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

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 a challenge. Still, in time, programs and portfolios will also 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 and driving value through program and portfolio management. In this final blog of our series, we look at how to re-establish performance and capitalize on learnings:

Crises substantially impact both organizations and people, in many cases creating enduring, permanent change. In a financial and operational climate that’s been turned upside-down, the challenges of a crisis can also serve as an impetus to strengthen the organization’s capability for continuous change. In this context, investing time and resources to adapt your program and portfolio management capability will bolster organizational performance post-crisis and beyond. We’ve identified three critical areas of focus in program and portfolio management that can strengthen the ability for continuous change:

1. Portfolio management with a lean focus: Portfolio management has always focused on the benefits and value of various workstreams. Organizations should review, select, and prioritize initiatives in a given portfolio when the value is clear. Similarly, they should renew their focus on halting initiatives as soon as it’s apparent they will not deliver the expected value.

To accomplish these objectives, organizations can consider adopting a lean portfolio management approach. This method enables organizations to visualize the outcomes of initiatives rather than outputs or projects. It involves breaking initiatives down into smaller, modular packages of work that can be stopped or started. The impact of those initiatives can also be measured and displayed more clearly for broader stakeholder groups.

Embedding agility in the process of portfolio management is not a simple task and will require involvement from cross-functional teams. It may also result in changes in direction and behavior across these teams, bolstered by a fundamental shift in ways of working.

2. Data-driven program and portfolio management capability: If a lack of visibility into data, insights, and information was a challenge for your organization at the outset of the crisis, you should consider investing now to mitigate these obstacles amid secondary waves of the current pandemic or other future crises. To strengthen capability in this area, organizations should focus on scalable monitoring and management review.

Enabling a data-driven program and portfolio management strategy can be achieved with an optimal combination of technology, processes, and people.

  • Technology: Develop a singular data source of truth, and implement collaboration and data tracking tools (e.g., JIRA, Microsoft Project Online, and Microsoft Teams) that turn data into information and value.
  • Process: Review existing processes to streamline and codify the data sourced from them.
  • People: Upskill your core program and portfolio management capabilities with online development and learning.

Data should not be limited to finances and milestones. It needs to look more broadly and offer approachable, actionable insight for program and portfolio management leaders. Organizations can consider using frameworks to capture high-quality data, better equipping leaders to make decisions about their programs and people. For insight into program conditions, delivery assessment frameworks such as the Nine Keys of Success can support and be continuously monitored. Offering insight into people and organizational change, North Highland’s proprietary Change Saturation Intelligence tool can help leaders understand the impact of change on the workforce. It considers your change capacity and marries that with data on the impact of the changes you are delivering—helping you to spot areas of change saturation risk. It makes the previously intangible, tangible.

3. Embed new ways of working: In a crisis we’re connecting with each other in unique shared circumstances and settings, strengthening the bonds that bring us together. In these situations leaders must be more mindful of preparing for conversations and maintaining alignment on shared goals.  

Applying tools and frameworks such as remote access, agile delivery, and lean portfolio management in a crisis can equip us with new skills that carry our organizations towards a brighter future (both at home and at work). We asked ourselves: Which adjustments should we carry forward as a routine part of our culture and operations?  Our team took a step back and chose three: embracing and balancing virtual interactions, ruthless adaptability, and continuous small adjustments. 

  • Embracing and balancing virtual tools may require an additional level of preparation and facilitation planning. It also means setting (or releasing) traditional boundaries to stop at the end of the day or interrupt a conference call to help a homeschooler with a Chromebook meltdown.
  • Ruthless adaptability helps us keep the humor in front of us and think critically about the skills and information (e.g., data, analysis, and insights) that can lead us to improved outcomes in a constantly changing world.
  • Finally, continuous, incremental adjustments help make big change more digestible, and allow us to change course quickly. By applying learnings from these changes, we’re not only more prepared for a future crisis—we’re also unleashing the potential in our teams and across our firm.    

Multiple waves of recovery and crisis will result in new ways of working. To emerge stronger, we must revisit and reprioritize investments, executing changes quickly to be more “fit” for business-as-usual. Leveraging program and portfolio data strategies supports new directions. We must simultaneously plan for “change saturation,” particularly as recovery will be shaped by an evolving set of business, geographic, and family factors. Finally, we can seek opportunities to embed readiness planning and resilience in our routine operating models. Done effectively, these strategies strengthen project and portfolio management competency and drive lasting improvement in culture and ways of working—all while building the capability for continuous change. 

Click here to read part one of our series and click here to read part two of our series.