Project Portfolio Decisions—Decisions For Now


If you are anything like me, you have a to-do list a mile long. Because I work for myself, I have an integrated list of everything I need to do: projects for clients, books to write, articles to write, columns to write, presents to buy, house maintenance, clothes to organize, office cleanup. The list is long and never-ending.

That’s okay. That’s because, if I take something off my list and finish it, I can choose what to do next. I might rank projects one way one day and another way the next day. For example, a few weeks ago, we had some high winds, and I noticed some chimney bricks in the yard. I put “fix chimney” on my list. It was pretty low on my list. I had client work and some writing I thought was higher priority. Now, after 12 inches of rain outside and wet carpet in my office, fixing the chimney is at the top of my list. But I take an agile approach to my work, as well as teaching agile to my clients. In order to “fix chimney”, I need to call masons, get them to come out and look at the chimney, get the quotes, compare the quotes, get them start and finish their work which may require me to negotiate how to work with them, and who knows what else. What I’ve listed is the known list of tasks to the relatively large user story, “As a home owner, I want to live in a house with no chimney leaks” and the smaller stories of, “As a homeowner, I want to compare prices and masons so I can get the best person for the job,” and “As a homeowner, I want the chimney work to be done quickly so I don’t have to worry about more rain ruining the carpet in my office.”

And, I have other work to do. But multitasking—literally trying to do two things at once—doesn’t work. I get confused, make mistakes, and more importantly, take longer to finish anything. So, when I look at my to-do list, I make decisions about what is most important—for now. Not forever, just for now. And that means I will interleave my phone calls about my chimney with the client work or writing work I’m doing.

I bet that sounds like multitasking to you. The difference is this: I have each phone call to a mason as a separate item on my to-do list. That means that once I have finished one phone call, I can cross something off my list and go on to the next thing. If the next thing is an article, I can timebox work on that article. If the next thing is another call, I can make that call. I don’t go on to the next item on my list until the thing I’m working on is done.

Now, done can mean many things to many people. I don’t normally write an article in 30 minutes. But, I can timebox an article to 30 minutes, stop it there, save it, and safely move to the next task on my list, because the article is as done as I need it to be for now. As long as I have worked on the article so I don’t have dangling thoughts, my work is complete for the timebox.

Collect, Rank, and Commit to Work
Maybe you noticed a system to my planning. I’ve collected all the work I have to do. I‘ve ranked the work. You’ll notice that some of the work I described in the first paragraph, such as presents to buy, is not even up for discussion. That’s because it’s not on my list of staffed work for now. I’ve decided what’s worth staffing for now—I’ve committed to the work.

Once I commit to the work, I can work on it in small-enough chunks to get to done on the work I need to finish. Now, the only parts left to do are finish the work and periodically re-evaluate the project portfolio. Take a look at Figure 1, the Project Portfolio Flow to see what the flow looks like.

Project portfolio decisions

Figure 1: Project Portfolio Flow


About the author

Johanna Rothman's picture Johanna Rothman

Johanna Rothman, known as the “Pragmatic Manager,” helps organizational leaders see problems and risks in their product development. She helps them recognize potential “gotchas,” seize opportunities, and remove impediments. Johanna was the Agile 2009 conference chair. She is the technical editor for Agile Connection and the author of these books:

  • Manage Your Job Search
  • Hiring Geeks That Fit
  • Manage Your Project Portfolio: Increase Your Capacity and Finish More Projects
  • The 2008 Jolt Productivity award-winning Manage It! Your Guide to Modern, Pragmatic Project Management
  • Behind Closed Doors: Secrets of Great Management
  • Hiring the Best Knowledge Workers, Techies & Nerds: The Secrets and Science of Hiring Technical People

Johanna is working on a book about agile program management. She writes columns for and projectmanagementcom and blogs on her website,, as well on

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