by Adam Bookman

Project Portfolio Management: Three Dangerous Myths

Feb 17, 2010
Project Management Tools

With recent research showing 68 percent of IT projects fail, you'd better understand the three most common misconceptions about PPM, says Collabera's Adam Bookman.

The Standish Group’s “CHAOS Summary 2009” report shows a marked decrease in IT project success rates, with 32 percent of all projects succeeding. It’s one thing to know that 68 percent of all IT projects don’t succeed. But it’s another to look across your company and realize you have no way of knowing which of your projects might be in the 68 percent bucket and which have the potential to be in the 32 percent bucket.

Project Portfolio Management is gaining respect for effecting successful project outcomes, creating a discipline of informed, confident decision-making and better stewardship over scarce resources.

Project Management Definition and Solutions

But there are many who come to PPM with high hopes, big investments, and end up disappointed and discouraged. In our experience, three persistent myths about PPM are to blame.

Myth 1: PPM is IT’s Lookout

It is estimated that Fortune 500 companies have half to three-quarters of their top strategic initiatives tied up in projects, yet CEOs are often unaware of their progress, uncertain of their objectives, and unengaged in their challenges. Why? Because the project has been, you might say, “outsourced” to IT. There are reasons, of course. IT supplies the resources for the project, and there may be a new technology tool involved.

Recession Causes Rising IT Project Failure Rates

Defining a PPM rollout involves strategic questions often outside IT’s purview. What are all the company projects under way or in the queue? Are they projects the company should be doing? How does each relate to its strategic initiatives? How are they prioritized? Budgeted? Resourced? Which business lines are profiting by them, and which are not? How does management obtain insights into their progress?

PPM is, ultimately, a new enterprise management capability for strategic priorities and governance, not a technology rollout. Successful PPM engages the enterprise at the top and across the business lines. It belongs to the businesses whose objectives are being served; delegating it to IT curtails its chances.

Myth 2: The Right Tool Drives PPM Success

In our world of amazing technology, it is a beguiling message that accompanies almost every ambition: “There’s an app for it. It’s all in the tool.” Sometimes a similar mindset prevails when a company decides to get serious about managing its portfolio of projects. After all, they need to capture reams of data from many sources and see it updated and reported regularly. There’s no doubt that plugging in a smart tool is easier than addressing vast process and culture issues.

So for some, the first step toward PPM is a determined effort to buy and install “the best PPM tool available.” Then reality sets in. They don’t have the data it needs and no process for getting it. They meet widespread resistance to changing processes to suit the tool’s needs. The tool is better at reporting past project activity than delivering insights about what remains to be accomplished. Ultimately, they find themselves little better at managing the array of costly projects than they were before.

Sound PPM projects begin with a clear-eyed assessment of the organization’s PPM maturity level and its appetite and ability to advance. If it’s at level 1 now, realistically how feasible is level 4 or 5, and how rapidly can the company achieve it? Is there an executive commitment to the effort and expense involved? Is the rest of the organization prepared for the effort? What path will maturity take? What business benefits must PPM deliver?

The choice of tool is secondary to these considerations. The best tool is the one that most fully serves the very particular needs of the company, regardless of the judgment of the technology marketplace.

Myth 3: The Best Starting Place is PPM Best Practices

There are indeed PPM best practices and they have tremendous aspirational value. But launching PPM by installing them is a prescription for disappointment. Rarely are companies ready to implement PPM best practices out of the gate.

For example, in mature PPM organizations, all projects are consistently reviewed for their impact on the enterprise. But an organization just getting started has to climb a steep maturity path just to start capturing the information needed for that purpose: standard definitions for projects, total cost and benefits estimates, labor and non-labor resource estimates, stakeholder impacts, measurable success criteria, return on investment and other hurdles, external dependencies, and stakeholder inputs. Only then can they aspire to this best practice.

For every PPM best practice, companies need to first know their current place on the maturity scale (level 1 Ad Hoc, level 2 Reactive, level 3 Defined, level 4 Managed, and finally to level 5 Optimized). A full-scale maturity assessment reveals that place and sets the stage for determining how they can reach the next level.

At that point, it may be time to begin embracing PPM best practices, but reaching that point can take many months. PPM maturity is a journey, not an event.

Questions to Ask About Your PPM Effort

To close the gap between PPM intentions and outcomes, a good place to start is with executive management answering these questions:

1. What are the vital decisions you as an organization struggle to make today?

2. What information do you wish you had daily access to?

3. What don’t you know about your project portfolio that constrains current decisions?

4. Do your project updates give clear insight into what remains to be done and why?

5. If meeting your PPM maturity goals required new, enterprise-wide processes, are you up for that commitment?

With today’s difficult economy and fierce global competition, companies can hardly survive the failure of a third of their projects. Embracing PPM, free of these myths, can set them on a path to a successful, mature PPM discipline.

Adam Bookman is a Managing Partner in Collabera LLC’s consulting division. He can be reached at Arthur Brody and Dan Gallagher, also in Collabera’s consulting division, contributed to this article.