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For many years the project community has focused on the processes, the knowledge, the tools and the training to enable project managers to carry out their job. A combination of research and experience say this has made some difference but we still see shocking rates of failure and sub-standard performance in the discipline.

Many training companies provide PRINCE training courses and many organisations have hired, trained and in many cases fired and hired again in order to get good quality project managers. Development of corporate processes, complex and expensive software tools and detailed induction and training programmes follow.

These are all potentially worthy activities and anyone accountable for the success of project management could be seen to be working hard and could describe the large amount of effort their teams were putting in to improve their capability.  But activity doesn’t always result in success.

Try asking the question in an organisation – “Do we have a full list of the projects or programmes we are doing?”.  You often get the answer “yes” but when you dig a little you find that there are several such lists or the understanding of one department is different from another. You also find when asking teams what they are working on that more initiatives have to be added to the list.  I always say that if I ask 10 people the question and everyone comes up with the same list then that organisation is likely to be mature in its portfolio management.  Unsurprisingly in these cases projects are more successfully delivered in the organisation.

Improving your portfolio management practices may appear harder than your project practices as the stakeholders who need to change their behaviours are usually more senior, however a significant change in behaviours at this level can reap greater benefits.

Once a clear context is set in terms of the agreed portfolio and its governance arrangements you can manage resources, risks, benefits and stakeholder communications at the portfolio level – all of which also improve the effectiveness and efficiency of project delivery.

When asked to assess or review maturity in a portfolio, programme and project environment invariably the client will ask to look at project management first.  I would challenge this and say improvement activity should be focused in the first instance at the portfolio.  There is likely to be less activity but the returns to the company should soon be clear.

Top down not bottom up.