Portfolio management: Do’s and dont’s

Portfolio management, a method of aligning IT with business goals by prioritizing IT projects as you would a financial portfolio, can provide answers to that question. However, like most ideas in IT, portfolio management sounds great in concept but is tough in execution. “Portfolio management is like Olympic mud wrestling,” says Dave Clarke, VP of enterprise technology services at the American Red Cross, who has 10 years’ experience managing portfolios at W.L. Gore & Associates and General Motors Corp. “It’s nasty, difficult and high-spirited even in the nicest of organizations. But it’s well worth it in the end, for the discipline and clarity it can produce.”

Going on the theory that it is better to learn from someone else’s mistakes than to make your own, we asked CIO Best Practice Exchange members to share lessons learned from the front lines of portfolio management.

1. Start simple. The more features the better, right? Not necessarily, says Jeff Chasney, executive VP and CIO of CKE Restaurants. “Don’t look for a fancy portfolio management system with lots of bells and whistles. Spreadsheets work great.”

2. Be willing to cancel projects. “Constantly review the merit and utility of your projects based on current information,” says Chasney. “Just because a project is placed on a docket doesn’t mean that its efficacy remains constant across time.”

3. Make sure your portfolio indicates which investments did not make the cut. “The chief value of a portfolio is that it represents critical decisions about investments,” says American Red Cross’s Clarke. “The portfolio should clearly show what is currently approved for spending and what is not, but might be at a later date.”

4. Have a rational and transparent prioritization scheme. At GM, Clarke used one that looked something like this:

A. Mandatory or legal

B. Fix major operational risk areas

C. Major strategic projects (note that this is third on the list!)

D. Projects with significant business returns

E. Nice to have

In addition, a time line is a smart way to prioritize your projects. “If you compare all projects on a common time line horizon,” says CKE’s Chasney, “you can determine how much is gained by each project and when you will begin to realize the gains. You then compare the gain amount and time line against your company’s financial objectives to develop a reasonable course.”

5. Set a corporate strategy–and incentivize others to stay the course. Dade Behring, a medical device company, focuses on “just a handful of initiatives,” says CIO David Edelstein. “The company’s IT governance council succeeds,” he says, because “each member of the executive leadership team works hard to ensure our respective organizations are supporting these initiatives. Everyone’s individual performance objectives, from the CEO to the guy on the shop floor, are explicitly linked to one or more of the company initiatives. It becomes relatively easy to link IT investments to the company initiatives because everyone is moving in the same direction.”

6. Ensure the IT staff does more than just speak for IT. Portfolio management relies on a strong partnership between the business and IT–at all levels. “IT workers should be active members of several functional leadership teams in the company, and they should have leadership roles on the business-related tasks of importance to those teams,” says Edelstein.

Can’t Get Started?

If you’re having a tough time getting portfolio management off the ground, these next two tips are for you.

Find the pain, and focus on it. When building the business case for your portfolio management implementation, begin where the organization is hurting the most, suggests Ron Kifer, VP of program and solutions management at DHL Worldwide Express. “Use industry case studies to identify business benefits and then quantify those benefits against your organization’s current situation,” he advises.

Don’t go it alone. Use gurus, enterprise leaders and senior-level colleagues to support your business case, notes Kifer. “Do not rely solely on your own influence and credibility within the organization to sell portfolio management,” he says. “Cite examples of success in other organizations and, if possible, bring in an acknowledged leader in the field to support your position in a formal presentation to your senior leadership.”