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Project portfolio management best practices in the SOA landscape

Following project portfolio management best practices can help organizations balance new projects with established systems.

One of the challenges in building a large-scale SOA infrastructure lies in finding the right balance between ongoing maintenance and new projects. While project management techniques can help get new initiatives off the ground, they often falter because the organization fails to take into account the burden of the existing IT infrastructure.

hand-drawn folders in front of clouds

Project portfolio management (PPM) promises to balance the needs of existing infrastructure with new projects. This can help organizations to get away from the cycle of overpromising and under-delivering.

Gartner Research Director Jim Duggan said he has seen the business side of several organizations say they are bad at projects, despite tasks being complete on time and on budget. They measure success in terms of when something useful is created for a client.

"In organizations talking about [an] Agile project, the definition of done is not [when] the code is complete, but [rather when] the client is using it in the way anticipated and getting value," Duggan said. "Part of this are things like post deployment reviewer --  looking at whether the business case made sense and whether I [fulfilled] my objectives."

Portfolios versus projects

A project approach focuses on a set of goals and the resources and constraints involved in achieving them. Duggan said it is much easier to do projects by minimizing the dependencies on other projects, but that leads to a sort of sub-optimization. Portfolio management in contrast looks at how things can be interdependent, which can lead to economies of scale and scope.

A portfolio is a group of programs with many projects. A typical organization will have hundreds, if not thousands, of projects and initiatives in their portfolio. Portfolio management takes a more global view of managing dependencies across multiple initiatives. "A project manager never lets resources go because [he] will not get them back. A portfolio manager will let resources go, because [he] will not be successful until the dependencies are fixed," Duggan noted.

A typical portfolio might be separated into different groups. The application portfolio includes existing applications and the resources required to maintain and refresh them. A project portfolio might include technologies and initiatives to roll out new business capabilities.

David Blumhorst, vice president of solutions and services at Seattle-based portfolio tool vendor Daptiv, said: "We used to try and execute projects one off. IT has been notorious for a 20% to 30% success rate for large projects. Put in a project methodology like systems development lifecycle, and it improves a few points."

But projects don't exist in a vacuum. Typically in an IT department, there is more demand for projects than resource capacity. Many organizations can handle funding, but not the resources. Project executions that occur one at a time through project methodologies still fail because they are missing the context of the entire organization. Adding a portfolio management layer on top ensures the organization is doing the right project for the right reasons and has the necessary capacity to succeed.

PPM maturity

Portfolio management maturity is about what projects we should do in the first place.

Mark Jeffery,
Agile Insights

Mark Jeffery, senior lecturer of executive education at the Kellogg School of Management, and managing partner of Agile Insights, an IT portfolio process management consultancy, identified four levels of organizational maturity around applications portfolio management:

  • Ad-hoc
  • Defined
  • Managed
  • Synchronized

"There are really three levels in portfolio management, and then level 0," Jeffery said. "Software maturity is about delivery of the project. The portfolio management maturity is about what projects we should do in the first place."

Only about 2.5% of large companies take an ad hoc approach. The other 97.5% are doing something, but that "something" is relative, explained Jeffery. About 20% of organizations have defined their portfolio and have a sense for the types of processes in place. Another 55% of organizations have figured what is in their portfolio and have a process for assessing how to invest IT dollars, which is typically done on an annual basis.

Jeffery found that only the top performers have what he called a synchronized process, and these organizations excelled in the returns on their investment in IT. To get to this phase, Jeffery recommended measuring risk, dynamically allocating funding, and scheduling frequent reviews with business leaders.

Good metrics

It is important to design projects that can be measured in the first place. Jeffery said it is helpful to segment the portfolio in a way that makes sense to the organization. The different segments are going to require new kinds of metrics. "If we focus on the app portfolio, there are frameworks like COBIT. There are now widely acknowledged standards for managing IT in the applications and portfolio. Things like percent uptime, costs and maintenance requests on the systems," he said.

One technique that works well is to take leadership and technical teams and have them think for 15-20 minutes about how they might measure the systems, programs or projects. Invariably the teams will come up with a coherent scorecard. Jeffery recommended taking another four hours to go through the whole system to come up with comprehensive metrics that align with business objectives.

Don't overdo it with hundreds of metrics, which could overwhelm and create more problems than those solved. "About a dozen metrics is the most you want when looking at key metrics. Beyond that you lose focus," Blumhorst said.

These metrics help create a return loop back to business executives, which provides the ability to have more productive conversations about what is being worked on. This makes it easier to adjust projects, schedules and resources if the need arises.

More on project portfolio management best practices

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CIOs guide to project prioritization

One of the project portfolio management best practices is to get control and definition of work categorization, said Tim Madewell, senior VP of professional services at San Francisco-based PPM tool vendor Innotas. This involves organizing information about projects and ongoing SOA infrastructure into categories -- including large, capital-intensive projects -- and budgeting support and maintenance to keep the lights on.

A well-defined portfolio management process can also include other risks, like compliance, regulatory issues, and anything that will require IT. Problems can be created if things like regulatory compliance are treated separately than other constraints, because those demands will put constraints and take capacity from other projects. These are all things that need to be tracked, so they can get scored and prioritized accordingly.

Getting employee buy-in

A key step in understanding the needs of your SOA infrastructure lies in capturing information about the time required to support the various pieces. The challenge lies in getting employees behind the idea of more comprehensive time logging of activities. Organizations need to focus on how this will make workers lives easier in the long run in order to overcome the perception of being micromanaged.

Duggan said project portfolio management best practices also entail starting with groups that want to get systematic about resource management. "I think you also have to look at team members and managers and the business clients and focus on meeting their needs on schedule and on time. At the same time, it is important to get initial buy-in from developers that don't want the overhead of entering time. They want a plain list of tasks."

Gartner did a study at Turner Broadcasting when the organization first adopted Agile program management. In the beginning, the developers felt like they had more work to do in filling out all of the time logs. But in the end, the amount of overtime decreased extensively. "They were no longer forced on death marches and they ended up liking [the] experience more in the long run," Duggan said.

About the author:
George Lawton is a journalist based near San Francisco. Over the last 15 years, he's written more than 2,000 articles on computers, communications, business and other topics. Find out more at

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