PPM Tools: The solution, or just another part of the problem?

I recently spent a stimulating couple of days at Project Challenge*last month.
One of the presentations I managed to catch was entitled “Stop Implementing a PPM Tool, and Start Solving the Problem“, given by Stephen Brown of Polarisoft, from which I thought you might appreciate me relating the key take-aways.

This presentation highlighted the disappointment felt by many organisations after implementing a project portfolio management (PPM) tool, when they find that the reality of working with the tool doesn’t live up to their (often unrealistically optimistic) expectations. This is commonly embodied in thoughts like “We bought the wrong tool” or “We’re not mature enough for a tool”.

After implementing a PPM tool (especially if the software “out of the box” is not well aligned with the organisation’s pre-existing processes), the project organisation can find that in leaving behind its role as Keeper of the Spreadsheets it has had to become PPM Tool Mechanic. I have seen this happen – one global organisation I have worked with ran a team of six developers just to implement and maintain multiple customisations on its (well-known and market-leading) PPM Tool. It can be easy for a project organisation to get bogged down in what is essentially a second order change project (i.e. changing the way that change is effected) and lose sight of the “day job” – delivering the organisation’s portfolio of change projects.

Stephen believes that in these situations, the organisation needs to go back to basics and revisit why they wanted to implement the tool in the first place – at its most level this is usually to create a Transparent, Aligned Organisation. Aligned in the sense that the Strategy developed at the top of the organisation guides and informs the Change Projects happening further down the organisation, and transparent in the sense that clear and accurate reporting goes back up the organisation to the leaders at the top.

Stephen set out a three-step model to achieving a Transparent, Aligned Organisation:

  1. Know your goal, and don’t change it. This needs to be articulated at an appropriate level of detail for the audience: Broad principles for the Execs (too much detail and they won’t commit); More short-term detail for the delivery team (too vague and they won’t know what they’re supposed to do)
  2. Understand (and keep within) your velocity. If you try to change too quickly, the change won’t stick and you may have to repeat parts of the process. Change too slowly and the change may be redundant by the time you’re done.
  3. Focus on Progress, not Perfection. Build long-term frameworks (as these won’t need to change) rather than detailed processes. Make any processes that you do build simple and flexible enough to adapt to change. Continuous improvement is the norm so you need to allow for fine tuning to accommodate it.

A PPM tool may help with some or all of this, but it is probably best to consider it as a means to the end rather than as an end in itself.

*Project Challenge is a trade fair held in London in the Autumn, and Birmingham in the Spring. There are exhibitors (from consultancies, training companies, software vendors and PM institutions) and a full schedule of presentations on a wide range of PM (and now PMO!) topics.

About Ken Burrell

Ken Burrell
Ken Burrell is a contract Project, Programme and Portfolio Office (PMO) Professional, who helps organisations to improve the way they change through engagements of his company Pragmatic PMO: sometimes by supporting the controlled delivery of change programmes, and sometimes by ensuring CxOs get the information they need to make strategic decisions about those change programmes.

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