Not too long ago, I attended a networking event in Midtown Manhattan. While standing in line for an event-themed cocktail, I started chatting with an intern from a creative agency that had opened for business last December.
Naturally, she was talkative. When I told her that I was a project portfolio manager at my agency, she beamed.
“Oh, wow! You should meet our project manager, then. Ethan’s great- I’m sure you two will have loads to talk about.”
Although I kept smiling, I was wincing inside. Number one, she sounded like she was setting me up for a blind date. Two, I had run into yet another person who had no idea what a project portfolio manager did. It would be annoying if it didn’t happen so often.
When I reached the bar, I ordered two drinks instead of one.
What is Project Portfolio Management?
A project portfolio is a collection of projects grouped strategically. Some organizations only have one that encompasses all projects currently on the go while others, like my agency, have multiple portfolios for different creative disciplines. (In case you’re interested, all my projects involve photography.) Project portfolio management (PPM) is the process dedicated to keeping them on track and successful.
Once I tell people what I do, I’m often asked how it differs from project management. The primary difference is volume. Project management is dedicated to executing individual projects. Ethan from That New Agency would spend his workdays and likely a few sleepless nights directing a series of tasks that lead to a result like a product or service. If he has sufficient capacity, he can manage multiple projects, but an entire portfolio is a different story.
Every project portfolio manager is responsible for ensuring that all active projects
- Meet the company’s strategic objectives
- Are managed in an efficient manner optimized for best results
On any given day, you’ll find me doing the following, sometimes simultaneously:
- Managing requests for new projects to see which ones align with agency goals
- Managing and allocating project resources like photography equipment and image editing software
- Overseeing any necessary change management
- Making sure that all the projects maintain their business value at every point in the timeline
When we introduced project portfolio management at the agency four years ago, there was an immediate and noticeable improvement in efficiency. Over time, there were fewer project failures and more happy clients.
According to the Project Management Institute, companies with well-started project portfolio management strategies completed an average of 35% more of their projects successfully. There’s also evidence that organizations without a good PPM system deliver projects with business value only 21% of the time.
I’m not surprised. Before our agency adopted PPM, there were problems like the following:
- Departments were taking on more projects than they could handle and struggling to complete them.
- Few of the projects were aligned with company goals. They took on a life of their own, with mixed results.
- Constant delays in project completion due to insufficient resources.
- No centralized visibility into anything that was going on.
If your agency has implemented project portfolio management, is it measuring up to company expectations and fulfilling its potential to improve the quality and efficiency of company projects? If the answer is yes, great! Keep it going. But if you see areas for improvement, here are seven tips that will help your project pass any test.
1. Know Your Business Strategy
A sound business strategy is at the core of every successful project portfolio management. This is because strategy dictates the scope and long-term direction of any business. Its implementation and delivery plans include projects. Therefore, the success of your projects and the organization depend on a business strategy that is properly defined and clearly communicated.
2. Always Think From the Top Down
When your PPM is not well-developed, you’re going to fall into the common trap to taking on too many projects whose value to the company’s business strategy is questionable. Before long, resources are over-extended, people suffer from burnout, and projects are canceled because they no longer appear feasible. This bottom-up approach to decision-making neglects business strategy, and the results aren’t pretty.
Strong PPMs take the opposite approach: all the decision-making starts at the top. This ensures that projects that appear to be the most essential to company strategy are implemented before anything else and are guaranteed access to necessary resources. Anything remaining can be used on promising yet more tentative projects.
3. Confirm Executive Buy-In
This one is closely connected to the previous tip. To be successful, PPM needs buy-in and support from those at the top of your organization. Research by the Project Management Institute indicates that 90% of high-performing companies have strong CEO and executive support for their portfolio project management strategies.
4. Have a Well-Rounded Implementation Team
A strong implementation team is as essential to a strong PPM as business strategy awareness and executive buy-in. My own team for the photography division of the agency includes in-house photographers, scenery specialists, graphic artists, and our intellectual property attorney who always steers us away from potential copyright infringement situations.
Their experience and professional training help make my decisions informed ones. They also review portfolios with me to detect issues like over-allocation of resources, projects that are nearing their budgets while only in mid-timeline, and high-risk projects that don’t make sense to pursue any longer.
5. Asking the Right Questions
As the manager, it’s my job to ask questions about all projects in the portfolio. Unlike the individual project managers, I have to continually be alert for problems in a wide range of projects, and I need information to guide me. Below are some questions that I ask myself, my implementation team, and the project managers.
For projects in progress
- How well is each project performing? Are there any delays or concerns that need my input?
- Do any of the current projects depend on each other?
- Are there any potential conflicts with projects waiting in the pipeline?
- Are all resources being used effectively?
For projects being proposed:
- How does this new project align with business strategy now?
- Does the company have the budget and/or resources to start it?
- Do all the stakeholders have realistic expectations for the outcome?
- Does this project require us to invest in new software or systems?
Be thorough, and build your question database as each project is completed. Your goal is to always have access to the information needed to inform your decision-making.
6. Seek Improvement
All project portfolio management plans start as a solution to immediate business needs and known goals, but they should never remain static. Instead, they should improve and evolve as challenges are overcome, new risks identified, and expectations regarding results change.
At my agency, we use a combination of metrics and team reviews to assess company portfolios every few months and look for opportunities to improve. This practice ensures that we’re using the latest tools to govern the projects and that they remain aligned with changing business goals.
7. Use a Project Management Software
An essential part of PPM success is the right project management software. I’m not exaggerating: if you’ve ever tried to manage even ONE project using an Excel spreadsheet, you can imagine the outcome of a PPM system based totally on spreadsheets.
Look for an integrated software that allows you to input new project data and import data from various sources. At our agency, the PPM solution of choice is Toggl Plan, which helps me to manage entire project portfolios. I need optimal visibility levels to do my job, and this software delivers.
In addition to color-coded charts that make visual overviews a breeze, Toggl Plan offers the following features and advantages:
- It’s browser-based, so you can log in anywhere that you find an Internet connection
- Creating new timelines, editing existing ones, and assigning tasks is as simple as drag and drop.
- You can see how all team members are doing with their assignments. If I notice that anyone’s workload is too heavy, I can step in and assign someone to assist them.
- It integrates really well with Trello, Slack, Asana, and other project management resources
- It’s surprisingly easy to learn, so your team members can jump right in and start using it.
If your agency is still relying on spreadsheets, try recommending that it adopt a project management software package instead. Remind your manager that time wasted by digging through spreadsheets for information would be better spent on strategy development and implementation.
Projects are essential to the delivery of the innovations, services, and solutions that creative agencies need to stand out. The problem is that when there is no central oversight in place, individual projects can be initiated without a sound business reason, causing them to consume resources that could be better applied elsewhere and even run over time and budget. By keeping long-time business goals in mind and applying dedicated governance, project portfolio management plays a vital role in a company’s future.
Rose Keefe is an author and technical writer who has over ten years’ experience in supporting project managers in the manufacturing and construction sectors. One of her primary responsibilities was developing product manuals that supported efficient use of industrial equipment. She continues to write on the subject of time management and commercial productivity for trade websites and publications.