Agile and Portfolio Management might not feel like they belong in the same sentence together. Agile is an adaptive, flexible way of managing change that can be used on a large scale or incrementally. Portfolio management is about understanding a suite of change across an organization or division. You need awareness of what’s planned and what the implications will be for resourcing, budgeting and more. The control, governance and reporting cycles aren’t typically what comes to mind when you talk about agile approaches.
However, portfolio management teams should be taking more notice of what is happening with project delivery methodologies. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Sixth Edition, was issued combined with the Agile Practice Guide, and there is a lot of information in the book aligned to adapting the knowledge areas to agile environments.
The latest edition of PRINCE2 (2017 version) also includes more guidance on tailoring the approach to fit your organization. Standards and methodologies are becoming more inclusive. Why shouldn’t portfolio management?
Becoming More Agile at Portfolio Level
Here are 5 things that you can do to become more agile at the portfolio level in your organization.
1. Create Value
The continuous delivery of valuable software is one of the principles of the Agile Manifesto, and portfolio delivery should be no different.
Focus on creating something of value for your stakeholders: be that an increase in share price or the delivery of a tangible asset. What is valued may change over time as the business context or strategy evolves, so this should be kept under review.
As well as encouraging a focus on creating value, you should look to be able to demonstrate that it is being achieved. Understanding ‘value’ and being able to articulate how it will be achieved is a key factor for successful Portfolio Offices. It shows how you can link the projects and programs to business strategy, benefits and desirable outcomes.
Ideally, you should be able to show that the right projects are delivering value in the right way at the right time – this is a step beyond simply proving that value is being delivered and a move towards ensuring that strategic objectives are being met in a timely way.
2. Get The Right People Involved
Another principle of the Agile Manifesto is that business people and developers must work together daily. You can expand this to the portfolio level as well: it’s only when people come together with the right experience, skills and understanding of the strategic objectives that you get clarity on what the portfolio could achieve.
Whether you need exec level input, or technical details from a delivery team, having the right people involved in relevant portfolio discussions will make it more likely that you’ll achieve the success you have a right to expect.
3. Support Creative Thinking
Remember the story from Apollo 13, where the engineers on the ground work out how to get a square peg into a round hole using only equipment on board the space craft? That’s creative (and agile) thinking in action.
While it’s unlikely any of your portfolio-level decisions will be taken in such extreme circumstances, you can encourage that kind of creative thinking across the portfolio. Consider what you’ve got and what you can make use of. Foster a culture for innovation and make it easy for people to suggest new ideas.
You can do that through a formal or informal lessons learned initiative, suggestion boxes (physical or virtual) or any other method that gives your team members time to reflect, innovate and test solutions that may have significant benefit to the organization.
4. Encourage Collaboration
It won’t come as a surprise to you to hear that agile environments are collaborative. Another principles from the Agile Manifesto is that the most efficient and effective way of working is face-to-face conversation.
That isn’t always possible in today’s working environment but you can use the same principles in your portfolio team. Open the channels of communication and let people speak to and work with each other without requiring management intervention unless it’s truly needed. Create multi-disciplinary teams and sometimes invite people who wouldn’t normally be part of a team to observe, take part and comment. Encourage networking between divisions and make connections yourself through portfolio-office “sponsored” events where everyone can share best practices.
Anything you can do that promotes an environment where people are encouraged to take ownership, collaborate freely and participate at the level to which they are comfortable (and sometimes, stretched) is good.
5. Keep it Simple
The final principle to draw from the Agile Manifesto for the purposes of this article is perhaps our favorite:
“Simplicity – the art of maximizing the amount of work not done – is essential.”
Your portfolio management processes should have a clear route for work to be rejected. You don’t have to say yes to every initiative or every request, nor should you. It’s more effective and efficient to be strategic with your time.
Your business has limited resources, both in terms of people and finances, so it is important to prioritize them appropriately. If you are fostering an environment where it’s the norm to collaborate and come up with good ideas, you’ll have a flood of suggestions coming into the portfolio office. Even if they are all fantastic suggestions, you aren’t going to be capable of taking them all on today, so there needs to be some kind of prioritization process.
Sift through the potential projects and apply whatever criteria you use to select work (here are some suggestions). Then politely let people know where their initiatives stand – and if they will be worked on at all.
Portfolio management can make use of agile principles and the benefits to the organization are substantial. Being more agile as a business means you are better equipped to deal with the challenges of delivering strategy in a changing environment and yet doing so in a way that stays true to the portfolio management tools and approaches you know and trust.