• Bill Holmes

How to Stand Up a Portfolio Management Office Part 3 – Learning From Mistakes

The difficulties in standing up a Portfolio Management Office
Project, Program and Portfolio Management Meme

“The behavior of any bureaucratic organization can best be understood by assuming that it is controlled by a secret cabal of its enemies.” Robert Conquest

“You can change only what people know, not what they do.” Scott Adams, God's Debris: A Thought Experiment

In the last installment of this series I explained how I was unsuccessful in convincing my organizations leadership that we needed to stand up a Portfolio Management Office (PfMO) when we clearly had a portfolio! In retrospect, it was because I had assumed that everyone knew the difference between a project and program and a portfolio. They didn’t. Furthermore, while I was focused on how to implement the PfMO, I neglected to make the case for why we needed one!

While my team and I would do everything we could to make the PMO successful, I knew that there would be may issues caused by the choice to stand up a traditional Program Management Office (PMO) to govern a portfolio. This would provide me with many opportunities to explain to my colleagues why we were having those issues, and if I were successful the next time a PfMO was called for I would be better prepared to make the case.

You may be thinking to yourself, “Who cares if you run it as a program? Governance is governance.”

It makes a big difference. Here are a few examples.

Project releases become very complicated. You don’t expect to “connect” projects in a portfolio, so each project stands on its own. Project X Release 2 is easy to understand. Because this was treated as PMO, it implied that all the projects were connected in some way. This led to convoluted, weird and confusing releases. Project 3 may have release 3.1, 3.2, 3.3 and 3.4. The problem was that these releases were completely different projects and may not even be released in sequential order! I literally had to carry around a “cheat sheet” to even know what project we were talking about.

Release planning became very complicated. Each project stood on its own, but because we pretended they were all connected it made it impossible to make individual decisions about individual projects. Instead we developed a complicated release plan that essentially caused all projects to move at the speed of the slowest project. Furthermore, the release plan became a project unto itself requiring constant application of staffing to maintain it.

Development resources were treated as fungible. Even though each project had its own dedicated team of developers and contractors, new releases had to be coordinated through the previously mentioned release plan. This led to long discussions about resource availability across all the projects resulting in individual projects grinding to a halt while people waited for permission to work.

Reporting became a nightmare! Once the master release plan was completed, then all the individual projects had modify their in place processes to conform, and this caused a lot of problems. For example, we had to institute a new risk governance board for the projects so they could harmonize their established individual reporting to the project release plan.

I could go on.

The result was that the individual projects began to slow down and rather heavy-handed governance took the place of innovation and productivity.

And my leadership team began to get frustrated. So I took the opportunity to explain why we were having issues, and over the course of several months and multiple executive conferences, the idea of a PfMO was socialized.


I was overseas working with some colleagues last week and ended up going to dinner with several of them. During the course of dinner I was asked my opinion on a topic in the news, so I gave it. One of my colleagues, who shared a diametrically opposed opinion, searched the internet until he found data supporting his position. He then proceeded to present me with the information he had dug up on his smartphone as unassailable and claimed victory. I had a choice. I could ruin a fine dinner by looking for data to support my view, or I could cede the point and enjoy the evening. I ceded the point and had a great dinner. On the flight home I did my own research, and next time I’ll be better prepared. But it was a fine meal! Fighting over politics is no way to spend an evening.