Project Portfolio Management: An Interview with Johanna Rothman


Johanna Rothman is a management consultant, regular columnist, and AgileConnection’s technical editor. Johanna talks about the year in software, the rise of project portfolio management, and whether we will continue to see organizations adopt agile in the new year.

Johanna Rothman is a management consultant, a regular Better Software magazine columnist, and the technical editor. In this interview, Johanna talks with online editor Jonathan Vanian about the year in software, the rise of project portfolio management, and whether or not we will continue to see organizations adopt agile in the new year.

Jonathan Vanian: What were some of the biggest highlights in the software world this past year?

Johanna Rothman: For me, there were two things that really struck me. The first was that people are starting to pay attention to project portfolio management. I mean, I wrote the book two years ago! What’s really cool is that people are actually starting to pay attention to it, and that, to me, is a huge thing. So, it’s not that people are buying the book all of a sudden—although I wish that they would—it’s that people are saying, “Multitasking is wrong. I should really start paying attention to which projects I want to fund and when, which projects do I want to commit to, which projects do I want to not commit to for now.”

People are actually using the language of project portfolio management, which I think is really exciting, because this means that people are thinking about “What do I want to do? what do I not want to do?” If they are thinking about that for the projects and the programs, it will trickle down to the people.

JV: How do you know that people are actually paying attention to this now? Are you coming across these people in your consulting work?

JR: I’m seeing it in my consulting, and I’m seeing it in the way people are talking about it. I see it at conferences. It used to be that people would say, “I don’t have enough people to plug-and-play into my projects. I have to have people 100 percent utilized,” and now they aren’t saying that as much. Some people are still saying it, but a lot more people are saying, “I know that 100 percent utilization is not exactly what I want, so I’m rethinking that. I know that I have to say, ‘What projects do I want to do now, and which projects do I want to do later?’” And then they turn to me and say, “Right, JR?”

JV: Are there any particular industries in which this is more prevalent?

JR: I see it a lot more in IT, because in IT the customers are right down the corridor. In product organizations, there’s more money riding on the products, so it’s easier to have a strategy that says, “This product; no, this product,” and the product people fight it out. But in IT, it’s harder to say, “This project; no that project, or this system.”

So, that’s one of the two things I’m seeing.

The other thing I’m seeing is that agile is making its way into larger and larger programs, and that’s why I’m writing the agile program management book. That’s why I’ve been writing a lot more about large agile and program management.

JV: What exactly are programs?

JR: Well that’s where you have collections of projects where each project may have a valuable deliverable, but the really valuable piece is in the entire deliverable where all of them come together; the real value is in the total result. Think about the front end, the middle end, and the back end. All of those pieces are valuable in and of themselves, but the real value is when you put them all together and release them all together. And, of course, in agile you actually want to do slices through the entire architecture.

JV: For next year, what do you think is going to happen to the industry? Will there be this continued growth of agile?

JR: Well, everyone does it a little differently. On my Managing Product Development blog, I just wrote a series of blog posts about continuous integration, discussing if they are worth it for your program, because some programs say, “No it’s not worth it,” and some programs say, “Yes it is worth it.” It’s all in how you manage it, right? If you have been doing waterfall for the past five years, or even an incremental approach, and now someone says, “OK, you will be agile. I will anoint you agile,” well, that’s very fine, but no one can just move to agile in a second.

So, how do you take the steps to move to agile? You can’t just say to people, “We want you to move to agile, so here, in this next iteration, go for it.” How do you make the move to continuous integration? Well, you might do release trains. You might do stage delivery. You might do any number of things. You might actually say, if you’re a really smart program manager, "Here’s the result I want. How do you guys want to do it? What will it take?” It will take something different for every team, and you’re not going to just do it inside of an iteration. It could take many iterations. It could take an entire release for a program to get to continuous integration. And, the question is “How will you get there, and is it worth getting there?” I think that the answer is yes, but how will you do it? Do you need to have milestones along the way? The answer is probably yes. I mean, there are lots of ways to do this, but none of them are trivial.

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