The how and the why


To improve processes across a portfolio, the “why” has to be communicated—and the benefits measured.


A rock-solid portfolio is more than a collection of projects. It includes oversight to make sure the processes used to select, implement and manage those projects are as efficient and effective as possible. Since portfolios are constantly evolving, that's a duty that requires constant vigilance. When problems are identified, solutions need to be found—and fast. An issue arising on Wednesday can make a process that seemed fine on Tuesday obsolete by Thursday.


“Portfolio and program management processes are being continuously improved. Process improvement is a core part of this job.”

—Sarab Datt, PMP, HERE, Chicago, Illinois, USA

“Portfolio and program management processes are being continuously improved,” says Sarab Datt, PMP, agile program and portfolio manager for electronic mapping systems provider HERE, Chicago, Illinois, USA. “Process improvement is a core part of this job.”

Yet those improvements must balance the need to adapt in a constantly changing business environment with the need to implement standard process improvements that will work for a broad range of projects, stakeholders, metrics and project managers. An improvement has to be relevant to every project and embraced by everyone involved or it won't work, says Adriano Gomes Cesar, PMP, who recently worked as portfolio manager for Stefanini, an IT solutions and infrastructure outsourcing company in São Paulo, Brazil. “It's not easy to change a process that people are accustomed to doing over and over again,” he says.


“It's not easy to change a process that people are accustomed to doing over and over again.”

—Adriano Gomes Cesar, PMP

The payoff for adoption across the portfolio is potentially huge, however. PMI's 2014 Pulse of the Profession® found that 45 percent of high-performing organizations—those that successfully complete at least eight in 10 of their projects—reported using standardized practices throughout the organization, compared to only 15 percent of low performers—those that successfully complete no more than six in 10 projects.

Earning stakeholder buy-in goes hand in hand with demonstrating the benefits of process improvement. To get the former, portfolio managers must leverage the latter.

“People are not going to change the way they do things if they don't know why they are doing it,” Mr. Cesar says. Establishing that “why” is a two-part process, he says.

First, portfolio managers should identify the issues with the existing process and measure the negative effect on scope, budget, schedule, etc.

Once those issues are identified and the improvements are implemented, those metrics should be used to demonstrate to all stakeholders the value of the change.


Before a portfolio manager can implement any process improvement, he or she has to understand the root causes of the problem, says Mr. Datt.

Before he joined HERE earlier this year, Mr. Datt was senior program and portfolio manager for the global project management office at telecom Motorola Solutions, where he led roadmap and scenario planning and large infrastructure projects. In that role, he found a lot of variance in cycle time at the front end of the projects in his portfolio. But rather than immediately rolling out changes and new processes, he set aside time to understand the variance on the projects and figure out where the bottlenecks were forming. He spent several months establishing a baseline, interviewing stakeholders and analyzing data from past projects to identify problems.

“We made a charter, created a project plan and met with key stakeholders every two weeks to update them on our progress,” he says.

Mr. Datt and his team identified several issues that prolonged front-end cycle time, including an inefficient and unclear approval process, certain activities that repeatedly caused major delays, insufficient involvement from some key stakeholders early in the project, ambiguous and poor communication between teams, and lack of clear requirements. They focused on the top 10 issues that would have the most impact and identified improvements in these areas. Then they rolled out these improvements to a few pilot projects in the portfolio and measured the impact of these changes over the next several months.

Nine months after the first round of improvements, the team assessed the key metric—variance in front-end cycle time—and found the average time dropped significantly from 45 days to less than two weeks. Overall average front-end cycle time was also cut down substantially.


“We found that a lot of project plans came with long wish lists and hypothetical benefits, but they weren't thought through.”

—Izzet Guran, PMP, Westminster City Council, London, England

One of the biggest improvements was to put in place a more efficient approval process, Mr. Datt says. “We were able to reduce the number of meetings that occurred, and we made sure all data was available before meetings were done, so stakeholders could more easily make decisions about whether to move ahead with a project,” he says.

After his team members proved their results, they shared the new strategies through a community of practice with other divisions in the organization. “We laid out our process and made it very easy to understand to ensure it would be adopted,” he says.

When Mr. Datt left Motorola earlier this year, the team was still implementing changes and sharing best practices to achieve additional incremental improvements.


As Motorola's experience shows, the benefits of a successful process improvement can snowball, leading to increased buy-in and better returns. But that only works if those benefits are actually being measured and disseminated.

In 2013, when Izzet Guran, PMP, was hired as information and communication technology portfolio manager for Westminster City Council, London, England, he inherited a portfolio of 15 projects with budgets ranging from US$160,000 to US$5 million and schedules lasting anywhere from two to 18 months. What that portfolio lacked, however, was any sort of real guidance.

“We found that a lot of project plans came with long wish lists and hypothetical benefits, but they weren't thought through,” he says.

Teams had no methods for clearly defining their projects' benefits, linking those benefits to strategic goals or even tracking whether that value was ever achieved. That meant projects with little business value were launched, and even when benefits were achieved, there was no way to measure them. Mr. Guran's team began by requiring project sponsors to agree to a list of clearly defined benefits, including relevant metrics, in every project proposal. The new processes also stipulated that project managers not be the ones responsible for measuring the project's value, given how invested they are in its success. Instead, “it has to be someone in the business who is impacted by those benefits,” Mr. Guran says.

The team also created a portfolio board, made up of the executive directors of all the service areas, to review the project plans to determine whether the proposed benefits were realistic, measurable and linked to corporate objectives. Projects could not move forward without the board's approval.

Those process improvements delivered immediate benefits to the project selection process, Mr. Guran says. “In the past, projects were created in isolation and no one measured the business outcomes. Now they do.”

He also had his own metrics to measure the success of the initiative, and so far the data have been promising. Although the number of benefits cited per project plan has been going down, he attributes that to project sponsors becoming more realistic about their projects' impact. And the portfolio board reports that the quality and measurability of benefits have increased.


“You have to have regular conversations with all of your stakeholders about what you are doing and why, or they won't support you.”

—Lindsay MacDonald, PMP, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia

In addition, Mr. Guran's team has begun collecting anecdotal evidence about the impact this change has had on the business. “It's hard to measure everything,” he says, “but we have quantified financial savings to the business and increased user satisfaction.”


No matter what improvement is being implemented, gaining the needed support means putting in place a strong communication plan—one that involves all stakeholders.

“You have to have regular conversations with all of your stakeholders about what you are doing and why, or they won't support you,” says Lindsay Mac-Donald, PMP, portfolio manager of education projects at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.

“When [project teams' managers] are able to see the big picture and where they fit into it, they take ownership of the change. That's how you make it stick.”

—Lindsay MacDonald, PMP


The Only Certainty Is Change

Whether process improvement changes are incremental or dramatic, every successful process improvement initiative has the same core elements:

A baseline of the current state

A statement of measurable benefits

Metrics to measure results that prove business value

Constant communication with stakeholders

Alignment with strategic goals

Clearly defined steps to implement the change

“It is crucial that everyone understands your goals and why they are good for the business,” says Adriano Gomes Cesar, PMP, who recently worked as a portfolio manager at Stefanini, São Paulo, Brazil. “When you align with the needs of the business and get everyone on board, you will have less conflict—and a much higher chance of success.”

The best communication strategies go both ways, he says: Rather than dictating to project teams and their sponsors what is wrong with their processes, ask them what they think could be improved.

Two years ago, Mr. MacDonald says, a key project failed as a result of a change of sponsor. The lesson learned from the experience was to implement more-frequent checkpoints with the new sponsor to identify issues earlier and not assume continued sponsorship.

He implemented a hybrid agile methodology, including regular stand-up meetings, to keep project teams and sponsors engaged, and break projects into sprints, so there were clear, frequent deliverables and many opportunities to review and tweak project plans.

Because the leadership team came to him with a problem, it was easier to secure its buy-in for the change, he says. With leadership's support, Mr. MacDonald created a roadmap and began slowly rolling out agile processes while providing training for project teams and stakeholders on how to use them. He also regularly met with stakeholders and project teams to share progress and reiterate the value of the change.

This step is critical to maintaining support for the change, especially when a portfolio manager doesn't have direct control over project teams' managers, he says. “When they are able to see the big picture and where they fit into it, they take ownership of the change,” he says. “That's how you make it stick.” PM




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