The Power of Cards/Stickies for Managing Your Project Portfolio

An agile coach asked me this question, “What tool should our senior leadership use for managing the program/portfolio?”

That question told me these things:

  • Her leadership is confused about the difference between a program (one business deliverable composed of many projects) and the project portfolio (a picture of the committed work that implements the organizational strategy)
  • The fact that they are looking at tools suggests to me that they don’t realize the tools help the conversation as opposed to making decisions. A better question would be, “How do we visualize our work so we can discuss it?”
  • They probably don’t know the flow of work through the organization. Most leadership teams don’t.

So far, I have always suggested the people managing the project portfolio start with cards/stickies that they can easily move. Here’s why:

Cards or stickies create a shared mental model of the work under discussion.

As they discuss the relative ranking, people pick up the cards. They move them. That’s when they realize that what they thought was more valuable is not as valuable as other work. Sometimes, they realize they’re not discussing the same project/problem/issue. That’s great. Better they should learn early what they are each thinking, than later.

The cards or stickies create the conversation that allows the organization to achieve the results they want.

If you are having trouble managing the decisions around program management or project portfolio management, remember this:

  1. The product roadmap (especially the 6-quarter roadmap) is not the project portfolio. Even the 1-quarter roadmap is a wishlist of where you want the product to go. It’s not a guarantee of what the teams will finish. See Product Owners and Learning, Part 1 for images of the two roadmaps. The roadmap optimizes work for the product. The project portfolio optimizes work for the organization.
  2. The committed projects in the project portfolio implement your strategy. Do you have a strategy? (In the second edition of Manage Your Project Portfolio, I have a whole chapter on strategy. No, it’s not SWOT.)
  3. Rank your projects by value in the project portfolio, not by cost. Sure, cost might be a consideration, but it cannot be the only consideration. If it is, you encounter the sunk cost fallacy fast.

When people use cards and stickies, they create a shared vision of what the project/program is. If they start with a tool, they project a small spreadsheet or a project in a tool on the wall and everyone squints to see the details. I don’t find that helpful. I find the discussions where people take a card and pass it around, move it up and down the backlog, where people discuss the value helpful.

I did this even before I was agile because I used an incremental life cycle (staged-delivery). If you use waterfall, you might not be able to use this approach. If you use agile, lean, or incremental approaches to  your projects, you can.

Here’s the same advice I give project teams. Start with a paper board (cards/stickies on the table/wall), so you can discuss the value of each item and what everyone thinks that item is. Once you know how you want to manage the project portfolio, then, think about a tool.

Manage Your Project Portfolio, 2nd edition If you want to know how to manage your project portfolio, see Manage Your Project Portfolio, 2nd edition.

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