Project Portfolio Problems Masquerade as Project Problems

A potential client called me. “What's a good tool to see the state of my projects? I need a tool.”

I asked, “What problems do you see?”

“Everything is late. No one's synchronized. I can't tell where the projects are.”

“How many projects do you have in progress?”

“At least 100.”

(I was pretty sure I now understood the problem.) “How many people do you have working on the projects?”

“68. I need more, but I can't hire fast enough.”

This client might need more people. He definitely needs to manage the organizational WIP (Work in Progress) with many fewer projects.

Higher WIP, Low Throughput

The more work people have in progress, the less work they finish. I've written about the problems of multitasking many times.

When your WIP (Work in Progress) is high, people finish much less work. Tools can't help you see the project state. Tools assume you can predict what people work on. The more multitasking, the less you can predict.

That's why a project tool or a portfolio tool doesn't work to see the state. You might need:

I don't find electronic tools to help me see what's going on. I much prefer cards or stickies.

Rank the Work

Once you can see the work, rank it. You might like these posts:

(There's a ton more info in Manage Your Project Portfolio and Diving for Hidden Treasures.)

When this client attempted to rank the work, they discovered one of the big problems: several senior managers had opposing rewards based on different focuses for the organization. The client had to address those different focuses. Once the client “spoke with one voice,” they could decide which projects to fund and then rank.

Review the System of Work

Everyone has a system of work. And, over time, that system doesn't work the way it did at the start.

You might start inside the team. However, if you live in a state of rampant multitasking, start with the people who make the project portfolio decisions. Once you limit the WIP, the team can see its system of work.

Many project portfolio problems masquerade as project problems. Do what this client did: Visualize the work. Rank it. Resolve problems along the way. Make sure you eliminate multitasking.

You'll uncover the next set of problems, but isn't that the point?

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