The ins and outs of IT project portfolio management

When managing the IT project portfolio, don't rank projects by priority -- either schedule them or reject them

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Annual planning isn't often enough

A master schedule depends on reliable estimates for every project: their costs, benefits, and duration. This means no project is added to the portfolio until after it has been evaluated well enough to answer these three basic questions.

Which in turn leads to an inescapable conclusion: Once a year is far too long of a planning cycle. Once a quarter? Maybe. Better, once a month. Either way, the project portfolio committee examines the stack of new project business cases (that's what an assessment of costs, benefits, and durations is) and modifies the project master schedule to accommodate the ones worth adding. This can mean adding projects to the end or inserting them in the middle, thereby pushing back projects already on the schedule, depending on the committee's judgment on the best project order.

Making project portfolio management synonymous with project master schedule management leads directly to another requirement: Projects have to be short -- ideally, never longer than six months. Otherwise, inserting a project and delaying others can be a multiyear disruption instead of a ripple. Need more than six months for a project? Chunk it down into a road map of smaller items.

The "no hold" rule

Here's a rule that matters: Except for dire emergencies or game-changing opportunities, never put a project on hold once it's launched. Putting a project on hold is no different from killing it. By the time the staff who have been diverted to other efforts are returned to the tabled project, they'll lose at least a month figuring out how to reactivate everything while rebuilding team cohesion and remembering the myriad agreements and design decisions that had been part of the team's collective unconscious before the project had been placed in stasis. While they're doing this, they'll also be figuring out whether the original project business case is still relevant, now that so much time has passed.

And a tip: The best way to eliminate the temptation to put projects on hold is to keep them short. If you're four months into a five-month project, finishing it will clearly make more sense than putting it on hold. But if something urgent comes up that needs staff currently working on a three-year project running for four months (or, for that matter, for a year), putting the running project on hold is far more tempting.

All projects are fully staffed projects

Here's another rule: No project is scheduled unless the staff needed to work on it will be available -- which means an effective project portfolio planning practice depends on keeping track of who will be doing what, when, and for how many hours a week.

In case you need a definition: A project is fully staffed when it never waits for someone to become available to work on it. Staff availability (not "resource" availability) is where managing the master schedule gets complicated. No surprise here: It's less complicated if all projects are short projects.

Which leads to this week's punch line and next week's teaser: Next-generation IT depends on short projects (the punch line) or on having no projects at all.

This story, "The ins and outs of IT project portfolio management," was originally published at Read more of Bob Lewis' Advice Line blog on For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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