How many projects are currently in progress across all teams in your organization? If you have more than a couple of development teams, chances are that you have no ready answer to this simple question. You may be able to rattle off the top initiatives. But if you speak to each team and collect the lists of projects they are working on, you’ll see many more than appear on your list. You lack visibility at the project portfolio level.
Sure, you probably have portfolio tracking tools in place — a spreadsheet, a google doc, a set of JIRA projects, or the like. And these are readily available online for all to see. You can view them without leaving your desk. But almost nobody does. And if you do, you do it alone.
Tracking tools frequently serve accounting and forensic purposes rather than proactive project facilitation purposes. Questions of where the budget went and whom to blame for problems take precedence over questions of whether priorities make sense and what problems impede progress today and moving forward.
The lack of good portfolio visibility opens the door to numerous problems in delivery of value to the customer. One project reaches completion only to stall due to an unsatisfied dependency. Skilled resources are reassigned to the most urgent project, delaying the projects they had been working on. Back-channel requests for work grow in number and scope and consume an increasing fraction of overall capacity. Teams juggle several streams of demand and constantly prioritize on the fly. Managers grow frustrated at the apparent lack of progress on the declared priorities.
Complaints of being short-handed often arise in response to these problems. “If only we had more resources” the thinking goes “we could get all of this done. We don’t have enough people to keep up.” While adding resources will probably let teams get more done, it does not address the hidden management of those resources, trade-offs that take place behind the scenes and seldom align with the declared priorities. Increasing portfolio visibility brings these trade-offs out of the shadows and subjects them to the full scrutiny they deserve.
So how do you enhance portfolio visibility? Start with a simple and tangible approach: build a portfolio wall:
- Put an index card on the wall for each project in flight. (Enlist team leaders to complete the list.)
- Declare an owner for each project.
- Group items by implementation team.
- Estimate business value and level of effort
- Prioritize top to bottom on the wall.
- Highlight dependencies.
- Flag resource conflicts and other blockers that impede progress.
- Annotate items to record delays due to shifting resources, priorities, external issues, etc.
- Meet at the board weekly with stakeholders and team leaders to review priorities and obstacles to progress.
- Iterate to improve the portfolio wall.
It may take several iterations to find the right level of detail, identify all of the dependencies, assign owners for everything, determine the priorities. Iterate quickly.
For each item on the wall, ask whether it warrants a place there. Move dubious items to the very bottom and remove them if they stay there.
You may think too many items appear on the board. Good! If your teams deal with that every day, they need your help to improve prioritization and focus. Simplify by subtraction.
If your team is distributed, you’ll have to compromise. Point a webcam at the physical wall. Try an electronic tool. Figure out what it takes to keep the communication bandwidth high enough to maintain the wall.
A portfolio wall provides a focal point for discussion of issues that cross projects and teams. It helps you surface resource management trade-offs that occur behind the scenes in lower visibility environments. It highlights dependencies for all to see, and provides early warning for portfolio issues that impact value delivery. Use the weekly meetings to realign your teams. Try it and you’ll find that good portfolio visibility pays immediate dividends for you and your teams.
Posted by William Baxter on Aug 4, 2015