Agile command

portfolio managers can nurture -- and hasten -- agility as organizations transition to a new framework




with today's accelerating business environment demanding a more agile project environment, portfolio managers working to increase their organization's flexibility should view the project management office (PMO) as a crucial ally. Yet the tactics PMOs and portfolio managers apply vary depending on where the organization is on its agility journey—as well as the agile approaches to which it aspires.

At organizations struggling to incorporate agile approaches, portfolio managers can ease the transition by focusing on why—and where—the need for agility exists, rather than what it looks like in action.

The key to maximizing organizational agility, and therefore the agile portfolio, is to increase visibility of the benefits of the agile approach and of the strategic drivers on which the portfolio is based.

At organizations where agility is firmly established, portfolio managers can take it to the next level by ensuring that it's part of the project culture's DNA and simplifying practices wherever possible.

I've worked for organizations at either end of the agility adoption spectrum. Each experience illustrated to me how portfolio managers can help increase or fine-tune an organization's agile capabilities.


The agile transition is just starting at Zurich Insurance in the U.K., where I'm a portfolio management consultant. As it gradually moves away from a pure waterfall-based frame, earlier this year the company decided to merge its PMO and enterprise IT architecture teams. At the portfolio level, combining these forces gives the PMO better insight into the range of demands faced by the IT group, which means portfolio reporting can be of greater value when there's an increased demand for organizational agility.

Portfolio managers can help incubate the culture of agility by reviewing every aspect of portfolio governance and streamlining it to make it more pragmatic rather than purely prescriptive. If an element of governance is not necessary, we can remove it to allow a more flexible approach, rather than tying delivery experts’ hands unnecessarily. Such an approach whets the appetite for an agile approach, and aims to make the transition to agile approaches self-perpetuating, and hopefully, unstoppable.


It's a different story at the international newspaper Financial Times, where I was previously project director. Because a predominantly agile portfolio already exists there, reporting up to the board level is tried and tested. As a result, the organization already has established a process for producing monthly reporting packs that offer clarity to portfolio managers and executives.

At Financial Times and other organizations where agile is established, the challenge for the PMO is to add value without piling unnecessary demands on project managers that might deter agility. That's why the mantra “keep it simple” will help agility flourish. For example, use minimal governance so the organization can quickly react to change. Or give authority to those with the knowledge to make decisions, which streamlines the process.

For portfolio managers in such organizations, the primary task is to push the agile approach further into the culture. Financial Times’ success shows that portfolio management must be able to provide almost real-time, accurate performance information on all aspects of the portfolio to make informed decisions fast. For instance, the organization married its agile expertise with an awareness of board-level information demands. Doing so helps project managers steer their way through the process more quickly by providing a more pragmatic and flexible approach to governance.

As Financial Times has found and Zurich Insurance is discovering, the key to maximizing organizational agility, and therefore the agile portfolio, is to increase visibility of the benefits of the agile approach and of the strategic drivers on which the portfolio is based. If a strategy is clear and visible, people will understand it. If they understand it, they will be engaged. If they are engaged, the opportunity for success increases dramatically. PM

img Steve Butler, PMP, PfMP, is a portfolio management consultant at Zurich Insurance in Hampshire, England.