Delivering on the Promise of Enterprise Portfolio Management

January 26, 2022 | By Donna Fitzgerald

“The intent with EPM (enterprise portfolio management) is to link strategic planning and the realization of key strategic plans, objectives, and goals while not getting distracted or bogged down in lesser initiatives. Central to successful EPM is the ability to move from output-oriented approaches to targeting specific outcomes that benefit and vitalize businesses strategically to drive innovation and competitive performance.”

Melinda Ballou – IDC

Melinda hit the nail on the head with this comment; for EPM to work, it needs to stay focused on the big picture. An effective strategy needs to be composed of a series of outcomes that link together to deliver a fundamentally new business reality.

If you manage or work in a PMO, ask yourself this question: do you understand what each investment in the portfolio is supposed to deliver and what will be required to ensure success? In my experience, the answer is often no. Usually, the reason is simple. No one has asked you to. On a more subtle level, it’s entirely possible that no one has asked you because no one wants it done.

Now ask yourself a second question: do you want a “seat at the table,” as Laura Barnard (of PMO Strategies) likes to ask? 90% of the people I know would answer yes. About 20% of the people I’ve worked with in my career would add and I’m willing to do the work to get there.

The nature of power

Getting a seat at the table ALWAYS requires doing work. That includes finding answers to questions people have never asked you and may not even want you to understand. After all, “knowledge is power.”

But how exactly do power dynamics affect the world of enterprise portfolio management.

Strategy execution is a game of influence, negotiation, stealth, and a commitment to get the right work done at the right time. And there is nothing straightforward about it. People want others to follow their process, but their rules were designed for a power game that doesn’t work for anyone.

I believe there is an impedance mismatch in the system, and it is inhibiting strategy execution. Let me give you two examples to illustrate what I mean.

Example One: A study in influence management

I once worked with a startup medical technology company that had an EPMO and, of course, a CIO. The CIO shared with me one day that normally, he would have opposed an EPMO because “the head of the EPMO, by his very presence, would screw up the power dynamics of the C-suite.”

He then went on to say that surprisingly, he was ok with “Frank” because Frank offered insights about things no one else was seeing. He also appreciated that Frank could bring a neutral, cross-divisional perspective to the discussion they and the rest of the C suite had about strategic and operational issues.

I know Frank would have been offended if he had realized that the rest of the C-suite considered him an adjunct function. But in reality, he should have been proud. Strategy is important, sure… but it’s never as important as keeping the company operating.

The mental model for anyone running a future-oriented organization must be a willingness to get work done. And, yes, that means carving out spaces and times between everyone else’s day-to-day activities. To accomplish that feat you need to know the 20% of the people in every company who are good at getting things done quietly.

It should be obvious to anyone in a PPM position that companies run with two classes of people. Those who do the work they are told to do, and those who quietly do the work required to get results regardless of organizational resistence. Frank’s secret to success was he was deeply connected to the latter group.

Example Two: A study in process enforcement

I’d been working with the CIO of an entertainment company for over a year when he called me and said that the CEO wanted to set up an EPMO. I could tell the CIO had reservations about this turn of events, but I naively assured him that it would make his life easier. I then offered to visit them on-site and make sure that he and the new head of the EPMO were both on the same page. The CIO still had doubts when I left, but I thought things would work out well since “Paul” had certainly said all the right things to me.

All I can say is that I screwed up. After swearing he wouldn’t introduce any processes that didn’t lead directly to better results, the CIO shared that Paul immediately implemented a process-heavy command and control gatekeeping organization. Six months into his reign of terror, the CIO convinced the CEO that nothing was getting done, and Paul was fired.

If you think that Paul might have done the right thing — after all, isn’t the common mantra that “organizations need to understand that the PPM process exists for a reason” — let me gently tell you that you’ve gotten unconsciously sucked into a power struggle you will never win. No one needs to understand your process. Even when I was in finance and had GAAP[i] to threaten people with if I needed it I rigorously kept everything we needed to do for compliance behind closed doors.

At some level, we all believe that we can control reality if we can make other people live by our rules. The only problem is that people are hard-wired to wiggle over, under, and around any rule that doesn’t contribute directly to their survival or happiness.

Paul’s problem was that his approach didn’t make anyone’s life better. If he had asked for lightweight business cases that helped people to realize that the project they wanted to do, was solving the wrong problem (a real example from another client), he would have been a superstar. If he had openly admitted that Project Q was failing because of toxic team dynamics and needed to be paused and reconfigured, they would have loved him.

He did none of these things. He just built a bureaucracy.

Real change requires hard work

If we ever want enterprise portfolio management to work, we must first focus on the kind of organization that must be in place to ensure the right things happens. Personally, I believe the solution is to build what I call a Strategy Realization Office. Words have power, and an SRO contains an implicit commitment to deliver, whereas an EPMO does not.

If you want a seat at the enterprise level, ask yourself how hard YOU want to work to deliver change. Then, ask yourself how much politics you’re willing to play to convince others your goal is not at odds with theirs. If your answer isn’t “very hard” and “a lot,” I’d suggest finding another job you’d enjoy more.

[i] Generally Accepted Accounting Principles

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