working in timeboxes, or working off a kanban board, is that you can re-evaluate the project portfolio as often as you complete a timebox or finish a task. If you want to manage the project portfolio weekly, as I do, as long as you make sure the tasks or stories are done, you can re-evaluate the project portfolio.
With project portfolio management, work flows through a team. It doesn’t matter much what the work is, as long as it’s relatively small; the team finishes it as in done-done-done; and that it’s clear what the next piece of work is. The key is that are no unfinished pieces of work.
That’s why project portfolio management is all about decisions for now . The decisions don’t have to be permanent—in fact, they should not be permanent. Because agile and lean approaches to work allow you to re-decide what work is most important for now, you should plan on making project portfolio decisions often. I often recommend that people who are new to agile start with decisions once a quarter, mostly because it’s so difficult for people making the agile or lean transition to break down user stories into small-enough chunks of work that they actually finish all the work they committed to inside an iteration. They need more time to finish enough that’s really done so you can evaluate the current business value.
But once the project team is facile with agile or kanban, re-deciding about the relative ranking of each project in the project portfolio every iteration or every few weeks is a great idea.
Frequent decision-making about the project portfolio means that the organization is always working on the most valuable-to-the-organization projects. Those projects can be the support projects, as my chimney is for me, or growing the organization as columns or articles are for me, or allowing the organization to move in an entirely new direction, as a book might be for me.
Review the Mix of Projects
One of the issues with project portfolio management is to see that the organization is working on a variety of projects. That mix of projects can describe the health of your portfolio.
Just as a healthy financial portfolio does not have just bonds or only stocks, a healthy project portfolio has a mix of different kinds of projects: projects that support the business, that allow the organization to stay in business; projects that extend the current business; and projects that allow the business to move in an entirely new direction. You may not have many new-direction projects—in fact, they are usually so risky that you want to consider starting a few of those projects for just a few short timeboxes or stories and then evaluate what the projects have delivered in terms of business value.
Organizations that are past the start-up stage tend to have many support projects and continue-the-business projects. Unhealthy organizations have no or few new-direction projects. Healthy organizations have a number of potential new-direction projects.
But new-direction projects tend to be high risk and high return. You may not be able to finish them, for any number of reasons.
Imagine you had terabytes of data in a database and you want to allow remote access to that database. But, imagine it’s not 2010, but 1995. We had the net, but we didn’t have the kinds of robustness and speed of access over the net that we have now. If you had tried to start that project, you might well have discovered at the end of that project that you could not provide the reliability or performance that the