The Portfolio Alignment Wall (PAW) is a tool the authors have used with many of their large clients to visualize and manage the work and dependencies of large programs. In this paper, the authors introduce the concept of PAW and the advantages and disadvantages of using physical walls in contrast to electronic tools.
Keywords: program management, dependency management, agile, portfolio, Portfolio Alignment Wall (PAW), visual management
Introduction to PAW
A program is a group of related projects that typically share a common outcome with resource and activity dependencies. Program management is the discipline to collectively manage projects within a program to achieve an optimal goal by managing interdependencies of the projects and changes.
According to A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth Edition (PMI, 2013), a good program management discipline should continually seek to align organizational strategy and direction across projects in a program. In addition, program management activities need to manage resource constraints and conflicts effectively to have an optimal outcome for the entire program. It also needs to manage change during project/program execution.
Traditionally, individual roles such as project or program managers create and manage the program schedule and related plans, including activities, tasks, WBS elements, and so forth. Managers typically use an electronic tool such as Microsoft Project. These electronic tools make it easier to create and frequently update project plans. However, the broader use of electronic project plans is more limited, especially by team members. Because the project manager enters the plan and makes changes, teams do not typically feel a sense of ownership over the project plan.
In contrast, when a team collaboratively creates a plan on a physical wall that is highly visible, their engagement level increases. Studies comparing the use of electronic tools and physical tools have shown that the use of physical tools improve project team engagement.
There are a number of reasons for this:
- By taking an active part in creating and maintaining the plan for the work, the team perceives some control over the work they do. Autonomy is one of the three characteristics that motivate people (see Drive, by Daniel Pink).
- A physical wall allows teams to see the “Big Picture”
- Tradeoffs seem more tangible when items are physically moved from one section of the board to another.
- A plan on a physical wall is visible to anyone who walks by and acts as a commitment by the team members. This encourages them to work harder to achieve the goals they have committed to and published.
Creating and Managing a PAW
A PAW usually takes the form of a large matrix on a wall with time on the horizontal axis and teams or strategic goals on the vertical axis (Exhibit 1). Index cards on each column represent the work that is planned for the corresponding team during the time period represented by the PAW. The team or representatives from a number of teams, work with stakeholders to create the PAW. Because this plan is highly visual, seeing dependencies and constraints becomes easier. Lines, colors, and other attributes can be used to represent teams, dependencies, and other constraints of the program.
Representatives from each team typically meet in front of the PAW on a regular basis (e.g., two times per week) in order to discuss progress of the teams, status of work items represented on the wall, and any issues that affect other teams. Some of these meetings also include business stakeholders to apprise them on status and changes in the program.
The Disadvantages of PAW
There are two main disadvantages of PAW:
- Historical data and metrics are not captured on the physical wall.
- There is a lack of visibility of the work represented on the wall for project teams that are not collocated.
In order to overcome these two disadvantages, organizations may need to duplicate the information on the wall in an electronic tool to track historical data and metrics and make the information visible to teams and team members located at another location.
Even with the additional work involved to duplicate the information, the authors have consistently found that using a physical board and an electronic format together outweighs the benefit of using just an electronic tool that is typically owned and managed by one person.