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.

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