What good portfolio management looks like

    If you work in a large organisation, you are probably familiar with portfolio management. And it is likely, if you have worked on any aspect of the portfolio, that you are also familiar with some of its challenges.

    Digital transformation within a large organisation will involve multiple separate projects ongoing at once, led by different digital teams. They may be in the process of acquiring new hardware, setting up a new wifi network, or a new HR software or customer service system. All of that constitutes the organisation’s portfolio in relation to digital transformation, and that will be managed by a portfolio office, who are responsible for overseeing all of these projects. The system of portfolio management will vary from organisation to organisation, but is likely to involve coordinating regular progress updates from each team, perhaps through a shared spreadsheet or a cycle of meetings.

    Done well, portfolio management can bring real value to the projects it oversees. But it is hard to get right. As with a great deal of bureaucratic systems, it has a tendency to become focused on metrics, taking the form of a simple reporting process rather than something value-adding. For instance, individual teams may do excellent work measuring their own progress on a project, only for a manager to demand metrics of progress from all teams in a generalised format like a spreadsheet. Forced into boxes on a spreadsheet, this information might bring little value to a general overseer, not to mention waste time for the project team.

    At worst, portfolio management can become an administrative burden; even an obstacle to progress for the teams responsible for projects. At best, it may be missing out on its hidden potential as an overseer to manage pressures, problem-solve, and provide support for teams.

    So I’ve put together a list of tips for effective portfolio management - in digital and beyond - to help your organisation get it right:

    Be outcome-focused

    Progress should be measured in outcomes, not focused around milestones. Asking teams to show they have met a particular target by a particular date ignores the ambiguities not captured by a set of dates in a spreadsheet. It also risks missing the point of the work being done.

    Be data-focused

    Using data, not deliverable milestones, is the most effective way to assess outcomes. Measuring against tangible outcomes expressed through evidence provides the strongest indicator of what has been achieved by a team over a period of time.

    Don’t fuss over detail

    Good portfolio management is high-level, and draws out the key issues, rather than getting stuck in the weeds. A small delay to a deadline, for instance, is not worth getting caught up on compared to the resourcing pressures on a team, or a problem which has already been solved by a different part of the organisation.

    Think hard about reports

    If there must be a reporting cycle in your portfolio management, do the hard work early of configuring which metrics will make that report most useful. Consider the type of information that will translate meaningfully into a report and provide value to the portfolio office. That means devising a new report tailored to each new project, not using copies of old ones.

    Create a feedback loop

    One easy trap to fall into with portfolio management is a ‘feed the beast’ approach: teams hand in the necessary paperwork to their portfolio office in order to be left alone and allowed to get on with the proper work. This one-way system is limiting, if not counter-productive. Portfolio management systems need an embedded two-way feedback loop, where teams can raise feedback, ask questions, and highlight issues.

    Go to the show and tell

    If you’re struggling to understand something in a team’s report, don’t ask for more paper. Instead, go and see the project and its team: let them show you the work they’ve done. Providing that teams are able to work in a way that invites a ‘show and tell’ approach, seeing the latest outcome of their project will give you a far greater insight than having something written down on a piece of paper.

    Don’t be the project-police

    Policing your teams will prove less fruitful than assisting them. Think of them as partners to the portfolio office, and share accountability for delivery. Plan your work around how you can best provide support and help them overcome challenges.

    Don’t be a post box either

    A portfolio office is not a post box for reporting, nor a body for date-checking. To see it this way ignores its unique potential as an active overseer. The position of the portfolio manager as the nerve centre of all these projects gives you access to the collective insight and tools of the entire organisation. A portfolio office is a hub for joining up this knowledge.

    Above all, focus on useful conversations

    The gift of oversight unique to the portfolio office allows you to spot patterns. You can see where there is demand for the same resource. You can see where one team is struggling in an area that another team mastered earlier on. Or where both teams are struggling with the same problem, and where a collective solution would address that problem. A core responsibility of the portfolio manager is to identify those patterns, help resolve issues, and facilitate communication and knowledge-sharing between teams.

    Portfolio management is complex. You are juggling multiple responsibilities at once: escalating cross directorate risks like capability and recruitment, creating a delivery narrative, managing demand pressures. Depending on the management style within your organisation, a lot of your time might also have to be spent feeding your own beast.

    But these tips for good portfolio management have one thing in common: they’re about the teams. They’re about enabling and supporting teams to deliver their best work. A portfolio office or manager has the ability to set the tone and culture of the organisation by creating the best environment for teams to thrive.

    And if teams are thriving, then they will be delivering much more value to users.

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