12 Habits of an effective project portfolio manager

by Jan Schiller

I have had the pleasure of working with many effective project portfolio managers. I am a life-long learner and have learned a lot from talking with them and observing them in action. Here are 12 habits that have resonated with me the most.

    1. Just get started. Complete a current state assessment, define the desired state, and begin closing gaps revealed by comparing the current and desired state. Those gaps can be grouped into your ‘starter’ project portfolio, elaborated and refined later as the project portfolio gets underway.
    2. Inventory what is going on. Ensure there is a shared understanding of the inventory before moving on. Remove duplicates. Separate ongoing and support work from project work. Clean data is so important, as is consistently applied definitions of elements in the project portfolio.
    3. Understand the level of sponsorship you have, and who the sponsor is (formally and informally). Ensure this sponsor represents, understands, and can speak for the business and with a strategic perspective. Do not underestimate the care and feeding required to obtain and sustain sponsorship throughout the life of the project portfolio.
    4. Know where the project portfolio lives in your organization’s structure. Ideally, the project portfolio manager reports to the sponsor; the person that is interested the most in the strategy the project portfolio is designed to deliver. Other locations in the organization may suggest gaps that need to be closed to stabilize the project portfolio.
    5. Maintain an accurate status of items in the project portfolio. The most important status to get right is ‘active’ since resource allocations should be made first to active projects. Determine if non-active projects should be represented in the project portfolio at all.
    6. Know how to speak to executives. Be brilliant, insightful, specific, brief, and gone. Give executives the information they need to make informed decisions quickly. Save the details for answering questions or to support any points in the conversation.
    7. Clearly establish and communicate roles in your project portfolio, and who fills those roles. Be dedicated to establishing and maintaining a shared understanding amongst everyone contributing to the success of your project portfolio. A team member that understands their role among all other roles makes for a powerful team.
    8. Leave areas blank on your project portfolio dashboard if the information has not been provided by your project portfolio’s program and project managers. Do not guess, and do not enable behaviors that are not conducive to encouraging empowerment.
    9. Ensure a shared and thorough understanding of your project portfolio’s strategic alignment. Be able to share project portfolio progress, status, and accomplishments through that lens.
    10. Know the difference between:
      1. A project portfolio, a program, and a project. The first delivers more than one objective; the other two deliver one objective.
      2. Tracking, managing and leading. You will perform all three activities, but leading is the most important one. You will experiment with success if tracking is your only activity.
      3. A project and support/maintenance. The latter has no place in a project portfolio.
      4. An idea worth pursuing at this time, and a project. Every item in the inventory should be associated with one of these states.
    11. No news is bad news. Silence is rarely a form of commitment, acceptance, or approval. Be tenacious in getting the information required to be successful.
    12. Get comfortable being uncomfortable.

What habits do you feel contribute most to your success as a project portfolio manager? How many of these habits are on your list? What would you add?


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