Friday, July 13, 2012

Projects, Programs and Portfolios

That's P3 for you: Projects, Programs and Portfolios. There is some misunderstanding regarding what is a project, a program and a portfolio. In fact, outside of the Project Management profession that happens a lot with projects! So I thought I’d give it a shot at making these lines that divide projects, programs and portfolios a bit clearer. And even when there's no misunderstanding about these terms, most of the times people think it's a natural evolution in one's career: you start as a Project Manager and then if you're any good you'll be a Program Manager. This is so wrong...
If I got your attention about Projects, Programs and Portfolios, you should keep on reading because you'll have a much more clear picture in the end.

Starting at the end

If you're not familiar at all with Projects, Programs and Portfolios you should start at the "Definitions" section. If you're familiar with these terms I welcome you to take a look at the next table that picture the main differences about them.

 Project Program Portfolio 
 Focus Deliverables  Business benefit  Strategic
 The manager is a...  Sergeant General President 
 Time horizon  Now  Immediate future  Future


Although I’ve written a bit about the importance of keeping an eye on why you’re to deliver your project’s deliverables (and so keeping the business benefits in sight), the fact is that the focus of any project is on the deliverables (mainly that your client is happy with them, that they’re ready on time and accordingly to the budget and with the necessary quality). Check these previous articles on this topic: The Art of Funding and Implementing IdeasBeginners Guide to Project ManagementPart 03 Where to start and Beginners Guide to Project ManagementPart 04 What to do.
You also have a budget and a timeline on programs but your focus on programs are the business benefits. Usually, a program is setup to address a generic business need like getting a new version of your star software as a Google App (using the terms in the previous articles, outcomes) that is translated into projects by the construction of some products, services or other kind of results (outputs, namely the software itself, some marketing campaigns, organizational changes in the support division to absorb the expected increase of support requests and so on). And what you really want when the program ends is to provide the business with the intended benefit. Who cares if you delivered on time and on budget but the business need is no longer there? Who cares if it took you a month longer than initially planned but you were able to provide the business with the intended benefits and your new version is a huge success, money rolls in, support deals with the increased requests and so on?
Portfolio deals with the business strategy. In this imaginary case, the organization strategy was to prepare the organization for the cloud. And one of the programs to make this come true was the program to adapt your organization's star application for Google Apps. There were other projects and programs related to this strategy, and this particular program was just one them and one of the one's that the organization decided to invest into. So although you control you projects and programs also at this level, the main concern is not the budget (as in projects) nor the business need (as in programs) but the fulfillment of the organization strategy by them: who cares if some other programs failed if this particular one was such a huge success that your organization is the leader Google App for your particular market?

The manager is a...

This may bring a strange perspective at first but in the end you’ll have to agree with me. When you think of the leadership profiles best suited for the managers in charge of Projects, Programs and Portfolios, you want a sergeant-like profile associated with projects. I have actually written about it previously on this article  Developing leadership skills. Who you want for carrying out a project is someone that can lead a team and deliver very specific objectives just like a sergeant leads his squad for carrying out a specific battle objective such as taking over a hill. It can even be the case that the sergeant has no idea why the hill is needed - he just has to lead his squad and take that hill. The project manager must be someone very objective-oriented and with the leadership skills that support it, namely “solving problems and analyzing issues” and “results focus”.
But you no longer want a sergeant for a program, you want a general. It’s the war that’s your main concern, not any particular battle. Of course you still want to win battles just the same but just because you need to win enough battles in order to win the war. And that's what it's all about: winning wars. The leadership skills you want for a program manager involve more politics, vision and strategy that can “champion change” and provide the necessary “vision and strategy”.
As for the portfolio component you need to keep an eye to what's after these projects and programs deliver their results. You have to keep the pipeline going. You have to look at the market, make some sense of it and design a way to define and implement a strategy to deal with it. At this level it's mostly politics, vision and strategy that you need as leadership skills. More the kind of skills that you can find in a President than in a Sergeant, wouldn't you agree?

Time Horizon

In any project, the Project Manager has his/hers main concerns at this moment, on what's going on now, on why this particular tasks is taking longer than expected, or convincing the sponsor that this particular change request has to go through even if it means another month in the project duration and an additional budget of 25.000€. Even in the cases of the few projects that last for 10 years or more, this is the case for the Project Manager. His/hers attention is on now.
For the program this is not so much the case as the main concerns of the Program Manager relate to the realization of the business benefits that will come in a near future - they're usually not immediate. Of course he has to clear the obstacles in this project and coordinate this and that project because one is to deliver stuff needed in the other but his attention is more in things a bit farther in time.
And even if monitoring projects and programs are in the responsibilities of a Portfolio Manager, the main concern is implementing the strategy and checking if this particular strategy still makes sense now. These require a much broader view of what's going on and plans a lot further in time: what he/she really want is to make the necessary options that will grant the greatest profit possible this year, the next and the next or even in 10 years time.


It's always worthwhile checking definitions, even if you're familiar with what's being discussed. These were all taken from The Project Management Book Of Knowledge, 4th Edition (PMBoK).
ProjectA project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result. (in PMBoK page 5).
ProgramA program is defined as a group of related projects managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits and control not available from managing them individually. Programs may include elements of related work outside the scope of the discrete projects in the program. A project may or may be not part of a program, but a program will always have projects. (in PMBoK page 9).
PortfolioA portfolio refers to a collection of projects or programs and other work that are grouped together to facilitate effective management of that work to meet strategic business objectives. The projects or programs of the portfolio may not necessarily be interdependent or directly related. (in PMBOK page 8).
Nevertheless, the key points are somehow hidden in these definitions. A better way to show the differences and relations is also provided in the PMBoK:

Comparing Projects, Programs and Portfolios

ScopeProjects have defined objectives. Scope is progressively elaborated throughout the project lifecycle.Programs have a larger scope and provide more significant benefits.Portfolios have a business scope that changes with the strategic goals of the organization.
ChangeProject managers expect change and implement processes to keep change managed and controlled.The Program manager must expect change from both the inside and outside the program and must be prepared to manage it.Portfolio managers continually monitor change in the broad environment.
PlanningProject managers progressively elaborate high-level information into detailed plans throughout the project life cycle.Program managers develop the overall program plan and create high-level plans to guide detailed planning at the component level.Portfolio managers create and maintain necessary processes and communication relative to the aggregated portfolio.
Management Project managers manage the project team to meet the project objectives.Program managers manage the program staff and the project managers; they provide vision and overall leadership.Portfolio managers may manage or coordinate portfolio management staff.
SuccessSuccess is measured by product and project quality, timeliness, budget compliance, and degree of customer satisfaction.Success is measured by the degree to which the program satisfies the needs and benefits for which it was undertaken.Success is measured in terms of aggregated performance of portfolio components.
MonitoringProject managers monitor and control the work of producing the products, services or results that the project was undertaken to produce.Program managers monitor the progress of program components to ensure the overall goals, schedule, budget, and benefits of the program will be met.Portfolio managers monitor aggregate performance and value indicators.
In PMBoK page 9


You can find both in the PMBoK's definitions and comparison table what the focus is. The time frame is also there somehow, maybe a bit more hidden. The leadership skills are a consequence of what's in there, and  you can trace them all back to the information provided in the PMBoK. And you can also find more details on the information provided in the PMBoK (being this just a summary of what you'll find there).
But the initial table comparing Focus, Leadership skills and Time horizon can be much more useful in most cases. If you want to know if you have the profile to be a Program Manager, just check your leadership profile: does it compare to a Sergeant, a General or a President? What do you have to keep your eye constantly on, the deliverables or the business benefits? With which do you feel more comfortable?
I'm not a Program or Portfolio expert (yes, I'm Sergeant like, a doer), but this has helped me a lot in the past. And that's why I'm sharing it with you, I hope it can be useful to you too. Maybe you can even point out other differences that I missed in this article or show me why I considered a difference wrong...
But I do hope this helps you to be better Project Manager!

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