Supporting Sound Business Decisions: Separating the Clerks from the Project Managers

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Summary:
Payson Hall writes that we do our profession a disservice when we describe project management as merely the challenging clerical task of defining projects, building schedules, and tracking against them. Managing the interface between the project and the organizational context is absolutely part of a project manager’s job, whether there is a portfolio management team to help or not.

A collection of projects is sometimes referred to as a “portfolio.” In project management terms, “portfolio management” represents the skills, practices, and processes that facilitate management of the projects in a portfolio, including managing trade-offs among those projects in the best interests of the sponsoring organization. If there are four projects in the portfolio and an organization only has the resources to do three of them, portfolio management tries to detect this situation and support an informed decision about which project to kill or pause based on overall organizational priority.

I was recently among a bunch of senior project managers who were discussing the importance of effective portfolio management. I like these guys. They are smart, but they were being snobs.

The snobbery went something like this: “Portfolio management is where business decisions become visible. The portfolio is where trade-offs are made. Project managers don’t get visibility into that process. Project managers don’t need to care about their business case. Their job is just to get their project done.”

I disagreed with that perspective, and said so. I think that what they were discussing was the distinction between rookie project managers and good project managers, not the difference between project managers and portfolio managers. While reasonable people might disagree with me, I want to outline my position and let you decide.

First, let’s dispose of the myth that all projects are doable within their defined constraints. Nope. The defined requirements of some projects cannot be accomplished with the available resources by the desired timeframe. If a project is clearly out of the box, this should hopefully be detected and addressed during planning by cancelling the project or adjusting the schedule, scope, or resources allocated. For some projects, you can’t tell they aren’t feasible until problems emerge part way through, due to some of the following reasons: because of a discovery on the project (the project is harder than we thought or our best architect just won the lottery, etc.) and sometimes because of changes in the project context (budget cuts or changing priorities can cause staff to be redirected, layoffs, changing customer needs, or some dismal constellation of more than one of these).

In my view, defending against and trying to manage emerging problems is a key responsibility of the project manager. This can only be accomplished by monitoring the project’s business case and the larger project context to understand how impending changes in organizational strategy or priority might affect the project. This is the only way I know for the project manager to support informed decision making about the project, which, I would argue, is the project manager’s primary duty.

The image of the project manager trying to manage the “internals” of the project without visibility to the larger context sounds to me like driving a car in the fog. Your ability to control events is extremely limited; all you can do is be surprised by emerging problems and try to react.

This is not to denigrate the role of portfolio management. In organizations that manage their portfolios actively, the portfolio management team should work with project managers to develop informed recommendations for executives.

I also don’t intend to cast aspersions upon inexperienced project managers who are focused on defining, planning, and performing their projects and don’t yet have the experience to monitor the larger context. Hopefully they have the support of a senior project manager or a strong sponsor if not a portfolio management team.

I feel strongly that we do our profession a disservice when we describe project management as merely the challenging clerical task of defining projects, building schedules, and tracking against them. These parts are all necessary, but they are insufficient. The mechanics of project management can be challenging, but mastering them is only the first step in a career that gets more interesting and challenging with experience. Managing the interface between the project and the organizational context is absolutely part of a project manager’s job, whether there is a portfolio management team to help or not.

About the author

Payson Hall's picture Payson Hall

Payson Hall is a consulting project manager for Catalysis Group, Inc. in Sacramento, California. Payson consults on project management issues and teaches project management. Email Payson at payson@catalysisgroup.com. Follow him on twitter at @paysonhall.

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