Simple ways to handle a complex portfolio

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What happens when your department is taking on increasingly complex workloads - and you have several of these projects running simultaneously within your organization?

According to the Standish Group, only 29% of IT projects are completed successfully, and this number is even smaller for complex portfolios.

The challenge of complexity

Department heads are great captains of their own ships who can easily do their own share of a project, but it's obviously harder to pull the pieces together of a project that lies beyond their normal reach.

Projects don't happen in isolation and are often dependent on other deliverables happening at the same time. When project managers can't keep up with these inter-dependencies (think sudden staff movements between projects), projects get held up.

Such slowdowns can have a ripple effect on all other variables, like a vibrating panic through affected departments. The project goes off-track while IT and other stakeholders attempt to fix a mess they didn't anticipate.

The digital dilemma

This problem is especially prominent when it comes to digital innovation projects. These projects fail because constraints such as deadlines and low budgets don’t easily help meet complex needs, and too few people devoted to the project leads to a higher chance of failure.

The original study results The Standish Group International found were shocking. These result are sometimes still quoted as if they were current. In 1994, the researchers found that 31 percent of the IT projects were flat failures. That is, they were abandoned before completion and produced nothing useful. Only about 16 percent of all projects were completely successful: meaning delivering applications on time, within budget and with all the originally specified features.

As of 2006, the absolute failure rate is down to 19 percent and the success rate is up to 35 percent. The remaining 46 percent are what the Standish Group calls "challenged", projects that didn't meet the criteria for total success but delivered a useful product.

In most cases, the real problem is the lack of a process within the organization. Project team members that don't know what is due when make completing the project on time a challenge. Similarly, most problems in project management are not due to a lack of skill in managing projects. The mistake is often due to expecting one person to manage and control the activities of a large project team.

Teams overboard

The challenge of managing a very complex project is like building a car - a task that involves up to tens of thousands of people. Breaking project management down into chunks eliminates the need for those scarce super-project managers who can 'control' what every individual throughout this long supply chain does every hour of the day.

One common method of trying to deconstruct a complex workload is to start playing with the scope. We've all seen a manager eliminate project features and requirements in an effort to reduce the load. While flexibility isn't a bad thing, when requirements are changed in a knee-jerk way, you need to wonder whether sudden changes are really the best solution.

Another early sign a project is slipping is a team working a lot of overtime- or people pulled off the project to work on something else. A few hours stolen here and there don't seem like much, but they can quickly add up and consume the main activities the team is doing.

The scope solution

To manage a complex portfolio and reduce the mistakes of overwhelmed resource management, you need to be realistic about your scope of risk. Smart PPM software like Sciforma allows for agile project management, which focuses on 'chunking' projects into deliverable pieces for faster user feedback. This not only makes tracking progress easier, but it's also good for team morale, reinforcing a feeling of success.

By using technology to get the processes right, an organization can have excellence in teamwork and project management without losing control. Sciforma targets complex portfolios across shared resource bases, using a range of methodologies including: Waterfall, Agile, PMBOK and others, all working together.

Do you want to be more efficient in Project Management ? Download our ebook on project selection.

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Maurya Rieder

Maurya is the Director of the Sciforma Australasian office located in Sydney. She is passionate about helping companies manage their portfolio of projects as well as their resources in an empowering way. Main interests: PPM, change management, & team collaboration. Please send thoughts / ideas to mrieder@sciforma.com