Excellence is not enough

by Robert Buttrick

The opening plenary sessions of the 2013 Gartner PPM and IT Summit in London, set the tone for a mind-set shift in how Gartner looks at IT management.  To date they have focused in on IT and the CIO, and, in my view, perpetuating the gap between what they term IT and the Business. This year, to my delight, they were starting to talk about the business and IT’s part in it. It’s a brave thing to do, but the right thing to do.

Most organisations still have their IT split off as separate organisational units, with a separate strategy and loads of money, which tries to work out what the business wants and then all too often fails to meet those expectations. What is guaranteed though, is if you give an IT department money, they will spend it all, even if the business need is unclear. . . . “That’s the business’s fault!”

Mike Langley from PMI® was a key note speaker and gave his view on the all-important question of “how do we ensure our (IT) projects fit our strategy?”  Notice I put IT in brackets – the department is irrelevant as we want all our projects to align with strategy . . . don’t we?

Mike based his talk on PMI’s recent Pulse of the profession survey.

We are all familiar with “strategy” and “execution” (sorry for using the “e” word, but when at an American conference, you can’t get away from it!).  The story is that the business leaders set the strategy and then the business implements it. If it goes wrong, it’s usually the fault of the business and their dreadful requirements and poor implementation!  

What new research for Harvard Business Review is now talking about is that implementation is part of strategy and we should not separate them (look out McKinsey and Bain!) After all, if your strategy doesn’t include how to implement itself, then it’s a poor strategy.  The new buzz words for making this happen are 'portfolio management'.

This is a discipline of making sure that the programmes, projects and other activities that a business decides to do are the rights ones in terms of strategic direction, fit and balance in terms of risk and skills use. It’s all about selecting the right projects.

Mike says his research shows that organisations which are good at portfolio management are more agile, and have better project outcomes. Portfolio management is integral to how the top level leaders want to manage their business; it’s an integral part of business planning. Traditional business planning adds up costs of departmental budgets, checks against revenue and makes sure there is 'interlock' if different departments need to work together. 

Usually this is done a year or so in advance and is therefore totally pointless for organisations in fast moving environments. It is however a neat and simplistic way to blame people when things go wrong or costs too much. Hence, getting portfolio management working right is as much to do with mind-set as having the processes, systems and operating model.

Getting this right, means organisations can continuously tune their plans, not be tied to outdated annual budgets and use their people and money where the benefit is most attractive.  The money will follow the business need, not the department doing the work. Now that is what I call true organisational agility and if you have read the Project Workout1, it will be very familiar to you.


  1. The Project Workout, Buttrick R, 1997, Financial Times, London

© Robert Buttrick



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