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.

Project Management as a Service – Worth paying for?

As project management gains more acceptance as a dedicated profession, its value as a billable service becomes even more important for professional services organizations. Sometimes viewed as “a cost of doing business”, project management is a critical success factor in delivering products and services to external customers. More of the responsibility for delivering these products and services is shifting away from sales people onto professional, certified project managers, and the cost of providing these services places an even greater burden on the bottom line. The cost of not having a professional project manager lead the delivery of a product or service is often much higher in the form of a failed project.

Project management has gained almost universal acceptance within the internal IT and Finance shops of large organizations. It has also made significant inroads in other departments, such as Marketing and HR, where the realization that a professional approach to managing projects is preferable to the ad-hoc approach of assigning whoever is available to lead a project that has some free time.

When it comes to delivering products and services to external customers, some sales organizations are having difficulties justifying the additional expense to their customers. This is paradoxical since these same customers have internal PM functions and often understand the value of project management, but to hear the sales reps tell their side of the story, you would think that these customers expect the delivery of a product or service to “just happen” or to be managed by the sales rep.

The typical sales rep, while extremely skilled in many areas, may not always have the same level of proficiency in delivering projects as a trained, certified professional project manager. Assigning such a skilled resource to a project incurs a significant cost. That cost has to be borne by the customer, either as a separate labor line item in the bill of sale, or somehow included in the cost of the product or service being delivered. There is no such thing as “free” project management. Some professional services organizations would also like to make a profit selling project management as a service. Imagine that!

As a customer, I would be very concerned if I am not seeing a project management expense in the quote for a product or service being delivered to my organization. Who will lead the delivery? Will it be the sales rep? Will a project manager be assigned? What is the experience level of this project manager? Is he or she certified? Project Management is a critical success factor in the delivery of any product or service. The application of project management knowledge, tools and techniques to service delivery activities will help ensure the successful outcome of the project. Yes, that is a very valuable thing, and yes, it is worth paying for.

As a professional services organization, have I formalized my project management function? Do I have dedicated, trained, certified and experienced project managers? Do I have a product and or service delivery methodology that I can articulate to my customer to prove to them I have done this before, successfully, and I can do it again? Yes, this is a very valuable thing, and yes, it is worth billing for.

There are many similarities between project management performed as part of an internal corporate function and project management as a service. But there are also some key differences. Professional services organizations wanting to sell project management as a service need to focus on value added processes and activities, and invest time and resources on developing, maintaining and marketing a PM methodology that can be easily understood by customers and applied to projects. The traditional approaches to IT project management may prove to be not nimble or responsive enough for many paying customers.

If the expectation is that a customer will pay for project management services, the value of these services must be clearly articulated as part of the sales cycle. Traditional marketing concepts come into play here as with any other billable service. The customer needs to understand exactly what they are paying for, what they will be getting, and why project management is important enough that they need to pay for it. This last one needs to draw on the almost universal acceptance of the value of project management as a necessity for the successful delivery of projects. Draw on, but not solely rely on. A simple but robust methodology, a strong and fully staffed project management team, and an unwavering commitment by the sales management staff are also important factors in closing this sale.

Why I chose to become a project manager

The original title of this post was “Why I became a project manager”. But I noticed it implied happenstance. It just happened. And that is not true. I chose to become a project manager. Through many decisions along my career I always chose a path that kept me tied to this profession.

Why? Because I like to get things done. It’s as easy as that.

I’ve been involved in technology project management for over 20 years. I started at a time when this role was ill defined in the technology industry. Salespeople managed projects. Engineers managed projects. Product trainers managed projects. The concept of a dedicated, professional project manager was foreign to many people. But there were some who took up the cause. I admired them. Why? Because they got things done.

Project managers are a rare breed. We are often responsible for getting things done but are rarely given the authority or resources to do it right. We have to beg, borrow, and steal resources, and we have to lead. We have to deliver results. We have to communicate with everyone who has a stake in the project and keep them informed. We have to escalate issues, we have to manage scope, and we have to demonstrate an uncanny ability to negotiate, navigate the rough political waters, and drop the hammer when necessary while maintaining good relations with everyone.

It’s a tough job. Not everyone is cut out to be a project manager. You need superior organizational and communications skills, you need to be able to juggle multiple conflicting priorities, and you need to keep your cool under pressure. Your authority comes from your ability to lead others and convince them you’ve got what it takes to get the job done. It’s all about getting the job done.

Despite the challenges, project managers are driven by the need to complete their project on time and under budget. The satisfaction that comes from a post implementation review where everything went well is great, but rare. Something always goes awry. What separates a good project manager from a great one is how they handle change. A change in scope, a realized risk, or a change in environment that challenges the project. These are common. Project managers that rise to the occasion and steer their projects true are not.

I’ve had the privilege of witnessing great project managers throughout my career, and my desire to be like them drives me to constantly challenge myself, learn new skills, and strive to be the best project manager I can be. I’ve learned through the years that great project managers strive to deliver results to their key stakeholders. It is the pursuit of this greatness that fuels my desire to keep working at this, to keep getting better.

Project managers are truly special people, especially in a technology environment which requires a steady hand and leadership to ensure technology delivers clear business results. I am humbled and grateful for the opportunity to be in their company.