list of 20 great projects we needed to undertake in order to improve the value we were delivering to our customers and ensure we were staying relevant. The team tried to take on all 20 projects. At the end of the year, how many were delivered? None. Companies must reduce the number of in process projects. Do less to do more. Too many projects result in:

Divided focus. Leaders are spread thin and cannot provide the support projects need to overcome issues that arise. Multiple teams vie for the leader’s attention. This is evidenced by calendars full of meetings and the project not being able to get key decision-makers together timely; deliverable reviews and sign offs being delayed; and leaders multi-tasking while attending project meetings. I have seen this countless times in organizations. Jim Collins mentions in Good to Great, “If you have more than three priorities, you don’t have any.” This is scalable to the organization level. If a department or company has more than three priorities, nothing is truly a priority because the proper focus cannot be given to it. An example of divided focus: we were holding an executive steering committee meeting and the CEO was immersed in his iPad and occasionally glanced up to ask questions that had already been answered just minutes before. Not only was the meeting not adding the value for him, it also sent a message to the project team that the project wasn’t that important and seemingly, not worth his time.

Overworked team. I have yet to work with a company that doesn’t have a capacity issue. Teams are always asked to do more with less without being given the environment to do so. Project teams are often spread thin and face challenges having the time to focus on a project. Project team members are often overbooked in meetings and do not have time to get project deliverables completed until after the standard workday ends. Or, they are forced to work on deliverables while half-listening to project calls resulting in a risk in quality. From a quantitative perspective, an over-allocated team increases risk and increases project duration and eventually cost. From a qualitative perspective, it results in reduced customer satisfaction, because the project isn’t delivering the results expected when expected, and reduced morale of an overworked team.

Extended project timelines. If the project team is anything less than 100% allocated to the project, then the project will be slower than it could be. If resources are 100% dedicated, they can work on project tasks without interruption and be available precisely when the project needs them. Having the entire project team 100% dedicated is not always realistic but the concept is applicable. The objective is to keep projects minimized so project team members can be available exactly when the project needs them, in order to reduce wait time, unnecessary hand-offs, and partially done work that is not delivering value, which all culminates into waste.

Increased risk. The more in-flight projects, the more risk. First, it puts quality at risk. As mentioned above, if there are many projects in flight, there is a divided focus. This division can result in poor decision-making because the proper amount of time is not being put into making a quality decision. Quality can also be compromised due to resources moving between projects and therefore rushing to get things done and possibly taking shortcuts, or forgetting where they left off and missing important details. Second, there is a risk that the solution the project is delivering will be obsolete or will be delivering at a lower project ROI. The business landscape is always changing and if solutions are being delivered a year after the business need was identified, the market opportunity may be missed, or the market may have shifted enough that the solution is no longer able to capitalize on the opportunity to achieve the company’s IRR.

Managing the project portfolio is important in order to support project success. If an organization has a right-sized portfolio, it will likely reduce the number of projects that ever get off-track. And if a project does get off-track, the leaders and resources will have the availability necessary to support the project to get it back on track. This isn’t possible if an organization is taking on too many projects simultaneously.

Right-sizing portfolios can be challenging and deserves its own blog post. But some key things to look at are ensuring that the organization is delivering no more than three enterprise-wide projects at once. After allocating those resources, if a department or team still has capacity, they can look to deliver their own department or team specific projects – again, no more than three. Starting here will often bring up questions around ancillary project team members (ones with highly specialized skills) and under allocated resources. It may mean you have to redesign the way projects are staffed. We will discuss these in the future.

What ways have you seen companies effectively manage portfolio size? What benefits did you see?

Jana Axline is Chief Project Officer at Project Genetics and the author of Becoming You. Through her leadership musings, she inspires audiences to grow as leaders and ultimately achieve who they were created to be. For more information visit Project Genetics.

One thought on “Project Rescue Series: Portfolio Size

  1. Can’t agree more. Best CIO I had outlined these are the projects we will do, these are the ones we may do and these are the ones we WILL NOT do. It gave clarity to all the items in the portfolio and allowed the team to move on the defined projects and be successful.

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