Process with a Purpose

Process is the oil that runs the machine of technology delivery. But if that oil is not changed regularly, it gets old and turns into a sludge that could impair the machine.

Process has turned into a modern four letter word for some. In many cases that negative reputation has been earned. Process helps businesses achieve efficiency by defining a repeatable and consistent way of doing things. It helps onboard new employees and keep current ones focused and effective. It helps business achieve consistent results. But when process gets in the way of innovation and delivery, it fails to accomplish these lofty goals. I prefer to focus on “process with a purpose”. What purpose does the process serve? How flexible is it to allow for exceptions and individual initiative? How easy is it for others to learn, understand, and follow it? And, most importantly, what value does this process bring to your organization and your customers?

Us humans will, by our very own nature, follow the path of least resistance. A process will either enable efficient delivery or will hinder it. And we will either follow it or work around it. Every single process in an organization should be evaluated in this context. Processes that hinder efficiency need to be either improved or deleted. A process that hinders efficiency is a straight jacket that discourages creative problem solving. Sometimes reinventing a wheel is preferable than spinning one endlessly.

The process of evaluating and improving processes (aka “process improvement”) never ends. A process that was good yesterday may not be good today. You need to recognize the fluidity of modern business and build in enough agility into your process improvement effort to respond to this challenge. There are plenty of proven models and tools to help organizations assess and improve their processes.

I’m a big fan of Capability Maturity Model Integration (CMMI). I’m also a big fan of the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) approach. But I prefer to use these as guides, or as a framework. The reality on the ground will dictate how many of these concepts are applicable and bring value to a particular situation. A focus on value will make a process improvement initiative a lot more successful.

I’m a firm believer in the crawl-walk-run approach. Before you start talking process improvement, you need process definition. Do you have a process library? Or a simple list of all your defined processes? Is it a 500 page manual nobody reads, or is it in an online repository where you can solicit feedback from users and collaborate on improvements with process owners? Working your way from a CMMI Level 1 to a Level 5 is quite a journey. But it requires flexibility and adaptability. It may require unique and unorthodox approaches to challenges to suit the particular needs of your organization and your customers.

As with the implementation of a PPM tool that I’ve written about before, you will need to leverage proven tools and methods of systems delivery and change management. That’s a given. But my advice is to never take your eye off the ball – “Does this process have a purpose?” “What value does it deliver?” If you don’t have good, solid answers to these two questions, move on to the next one. It’s better to have a small set of good processes that deliver value and have purpose than have a 500 page manual nobody reads.

Adopting a Project Portfolio Management System

Technology is a small piece of the project portfolio management (PPM) system puzzle. As with the deployment of any new system or technology, organizational change management is a critical success factor. I’m not going to go in depth into organizational change management, as there are others much more skilled and experienced on this topic. I would like to, however, provide the perspective from a user and project manager of PPM systems.

Is your organization ready for the change? Who are the key stakeholders? How are you communicating with them? Do they welcome the change? Will they resist it? Will they adopt it? These are questions that any organizational change manager will ask.

In the context of a project portfolio management system, you have various key stakeholders you need to make sure are on board.

Project sponsors are the primary consumers of the data from this system. Is the data accurate and timely? Is it presented in a concise, useful and succinct format? Is it being used as an input into strategic decision making? A negative answer to any of these questions jeopardizes adoption.

Project managers are on the front line. They are making projects happen. No portfolio has any hope of being managed if it is not delivering value to the business. Project managers are the leaders of the different components of the portfolio. They will provide key inputs into the PPM system.

Project teams – If project managers are on the front line, project teams ARE the front line. By providing a compelling and useful online collaboration system, you ease the input of real time project status data. You can shift from email to online repositories where not only can teams collaborate, but project outputs gain visibility and transparency, allowing opportunities for data aggregation and analysis.

So from project teams to project managers to project sponsors. Is the data flowing in both directions? Not only are sponsors getting the data they need, but project teams should be getting feedback and direction. Are teams following a standard delivery methodology? Are project outputs producing consistent results that can be aggregated?

If every project reinvents the wheel in terms of outputs and reporting, producing a portfolio report would be as difficult as assembling a puzzle blindfolded. And there are few things as demoralizing to a project team than producing outputs that no one uses or appreciates. Project sponsors play a key role in not only consuming the data, but in giving project teams feedback and encouragement.

The usual suspects of durable training, quick reference guides, an effective support model, all need to make their mandatory appearances to contribute to the success of the deployment. The principles of organizational change management are very applicable and effective, and critical to this effort.

The choice of technology needs to match the level of organizational maturity, technology skill, and come with strong vendor and user community support. Add to this a clear understanding of your key stakeholder groups, and a strong message from your organization’s leadership about the importance of project reporting, and you will have the key ingredients for the successful deployment of a PPM solution.

Using SharePoint as a Portfolio Management Tool

I’m a big fan of SharePoint. I see it as the “Swiss army knife” of online collaboration tools. There may be other tools with snazzier social features, or more colorful interfaces, but I think of SharePoint as the “workhorse” of online collaboration, and a fairly easy and relatively inexpensive choice for those organizations using Microsoft Windows Server. Microsoft’s strategy to seed SharePoint amongst it’s user base has been very successful, and combined with the tight integration with Microsoft Office tools, it makes SharePoint a very interesting tool for Project Portfolio management.

SharePoint doesn’t have the sophisticated features of a full blown portfolio management tool. If we consider the continuum of possible choices to manage a portfolio, with nothing at one end (or pen and paper, or even Microsoft Excel), and the most sophisticated web-based enterprise tools at the other end, like Microsoft Project Server or Clarity, SharePoint falls somewhere in the bottom half of that line. SharePoint’s claim to fame is the ability to put things online and let teams collaborate on them.

Taking things off people’s local hard drive or even the email system is still a struggle in 2014. Millennials are likely to not have as much problem as generation Xers in adopting online collaboration tools, and we can see that shift happening now, but it’s still a shift in progress. In the meantime, we need strategies for taking an organization that’s not used to managing its project portfolio online into the 21st century.

I like SharePoint because it lets me test out simple theories and ideas of collaboration without much if any IT developer involvement. If I want to try out a new Risk Log or a new Project Change Request process, it is easy enough to create a custom list and send out a link.

In the context of Project Portfolios, I can test out the very simple concept of a Project Record Master list. Does your organization have one list of all the projects across all portfolios?

If the answer is yes, then you can stop reading now. This article was not meant for you. 🙂

If on the other hand you struggle with providing a company wide view into your portfolio, where is the data being kept? Are you updating multiple systems? Do you have an Enterprise PMO tasked with creating and maintaining this view? Do you see value in having this view?

Choosing a tool is only a small piece of this puzzle.

Choosing a portfolio management tool requires a very high degree of organizational discipline and senior leadership support. This is a topic I’ve discussed in a previous post. If your organization has a need for portfolio management and you want to take a crawl-walk-run approach to developing a sophisticated project portfolio management capability, SharePoint may be the answer. SharePoint will let you start “crawling”.

Using SharePoint out-of-the-box can give you some interesting choices for creating a Project Record Master List and tying that to a concept of “Project Sites” where Project Managers and their teams can collaborate and communicate project status to key stakeholders. It will let you “test the waters” to gauge the level of organizational maturity and discipline you have (or not) in order to plan your next step in your project portfolio management “roadmap”.

If you are able to rally your organization around the concept of collaborative, online project management, then the chances of success with more sophisticated tools greatly increase. You also get a chance to prove the value of these type of tools to senior leadership, and showing value justifies continued effort and investment.

You can take this phased approach, or you can wait another decade or two while millennials make up the entire workforce, at which point not working collaboratively online will be as old fashioned as dialing a rotary telephone. I’d rather start that process now, and ensure the right foundations exist to support online collaborative project portfolio management. And these foundations are not just technological. They are primarily about project management discipline and senior leadership need and consumption of data to make strategic decisions.

Choosing the Right Tool to Manage Project Portfolios

Choosing the right tool for project portfolio management among all the available options today can be a daunting task. Technology has obviously changed the way we do business, and how we use it to manage projects is one of the key challenges facing project management professionals these days. There’s a multitude of tools and options, and choosing the right one for your organization can be difficult. Choices range from the ubiquitous Microsoft Excel to the more sophisticated enterprise tools like Microsoft Project Server or Clarity.

Using tried and true principles of requirements gathering, software acquisition, and software deployment will only get you so far. The key ingredient for making the “right” choice is your organizational discipline. Dashboards and portfolio valuation tools are great, but you need the discipline to consistently capture accurate and relevant data, and you need senior leadership consuming and demanding this data. You need teams with the discipline to record and track their time spent on project tasks, and the Project Managers with the disciple to update and maintain accurate project estimates, forecasts and actuals.

I just used the word “discipline” four times in that paragraph. Yes, it’s that important.

You need organizational discipline, and you need leadership support. Without them, the implementation of any portfolio management tool is doomed to fail.

If leadership consumes the data and routinely uses it to make strategic portfolio decisions, then project teams will be more motivated to produce the data. Without that motivation and a culture of discipline around project status data collection, these fancy portfolio management tools quickly become the graveyard where status reports go to die.

If you consider the entire continuum of tools available for project portfolio management, from good old pen and paper (or the digital equivalent of Microsoft Office tools) on one end, to the most sophisticated web-based, enterprise tools like Clarity or Microsoft Project Server on the other, the “right” choice for any given organization may be anywhere along that line. Many good Project Managers use Microsoft Excel to great effect, while other more mature and complex organizations have been able to successfully leverage enterprise tools to manage their portfolios.

The “right” tool is entirely dependent on the level of organizational maturity, project management discipline, and leadership consumption and demand for the output from these tools. Using sophisticated tools takes a great deal of money and effort, and will only succeed if the value derived from that investment outweighs the effort and cost required to implement it.

If you are unsure about the level of discipline and support for portfolio management technology in your organization, a phased approach might be the answer. Leveraging tools like Microsoft SharePoint allows the use of “starter” tools with a relatively low cost of development and implementation. Can you muster the support to maintain a master project list? Can you maintain a basic set of key performance indicators consistently updated? If you can’t even do that, then investing time and money on an enterprise tool would be a waste. On the other hand, if you are able to move your organization away from Excel and into an online, collaborative model, then you could take the first step into a more sophisticated and mature way of managing your project portfolio.