Always Feel Busy? 5 Lessons from Project Portfolio Management (PPM)

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busy"We have to do more with less."

If you constantly feel pressure to meet deadlines with your available resources, you're not alone. The idea of "doing more with less" is a constant challenge for businesses in all industries.

One common approach is to make better to-do lists, hoping project visibility will help your team work as efficiently as possible.

That kind of work falls under "project management," which is the art and science of "getting stuff done." It's important and can absolutely help you get more done in the time you have.

Sometimes, however, there's just too much to do and not enough hours to get everything done.

If that's how you feel most of the time, there's another term you should know: project portfolio management (PPM).

If project management is the art of getting stuff done, project portfolio management is the art of choosing what to work on in the first place.

Project Portfolio Management: The Art of Choosing What to Work On

Some companies have no process for determining what projects their teams should be working on. This can cause all kinds of problems, including:

Intense internal competition for financial and staffing resources

Lots of small projects going all at once

Projects with frequent status changes (on-hold, high-priority, on-hold)

Frequent rework and high costs with 3rd-party vendors

Teams that feel overworked and underappreciated (and managers too!)

If any of those describe your business, PPM principles can help you better focus your team on the work that really matters.

Here are five strategies to consider:

1. Understand Where Project Requests Come From

Sometimes your team receives a work request without much context for why the work is needed. In those cases, the title of the person making the request often determines how high of a priority the project is.

But in a context where your team already has more to do than time available, it's good to at least stop and understand what's driving the request. The project might be:

Part of a larger strategic initiative for the company.

A response to a problem with your company's product.

A response to an internal problem that's keeping other people from accomplishing their work.

A response to a move made by your competition.

An opportunity with an uncertain future benefit.

Understanding what kind of request you've received will help you determine which projects to accept.

When a "fire-drill" request comes in, accepting the project probably means putting everything else on hold. Having a PPM evaluation process in place will help you decide whether that's the right thing to do or not.

2. Get Clear About Value and Capability

Here are two questions to ask when you receive a new project request:

How much value will the project bring to the organization?

Is my team capable of successfully delivering this initiative?

Try to only accept projects that you know will bring value to your organization. If you're not sure, go back to the person who requested the project and ask questions until you know.

It can also be tempting to take on a big project to give your team members a chance to "grow" their skills.

But there's a fine line between letting your people grow and simply not having the right skills on your team to accomplish a project.

3. Be Willing to Shut Down Projects

If you haven't had a PPM process in place, it's likely you have too many projects going on.

Start by simply listing out everything that's happening on your team or in your department. You might be surprised to find how many unfinished projects you really have going.

Some of those projects won't be worth continuing.

4. Be Open About Priorities

Shutting down projects means someone's request is going to go unmet. That's a difficult thing, especially in organizations that have never said "no" to projects in the past.

Be open with both the project owners and the members of your team.

You can't expect someone to be happy when his or her project gets shut down. But if you let everyone know what's happening and why, there's a better chance they'll understand.

5. Embrace Uncertainty In Your Decision Making Process

Finally, when trying to prioritize, it's common to make accounting projections.

You might do a payback period analysis or try to calculate Net Present Value (NPV) for a project, then rank each project by the numbers.
The problem with this approach is that it can hide assumptions.

Some projects have low uncertainty. You'll know how long the project will take and what benefit you can expect from it. These are sometimes called "bread and butter" projects.

Other projects will require innovation. You won't know exactly how long the project will take or what benefit to expect. These are high uncertainty projects.
Accounting projections like NPV can hide the inherent uncertainty in your projects.

Instead of giving each project a single value, present a range of possible values instead. That way you'll be able to see which projects have a relatively certain benefit and which ones are more uncertain but might have greater payoff if all goes well.

Conclusion

You only have so much time and so many resources.

If your company is struggling to try and get more done with your current staff and budget, improving your project management and project portfolio management skills can help.