Organisational Agility & Project Portfolio Management

In last few years as I have taken more diverse roles in Agile Project Management, I have come across the challenge of managing project pipelines and developing road maps for Agile delivery teams. As the owner of project pipeline (or portfolio owner) my vision was to improve the end to end value stream, from the ideation until the release to the customers (end users).

Generally the existing process in many organizations is quite well structured (regardless of the software development process they follow in delivery) and typically have the following steps at high level:

– Initial meeting to understand the needs (either with internal facing stakeholders or market facing stakeholders)
– Initial project ideation and high level elaboration
– Project application or business case
– Final project document
– Project Initial planning
– Project Kickoff
– Project Implementation
– User acceptance
– Deployment
– Closing

Portfolio managers or program managers can have a huge impact in the 5 first stages. They can help the initiative owners to shape the idea or propose alternatives based on existing software or platforms. Often a new request comes from a departmental or business unit perspective and doesn’t take the rest of the company into account. Portfolio managers have a wider understanding of the business and they are best placed to know if there are existing solutions available which serve the need. Only when there are no existing solutions available, start with a new project application. This is when the initiative owner works out his business case, high level scope, budget, risks, key people etc.

I prefer to use a more lightweight approach, where the initiative owner collects just enough information for senior management to decide whether or not the idea is worth the investment. It’s important for initiative owners to understand the business strategy and have the ability to link their project request to business strategy.

Many companies use a prioritisation framework based on categories that define if a project is worth prioritizing.  For instance, legal obligations, regulatory risk, business criticality, etc. all have an impact on the projects’ viability. Even then, the most important piece is the link to the company strategy.  It gives senior management a better base to make a decision.

Every once in a while, a project application gets approved with the most urgent priority.  “This project must start asap and gets priority over all the others in the pipeline!” There may be many valid reasons why senior management pushes a project like this.  Often business continuity is endangered, legal implications are imminent or some revenue targets are on the line. Still, this behavior should be avoided because it has big disruption on the entire project portfolio. Other projects get delayed breaking many commitments and the entire planning gets shuffled. Agility means that organizations need to be able to respond to these changes in a better way. However I still want to reach to a point where I can guarantee the planning of the current quarter.

The key to keeping the portfolio stable is to make sure the projects are not too large. If the project teams are occupied for months on a project, there is too little throughput in the portfolio to avoid new high priority project being pushed into the planning. On the other hand, if every few weeks a project is released and a new project gets started, management will be less inclined to push a new project but rather let it follow the normal sequence. This is also very important as often the key resources (people and platforms) are limited and starting new projects can be counter productive to actual throughput.

For projects that are lower in priority and automatically fall out of the current quarter, I don’t communicate a specific date, I only show in which of the next quarters they will be delivered. It’s is to acknowledge that the distant future is uncertain and the portfolio will be subject to variability. On the other hand, the current quarter has to be clear enough to communicate to the stakeholders so that various elements of the organization’s chain can do prepared for the market release.  The key here is to collaborate with the stakeholders on the prioritization of the portfolio and also to keep the process transparent.

A good technique to break projects into smaller releases is to split it into several waves.  For instance, the first wave could be a subscription landing page, the second wave a website with the functionality to support orders, a third wave extra functionality to support self-activation, etc. If the priority of projects do not change then these waves can follow one another.  If not, we can always bring a higher value project between the two waves.

This kind of release planning results in the continuous delivery of business value bringing in more trust and efficiency in the delivery process. This allows organization to be able to respond to changes in a responsive and sustainable manner thus bringing the agility into its fold.

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