Sustaining Successful Programs and Portfolios in Uncertain Times (Part One)

In this three-part series, we look through the eyes of a program or portfolio leader and outline the practical steps leaders must take to sustain the success of program and portfolio management initiatives during a crisis like COVID-19. Merely establishing a semblance of control in an emergency is challenging. Still, in time, programs and portfolios will need to turn their attention to re-establishing performance levels and ways of working for a post-crisis “new normal.”

In our experience with helping clients navigate crisis scenarios, we believe there are five critical steps to navigating a crisis in the realm of program and portfolio management. In the first blog of our series, we explore how to assess the situation, establish control, and redefine your short-term priorities.

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<p>Description automatically generatedIn a crisis, leaders must act with limited, quickly evolving information. With the insights at hand, they must take decisive actions to address immediate and near-term issues, while also establishing the credibility to manage a high-stakes crisis response and recovery activities long-term. The delivery of a program or portfolio’s business case can mean the difference between business continuity or failure.

One valuable framework that program and portfolio management leaders can apply is North Highland’s “Nine Keys of Success,” a tried and tested assurance framework that is scalable and applicable to all types of programs and portfolios. A crisis will typically push several of these keys to their limit. By proactively applying the framework in a way that reinforces organizational culture, program and portfolio management leaders will be prepared to evaluate and make critical decisions that enable a more effective crisis response. Throughout this series, we’ll show you how to put the framework into practice.

Step 1: Assess the Situation and Establish Control

When a crisis unfolds, it is critical to assess and gain control of the situation quickly. As a leader, your immediate actions are vital as they establish the overall tone and influence team and stakeholder confidence. These initial actions are where a program and portfolio management leader can make a difference through a few fundamental steps:

  • Determine the impact of the situation. Evaluate the immediate effect on your business, programs, and people. Consider scenarios that impact sales, revenue, labor, supply chain, and other operations. By extension, these scenarios will affect the funds available for crisis response and currently planned program and portfolio management initiatives. As a program and portfolio management leader, it is crucial to take a broader view of the impacts on the business and dependent programs—doing so will ensure you have an accurate and holistic understanding of the effect on your program or portfolio.
  • Evaluate current and planned activities. Next, assess in-flight and planned activities to identify necessary changes to scope, schedule, or resources. Ground this analysis in the impact the crisis has (or may have) on the ability to execute critical initiatives or their relative importance to the organization's strategy and goals. Based on a collective impact assessment, revisit your business case to evaluate whether original assumptions, timings, benefits, and cost factors remain accurate.
  • Over-communicate with teams and stakeholders. Securing leadership team sponsorship is foundational to program and portfolio management success, and bold communication is a must for ensuring their buy-in. Set up frequent communications with management structures and the rest of the team, recognizing the situation at hand, as well as the professional and personal impacts. Share with your team a plan for how and when you will disseminate information, with a focus on creating transparency in the decision-making process. Establish new channels to solicit and gather feedback, applying a consideration for how the crisis has transformed routine ways of working.

Step 2: Redefine Short-Term Priorities

Redefining your team’s short-term priorities using crisis management planning, prioritization techniques, and establishing temporary working structures will enable you to stabilize programs and portfolios in the near-term:

  • Create a crisis management plan. Given there are many unknowns in crisis response, your strategy should be brief, yet decisive. You’ll need to boldly pivot your thinking around deliverables and deadlines to maximize outcomes and value. Work with leadership to identify the key metrics to inform crisis management actions, developing a simple three to five-tiered response that is easy to digest and communicate.
  • Determine and communicate short-term priorities. Redefine the priorities for the team, structuring them clearly into “now,” “next,” or the “future.” Keep your messages simple, tailored to the appropriate audience, and communicated regularly upwards and downwards throughout your organization. Establish the expectation that change is likely and could be the norm for the near future. Applying this mindset will help your people shift from shock to acceptance faster.
  • Recapture productivity and limit work-in-progress. Remote work will likely impact team velocity and efficiency. Consider re-establishing your working calendar and using consistent technology to enable the new working environment. Direct your teams to work from a short-term backlog of priority activities, limiting the work-in-progress to keep people focused. We have observed that this transition tends to be more natural for teams working in Agile, as they have already established these techniques. But now, they are put to the test.

Programs and portfolios lacking bold leadership and a collective culture will suffer from high disruption, confusion, and potential derailment. Overcoming these risks starts with a few fundamental program and portfolio management steps that will move you towards stabilization and allow you to begin mitigating the crisis-related risks to your programs and portfolios.

Click here to read part two of our series.