PROJECT PARENTHOOD

Portfolio Parenthood

by Geof Lory


Lately I have been working with a company that is trying to automate its program and portfolio management procedures. Like any other enterprise-level initiative, portfolio management is not an easy thing to do, if for no other reason than the breadth of organizational procedures it impacts. Portfolio management not only requires new behaviors at the project level, but also new skills and abilities at the management and leadership levels. New skills take time to develop.

As we have been going through this effort, I am reminded of other similar efforts to corral and manage at an enterprise level what has historically been done at a more local level. CRM (Customer Relationship Management) systems have been the recent wave, but there have been others over the years. With each new craze come vendors with promises to reduce cost and improve performance using their software. Certainly, software can automate and enable better management of the volume of data typically associated with these activities, but interfacing with that software are people going through tremendous change as they let go of old habits and procedures and attempt to embrace new ones, many times not of their own design or liking.

As you might imagine, I'm going to try and make a correlation between this type of organizational change effort--specifically portfolio management--and parenthood. The timing is right for this, as my daughters are both in their latter high school years and they are well on their way to becoming project managers of their own lives and I have moved into more of a program management role. Their lives are at a stage of substantial organizational change, the transition of adolescence.

When the girls were younger, life was busier, but their issues were less complex. Care and feeding were primary activities, along with the development of solid behaviors based on our agreed family values. For me, control was an illusion, but it did have the appearance at times to be real, and certainly there was no admission of its absence on my part. Management was emphasized over leadership and rules were more the norm than guidance.

Those days are long gone. Enter the age of individual schedules, sports, school trips and classes that exceed my knowledge level, or at least my memory. Cars, cell phones, and boys. (For now we will consider these, especially the boys, risks to be managed at the enterprise level.) Control is now an admitted illusion, and often a stated or mourned loss. Yes, life is different, I've moved along in my career. I'm now in family middle management; portfolio management.

I no longer manage the individual projects (lives of my daughters) but I am still responsible for the outcome, "at least as long as you are living in my house." (I swore I would never say that to my children, but I'm sure I have more times than I care to admit.) I have the experience they don't yet have, know the challenges they face or that are waiting for them yet to be recognized. I would like to offer my advice and wisdom. From my lofty perch, the decisions look simple. Talk to them, and the response is usually, "You don't understand, Dad." I don't want to admit it, but at some level, they are right. I don't understand; but I can understand, at least what I need to in order to do my job, portfolio management.

Finding the level of what needs to be known by parents and what can be left unknown (or maybe is better left unknown for parental peace of mind) is a delicate balancing act. It is rarely exactly the same for every child/project, but there are some common pieces of data necessary to effectively attend to our responsibilities as parents and portfolio managers. It should be no surprise that most of these revolve around the core issues of risk and the trade-off triangle: budget, schedule, and scope.

The level of detail for information on these key areas will vary a lot based on what has already transpired during the pre-teen years that lead up to this point. The more open the relationship with "management," the more freely the information will be shared without fear of negative repercussions. The more good habits (read processes and procedures) were nurtured, the less governance necessary at this stage. Portfolio management is a lot like raising teenagers; the real work is performed at the lower levels, but the decisions made at a higher level are only as good as the subordinate data. Bad project data, poor portfolio management.

So what types of tools and data are useful and reliably meaningful for raising teenagers or portfolio management? What information can you count on that will help guide projects and children to success? Surprisingly, the actual data needed is not voluminous; in fact it is very little. However, a lot of information must get boiled down to produce that small amount of worthwhile, decision-making quality data.

Therefore, it is important to remember who is managing the projects. Portfolio managers don't do that, project managers do. So, don't ask for information you don't need, won't use, will be out of date by the time you get it, or is excessively burdensome to obtain. More data is not better, it just creates data-clutter. Most project data is truly useful only at the project level. That's why it is called project data.

Project management tools are designed to collect data and better represent reality. If used that way, the inherent data can be used at a portfolio level. If not, don't attempt to use it. Show sincere interest in projects, especially high visibility projects, at all levels at all times, but restrict the temptation to manage them from 30,000 feet.

Be careful when mixing project reporting cycles and financial accounting cycles. Most projects need information in a more immediate time frame than most accounting cycles provide. Unfortunately, proactive portfolio management decisions tend not to conveniently align with monthly retrospective accounting information.

So, here's what I ask from my two teenage daughters. You can make the correlations to your portfolio management data needs:
  1. Where are you at? You have cell phones so you can always and immediately report your status. I trust you to tell me the truth.
  2. If you are going somewhere else or doing something other than what you last told me, ask if you think I might not approve, otherwise just let me know. I trust your judgment, but please err on the side of caution.
  3. Manage your risks at your own level. I trust you will escalate any issue you are uncomfortable handling on your own, but you need to grow in that skill to survive in this world.
  4. Manage your own budget. You can typically find enough money on my dresser for a pizza, but even that will have to be reported and accounted for. I trust you will spend it as if it were your own.
  5. I stay up late losing sleep to make sure you are home safe, so don't make me wait. I trust you know I am happier when I'm well rested and well-informed.
  6. And, lastly, when you come home safe and sound, even if it is a little late, I will listen to your stories, every little detail, because that is how you really know how much I truly care.
Like my parents before me, I remind them that project managers "grow up" to be program managers and portfolio managers. If they can say, "You don't understand, Dad" it is only fair that I ask them to walk just a few steps in my shoes. I trust they will quickly know what information would be valuable and give them a good night's sleep.






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