PPM Not the Whole Story

While project portfolio management (PPM) is often touted as the ideal methodology for keeping IT projects on time, on track and under budget, it is not effective without some old-fashioned intuition and project management experience to back it up.

In fact, at Priceline.com, CIO Ron Rose keeps his company’s 200 monthly projects under control using nothing more that an Excel spreadsheet and a weekly “SWAT” meeting that includes IT staff and business unit heads.

“I’m not sure which acronym applies,” said Rose referring to PPM, “but it sounds appropriate. What we do is we run the whole thing top-down as a prioritization effort.”

The Business Case

To get everyone thinking the same way, Rose focuses not on budgets, ROI, revenue generation or other financial metrics, but “man-days.” Put another way, Rose gets everyone at the meetings thinking in terms of resources — when they are available and when they are not.

In this way, everyone in the room understands why one project or one section of a project must be completed before another. This approach also allows Rose to see where there may be openings during the execution of major projects to slip in less labor-intensive tasks.

This, in turn, keeps all his staff busy all the time while maintaining project “velocity.”

“Know the man-days,” said Rose. “I can’t tell you how important that is because man-days is where I see 90 percent of the train wrecks happen in technology. It used to be around (technology) risks, but the technology these days is so straight-forward compared to the old days. It’s all around execution.”

This type of approach provides Rose’s business unit heads with the ability to understand why IT can and can’t do certain things. It also helps remove some of the “black box” mystery usually associated with IT.

“And that helps tremendously as far as making it clear to the whole company, from people in the NOC (network operations center) to the CEO, as to what should happen next and what shouldn’t happen next,” said Rose.

Art & Science

Another way of approaching project management is to look at IT projects as, well, projects, said Jeff Monteforte, president of Exential, a Cleveland-based information strategy consulting firm and regular CIO Update PPM columnist.

“Portfolio management is not your answer for on-time and on-budget,” said Monteforte. “It’s half art and half science.”

The science half does involve best practices derived from any number of project management disciplines, but the “art” half of Monteforte’s equation really revolves around people.

Like Rose, Monteforte sees problems with IT projects arise just as often because of the people involved as the technology they are trying to deploy. Many companies, for example, will put a junior member of IT in charge of a major project because a) they are in IT so should know best how to implement an IT project and b) they are in IT so should know best how to implement an IT project.

What is left out of this equation are the people skills needed to manage all the diverse and often conflicting personalities and priorities of those involved. The bigger the project, the bigger these problems can become.

Experience Counts

What is required to get projects done isn’t so much a methodology like PPM (although it helps) but experience.

“A project manager, 85 percent of what they deal with is human beings and the interpersonal interactions and the inaccurate science of human beings,” said Monteforte.

To get your IT projects done the way you want, find someone in the organization who has experience managing major projects and provide them with an IT advisor to handle the more technical aspects of the implementation.

“The No. 1 issue bringing projects in as planned is experience,” agreed Chris Curran, CTO of the IT consultancy Diamond Cluster. “IT still tends to deal with technology as the issue … but in the end it’s still about people and about communication and honesty and experience. It’s about understanding people and their skills and not putting someone in too far over their heads.”

Of course, PPM plays a major role in helping IT organizations around the globe manage projects big and small from a holistic point of view. PPM best practices are lessoned-learned and should be applied where and when they make sense, said Monteforte.

But what can and often happens with IT organizations going from no project management discipline at all to a PPM approach is over-reliance.

“You can easily go from one extreme to the other,” said Monteforte. “The pendulum swings very quickly. You can go from nothing to people using this stuff as a crutch. They throw intuition and experience right out the window.”

To avoid this particular pitfall, Monteforte tells his clients to focus on a basic set of best practices tempered with intuition and the needs of the business.

Specifically, Monteforte recommends the following steps, in order:

  • Make sure you have defined the project before starting.
  • Have a solid estimate of the time, resources and costs of the project.
  • Establish a detailed work plan with roles and responsibilities and dependencies. (e.g., You can’t do step 5 until 3 and 4 are done.)
  • Identify major “what if” risks early (e.g., The project lead leaving the company, the technology doesn’t work as advertised, one of you vendors is 45 days late, etc.)
  • Have contingency plans for those major risks and be able to adjust your plans accordingly.
  • Implement a good change control process to manage scope creep. (e.g., Have the project sponsor or manager approve all changes before implementation.)
  • Solve problems quickly and via a controlled process.
  • Of course a few steps in only the first part of the journey, but blindly following a 100-step PPM plan that ignores the realities of your business is no panacea either.

    “The real value of the portfolio management concept is as a way to view and balance your IT and business investments as opposed to no proactive mechanism for looking at your IT investments as whole,” said Diamond Cluster’s Curran.