What is the “Messy Back End” of Innovation?


No doubt you’ve heard the term “fuzzy front end” of innovation at some point over the course of the past few years.  It’s that unstructured, undisciplined and fuzzy “ideation” period where solutions to business problems and potential new product or service opportunities are identified, mashed together and prototyped.  More specifically, it is a collection of processes and business activities where the organization formulates conceptual ideas and, through a number of different analysis methodologies, decides whether or not to invest resources in further development.

The fuzzy front end’s lesser-known, blue collar, back-office cousin is known as the “messy back end” of innovation.  This term isn’t as prevalent because it is in this stage of an idea’s life cycle where the fun of inspiration and creativity meets the rigor of execution and managed implementation.  In short, its where the best of the ideas generated during the front end are turned into revenue and margin through the messy back end of execution processes and speed to market discipline.  The work isn’t nearly as glamorous as brainstorming or off-site idea retreats or “what if…” workshops where they hand out squishy balls, Lego™ sets or have everyone write with a Crayon™.  But without it, there would be no “innovation” at all!

Let’s take a quick step back and re-orient ourselves to the accepted definition of innovation…”The development and application of a new idea, device or process that meets new requirements, unarticulated needs or existing market demand.”  First, the idea or concept must be new.  Don’t forget that “new” can really mean a never before used combination of two existing concepts!  Stopping only with this simple requirement for innovation, however, produces an invention, not innovation.  Second, the new idea or concept must address an actual market need.  An invention that no one needs or want is a novelty, again…not innovation.  Innovations solve problems that people need or want solved.  Finally, a new idea or concept that addresses an actual market need must also be developed (produced), applied (released) and prove that the need was met (market acceptance).  That is the real definition of innovation!

Another important distinction to remember is that both the fuzzy front end and the messy back end of innovation are only a part of a much larger innovation and product development life cycle.

Innovation Life Cycle

It’s in the messy back end of innovation where the entire innovation process comes to life and begins to take shape.  In essence, it delivers upon the strategic execution approach of the organization.  Starting with the leadership’s strategic vision for the company, an organizational structure is developed to effectively and efficiently produce products and services.  This structure requires management-level oversight and supporting processes that can come from any number of different methodologies or a customized, hybrid-based model:

  • Project Portfolio Methodologies (PMI, Prince2, Critical Chain, etc.)
  • Product Development Methodologies (PDMA, NPD, PDM/PLM, etc.)
  • Lean Manufacturing and Process Improvement Methodologies (SixSigma, Lean, PDCA, Kanban, etc.)
  • Traditional and Agile Software Development Life Cycle Methodologies (Agile, SCRUM, XP, CoDev, etc.)

Finally, commercialization, marketing, product/service launch, support and continuous improvement processes come into play and serve as feedback loops to start the entire innovation life cycle process all over again!

Here at Think For A Change, LLC, we have developed our own strategic execution model that incorporates many of the key processes of the innovation road map.

Innovation Portfolio Management Model


As you can see from the model, we place a significant amount of emphasis on both portfolio management and execution-focused activities.  It is at the portfolio layer where the strategic intent of the organization is joined and aligned with the concept development work being conducted at the “fuzzy front end.”  And it is at the execution layer where tactical planning, design and implementation activities bring the idea to life.  The natural interactions that occur between portfolio management activities and execution (project) management activities run iteratively until all intended features and functionality of the product and/or service are ready for delivery.

If you are interested in learning more about fuzzy front end and messy back end of innovation concepts, there are two great conference events available, produced by IIR, that provide presentations on new thinking regarding these disciplines, case studies put on by organizations working to implement these concepts, and exhibitors anxious to demonstrate their technical tools designed to support the innovation management process:

For those of you who are project and portfolio management practitioners, know that you are already regular participants in the messy back end of innovation.  You play a integral part in helping take something that was once only an idea in someone’s head, and leading it through a process that transforms it into a tangible, meaningful, needed and hopefully profitable product, concept and/or service.  You are a crucial piece of the strategic execution puzzle!

Visual Project Management – Drawing and Sketching


Drawing out concepts or thoughts is one of the simplest and most efficient means of communicating visual ideas.  Using quick hand drawn scenes or sketching out a product design can quickly bring clarity to complex issues and provide insight into confusing concepts.  Drawings are many times a “spur-of-the-moment” capture of “what if…” thoughts or ideas.  This makes them exploratory in nature, with considerable emphasis on direct observation, problem-solving and current context.

There are many different methods of drawing that are formally recognized, however sketching and doodling make up the bulk of drawings in the business environment.  Sketches are quick, unrefined drawings used to record or develop ideas for later use.  Because they are not intended to accurately depict a final working idea, it is a quick way of graphically demonstrating an image, idea, concept or principle.  Somewhat similar, doodles are rudimentary drawings at an even more abstract level.  Typically taking the form of shapes or concepts, doodling helps to organize thoughts, aid in memory recall and stimulate create problem solving.


One of the biggest hang ups people have with sketching or doodling is the thought, “I can’t draw!”  Quite frankly, artistic ability has very little to do with effective sketching.  In some cases, having a detailed artistic eye can even be a hindrance!  The whole point of a sketch is not how well a person can draw, but what kind of information they are trying to convey.  A sketch is simply a representation of the “visual” a person has in their mind.

Despite all of the idea management and organizational software, mobile applications and cloud-based product suites available in the marketplace today, drawing is still the easiest and fastest way to facilitate discussions that spark a wide variety of ideas and examine alternative options.  Sketch-based collaboration is also frequently a group effort.  It is not uncommon to see one person in the group start a drawing of an idea and then have two or three others either build off of the original drawing or add their own idea to the sheet.

One of the more recent trends promoting sketching and doodling in the workplace is the concept of napkin-based drawing made popular by Dan Roam in his book, “The Back of the Napkin.”  His basic premise in the book is simple, that any problem can be solved with a simple picture drafted on nothing more complicated than a cocktail napkin.  By drawing out the various components of a problem, the “Back of the Napkin” sketch becomes the spark that leads to productive creative problem solving.


While perhaps based more in myth than reality, take the story of how Southwest Airlines was conceived with a simple napkin drawing.  Founders Herb Kelleher and Rollin King figured out how to beat the traditional hub-and-spoke airlines using a bar napkin and a pen.  The two men drew three dots to represent Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio.  Then, using arrows to represent direct flights between the cities, the idea was born for a low-cost, ultra-efficient airline.

Similarly, a hand-written drawing exists in the Walt Disney Company Archives, purportedly drawn by Walt Disney himself on a restaurant napkin during one of his site visits to the central Florida area, of a rough layout for EPCOT and the Disney World Project in Florida.  Remarkably, the actual layout of today’s Walt Disney World property bears a striking resemblance to this original sketch-based concept.

Of all the varied visual project management methods, drawing is one of the easiest and cheapest to undertake.  Here are some ideas on how to get started using sketches and doodles in the workplace and among project teams:

  1. Paper
    1. While this may seem self-explanatory, it is actually a good idea to utilize a number of different kinds of paper: blank, lined, graph, butcher, multi-colored construction, easel pad, etc.
    2. Encourage project team members to carry and use a sketch pad or project journal to capture ideas and drawings when inspiration hits
  2. Writing Instruments
    1. Again, aim a bit higher than the plain old No. 2 pencil or the ball point pen. Try using colored pencils, markers, crayons, highlighters, fancy pens, etc.
  3. Drawing Tools
    1. Drawing guides/templates, shape stencils or drafting tools like a compass, protractor or triangle
  4. Group Drawing Tools
    1. Sticky notes, white boards, conference room wall with erasable marker paint finish, “old school” chalkboards, easels with pads, etc.
  5. Electronic
    1. Smartphones, Tablets, electronic note taking or sketch pad capture devices, etc.

Drawing is perhaps most commonly used in project scoping sessions where the project’s overall look and feel is still under development.  But, when issues arise or risks are triggered on projects, don’t overlook the value that sketches or doodles can provide in problem solving and alternative solution development.

If you’d like to learn more about using hand-written drawings, sketches and doodles in project management, or would like to learn more about the concept of Visual Project Management, please click HERE for more information!

7 Tips for Communicating with Executive Sponsors and Stakeholders

Business meeting in The New York City Office

For many project management professionals, nothing strikes a more paralyzing fear than being asked to present in front of an audience of executive-level sponsors and/or stakeholders.  For a myriad of reasons, communicating at the senior level of the organization can be viewed as a daunting task.   Sometimes the fear can be based in reality, such as a past negative experience or the existence of a leader with a well-known irascible demeanor.  Most of the time, however, it is instead based on urban myth (or corporate lore), unfounded internal fears and erroneous assumptions.

Whether presenting a project status briefing, requesting approval to proceed at a funding gate or providing an update on a particular project risk, these occasions are a regular part of a project manager’s life.  Rather than focusing on the negative and being apprehensive about presenting to organizational leaders, project management professionals should instead view these events as opportunities to make a significant, positive impression with key leadership, perhaps even boosting career and advancement opportunities.   Of course, to make that kind of impact, you’ll need to make sure you are both well prepared and have a solid understanding of your audience and their unique perspectives.

These seven (7) tips for communicating with executive sponsors and stakeholders should improve your confidence and help you look forward to, rather than lament, the opportunity to engage with the key leaders of the organization.

  1. Start with the understanding that presenting information at the senior leadership level is not the same as providing regular project status updates.
    • Think about the status reports that you draft and review at weekly project team meetings. Are they loaded with jargon specific to the technology or business process that your project is addressing?  Do they take a very tactical view of tasks, resource allocations and technical issues?  Quite frankly, executive-level folks don’t care about that level of operational project detail.  Well okay, yes they do, but not directly.  The truth is, the executive leadership team doesn’t have time to focus on the minutia of how to execute the project, build the deliverables or resolve the day-to-day challenges the team may be facing.  Instead, their interest lies in how close the project is operating to the original scope, budget and schedule, validating that the return on investment still applies and determining how soon the projected benefits will begin.
    • HOW: Ask your project leadership team, your line of business leader and/or your peers in the PMO for suggestions on how to best communicate project-related information with the current executive team.  You aren’t the first to take this journey, so learn from those who have “been there and done that.”
  2. Focus specifically on why you are there.  Don’t prepare or bring up anything you haven’t been asked to provide or present.
    • Executive calendars are insane. They would not have asked you to make an appearance just because they are trying to fill some empty time.  You are there to present specific information needed to make a decision, take some kind of action, validate progress or share with other audiences.  Find out why you are there and then focus your presentation only on that information.
    • HOW: This one should be easy.  Typically, executive leaders requesting your presence will give you a reason or purpose for being there.  If not, try to tap your project leadership network for news that may have precipitated the request.  If you are making regularly scheduled visits that make up the project approval and gating process, you’ll have the advantage of knowing exactly what you need to deliver.
  3. Find out their preferred communication style(s) before the meeting.  This isn’t about how you prefer to deliver information; it’s about how they prefer to receive information.
    • Does the CEO like (or hate) bulleted-slide decks? Does the CFO require that any proposal or change come with a return on investment calculation?  Does the CIO like to see the detail behind the topic, or will a graphic work better?  Does the Executive Team have any favorite (or hated) buzz words?  Remember, the more you speak in their language, and equally important, the less you speak in your language, the easier it will be for your audience to understand and retain the information you are presenting.
    • HOW: Again, tap into your project leadership network or PMO peers.  Most of the time someone on your project leadership team is a direct report, or not too far down the food chain, to someone from the C-suite.  They should be able to provide some guidance.  Failing good advice from those channels, make friendly contact with the administrative assistants for the C-level team and inquire about likes and dislikes.  Over the years, I’ve found admins to be an invaluable source of information and establishing a good relationship with them is critical to your success!
  4. Executives have short attention spans and hate drama, so don’t have a presentation that slowly builds up to a big reveal or conclusion.  Get straight to the point!
    • Nothing will annoy an executive audience more than a presentation that either starts with a lengthy overview, covers material already provided in other forms or doesn’t get straight to the point.  Executive leaders got to where they are because of their ability to make quick, confident decisions based on available information and data.  Skip the background and get right to the findings, performance metrics and/or recommendations.  Believe me, if they have any questions, or express interest regarding where the supporting data came from or need any foundational information, they will ask!
    • HOW: Once you know the purpose behind why you are there (see #2 above), design your presentation to give your audience exactly what they want and need.  Assume they know the basics about the project and why it exists.  Don’t feel the need to share every single project performance metric just because the data exists.  Focus on what was requested and get right to it.  Doing this will ensure that there will be enough time in the agenda time box carved out for your project to allow the executives to ask questions and gather any additional detail needed by the team.
  5. Be prepared!  Be prepared to be taken off course or to suddenly be dropped from the agenda.  Be prepared for seemingly random questions and for scrutiny of figures and data.
    • First and foremost, know your material and practice your pitch.  Make sure your presentation addresses their need, in their language and is communicated crisply and clearly.  Practice your delivery with yourself first until you have it nailed cold.  Then, give your presentation to your project leadership team and ask them to provide you with feedback.  Secondly, be prepared for anything!  Bring printed copies in case the technology fails.  Thought you had 15 minutes to make your case?  What happens if that is cut down to 5 minutes?  Are you prepared to defend your data sources?  Have you triple-checked your calculations?  If you have intimate knowledge of your project, you will be prepared for even the most random of questions.  Finally, if you’re asked something that you don’t know, DO NOT attempt to bullshit them!  They will see right through it, call you on it and make your visit rather unpleasant.  Sadly, you will also have limited your career prospects.  Instead, tell them you’ll take note of that request and get back to them before the end of the day.
    • HOW: Practice makes perfect, so follow the advice above on giving your presentation to a number of test audiences.  Also, sit down and make a list of any questions you can think of that the executives might ask and develop responses to each.  Review your data sources, check your formulas and even bring project metric detail with you in case you need to refer to it during the meeting to properly address a question.
  6. Unless you are asked to prepare something from a template, limit the amount of material you provide to the executive team.  Focus more on visual summaries and less on verbal or numerical detail.
    • No one likes to suffer through a “death by PowerPoint” experience.  Reading bullet points as you lead the group through your presentation doesn’t work.  Showing them a Gantt chart is just asking for trouble.  Instead, communicate using a dashboard, infographic, road map of deliverables or any number of other data visualization tools that condense the information in a way that facilitates immediate understanding and provides clarity surrounding complex project data.  Also, try to avoid providing all of the material at once, or even in advance of the presentation, if possible.  This will prevent the audience from reading ahead, which will limit their attention and focus on the points you are trying to make via your presentation.  Executives are used to being provided with dashboards and executive summaries of material.
    • HOW: Learn about and leverage data visualization tools for communicating project status or for representing complex project details.
  7. Respect their time.  Don’t be the reason that someone else on the agenda had to limit their remarks to fit in a smaller time slot.
    • The average day of an executive is planned and managed right down to the minute.  In many instances, the executive has little to no control over their calendar.  They are also unable to prepare much in advance for the meetings that appear on their calendar, so the quicker you can get them up to speed and oriented to your project the better.  If you are given a 15 minute time slot in a meeting, make very, very sure that your presentation not only fits in that slot, but also allows for some brief Q&A.  If the leadership team gives you more time, great…but taking more time than allowed is a big no-no!  If the meeting is all about your project, try as much as possible to end the meeting early.  Nothing will make you more of a hero to the executive team than to give them precious time back in their day!
    • HOW: Practice, practice, practice!  Similar to the advice provided above in being prepared, make sure you are able to deliver what needs to be delivered within the time allowed.
  8. BONUS TIP!  Executive leaders are just regular people.  They aren’t monsters and they don’t have super powers.  They aren’t looking to purposefully give you a hard time.  In fact, they want you to do well.  At the end of the day, they are just regular people, tasked with doing a job, just like you.  Don’t be intimidated.  Be confident in your skills. Deliver the facts, open and honestly.  Do what you do so well that they find respect in you and trust what you have to say.

Finally, understand that executive and senior-level leaders are tasked with the responsibility of creating the strategic direction and delivering profitable operational performance for the entire organization.  Based on that strategic plan, they have invested valuable organizational resources in the project you have been assigned to manage in order to receive whatever benefit it was the project promised to deliver.  Remember that their focus is not in the tactics, but in the strategy, and in the delivery of a product, service or feature that addresses that strategy or market/customer need.  Take these opportunities very seriously.  You have a rare chance to showcase your talent, capability and professionalism.  If you prepare appropriately and deliver an effective and efficient presentation, it will absolutely help your career advancement!


Celebrating 15 Successful Years in Business!



Think For A Change, LLC. was founded on May 1st, 2000 with the original vision of becoming the world-wide leader in project and innovation management training and consultation services.  While we’ve tweaked our services, products and delivery methodologies as the market has evolved over the past fifteen years, our primary focus on delivering high quality, high return-on-investment client engagements has never wavered.

We’ve come a long way since our initial product offering of simple, online training modules dealing with innovation management concepts, creative problem solving techniques, project management basics and idea execution strategies.  Since then, Think For A Change, LLC has grown and evolved into an organization with a strategic focus on short and long-term PMO leadership consulting engagements, executive coaching, project war room design services and, most recently, being in the unique position of highly sought-after, world-wide leader in visual project management communication design concepts.

We cannot properly express our overwhelming gratitude to the 47 (and counting!) clients who have placed their trust and investment in the products and services of our organization over the past fifteen years.  During that time, our clients have represented a broad diversity of engagement types and organizational sizes.  Starting in 2000 with our first paying gig, a presentation provided to a tiny regional non-profit, to our most recent work in providing visual project status dashboard guidance to an international leader in paper converting products.  From the smallest of “mom and pop” shops, to the immensity of a Fortune 100 corporation.  From delivering online training modules for project managers, to coaching senior executives on alternative project portfolio governance approaches.  It has been an honor and privilege to have worked with all of you and we thank you for your business and trust!

We look forward to the next fifteen years with great anticipation and high expectations!  Whether through continuing engagements with our current and past clients, or by establishing exciting new client relationships, our vision and mission remain the same as when we originally hung out our shingle in May of 2000:

Vision: “Imagine The Future…Make It Happen™”


Mission: We exist to serve organizations that seek to excel in strategic execution through effective and efficient innovation and project management discipline


thank you


Visual Project Management – Road Maps


The exercise of “road mapping” is the development of a timeline-based plan that aligns strategic goals, across many time horizons, with specific action plans, projects and/or technologies that will deliver upon the defined goals.  As a graphical representation of the framework for the delivery of multiple interdependent platforms such as technology, product development, marketing, sales, etc., the road map serves as a guidepost to ensure that the entire organization remains aligned, over time, to both the larger, over-arching strategic goals and the smaller (relatively), tactical completion of the individual road map components.

Pioneered by Motorola in the 1970s, road maps were developed to encourage strategic alignment, dialogue and product planning across all functions within the organization, most notably work that had traditionally been independently planned and managed by the separate business units.  Road mapping brings together functional experts from each business process and, using a set of graphical tools and templates, visualize and develop strategies, goals, interactions and deliverables for the road map.

The concepts and approach behind building a good road map are flexible enough to be customized across a number of different business unit uses:

  • Strategy Development
  • Product Development
  • Technology Planning
  • New Business Development
  • Services & Capabilities Planning
  • Process Planning
  • Integration Planning
  • Project Portfolio Management

Strategic Roadmap Sample

In order to develop a road map, the team must first break down higher-order systems into subsystems, and then ultimately into individual components.  It is at this component level that the road map is generated, so that individual components can be interchanged, re-sequenced or added/removed as the right balance is sought for the overall road map.  Conducting these alternative scenario exercises allow for additional analysis with respect to the potential impact that each alternative, or combination of alternatives, will have on the overall timing and/or effect of achieving the organization’s strategic goals and objectives.

This decomposition of higher-order systems into sub-components is very similar to the project management activity of generating a work breakdown structure.  In the case of the road map, however, the itemization of components is not centered on the work needed to produce an individual deliverable, but rather across business, product or technological lines.  The visual nature of the road map clearly delineates when contributing components must be ready to support future events, or coalesce in a specific sequence to meet the overall strategic goals at the end of the proposed timeline.

CSP Roadmap Sample

Road mapping workshops, and the road map documents they produce, have four main objectives:

  1. Reach agreement on goals and objectives (current and future) of the organization
  2. Break down the processes, technologies and other resources needed to achieve the goals and objectives identified
  3. Seek to predict future developments and environmental changes that may affect the existing set of processes, technologies and resources
  4. Build a tactical plan to integrate existing approaches with likely future scenarios, including strategic visions for process, technology and other resources

Road Map Example


While the usage of road maps and road mapping techniques in the management of individual projects is not particularly common, they are occasionally used to show summary milestones or key deliverables, along with organizational resource dependencies, over time.  Where road maps are quite useful in project management practice, however, is at the portfolio and/or program management tier.

Because project portfolios and programs need to take into account additional complexities such as market forces, technology stacks, business/manufacturing processes or product life cycles in order to make key prioritization and funding decisions, the usage of road maps help to bring order to the multiple pieces that make up the overall organizational strategic and execution puzzle.  When done correctly, road maps are uniquely powerful, visual-based collaboration and decision support tools that align technology choices to business objectives, govern project selection, and guide project portfolio prioritization discussions.

What To Expect From Your Executive Project Management Coaching Engagement


Members of the executive team are no strangers to the notion of professional development coaching.  There are life coaches, presentation coaches, executive presence coaches, financial coaches, marketing coaches, time management coaches, etc.  Seems there’s a coach for every possible occasion or skill set.  And it makes sense, no one can know everything about every topic.  Executive awareness that his/her professional development needs a boost in one particular skill set or knowledge area is a key contributor in determining how successful they will be as an executive team member.

I bring this up because one the most common questions and inquiries I get from executive leaders has to do with the service offering we provide with respect to executive project management coaching.  As more and more executives recognize that project and portfolio management approaches are critical tools for managing their strategic execution plans, there is a natural desire for some of them to want to learn more of the detail behind the dashboards, processes and governance commitments.

There really aren’t a lot of professional development or coaching opportunities for executives and senior business leaders that focus specifically on project and portfolio management concepts. Traditionally, if they had a question about a particular methodology or wanted to learn more about the process, they asked their own PMO leaders or senior practitioners.  And that’s a great place to start, quite honestly!  Having a foundational understanding of the processes and tools being deployed within their own organization provides the senior business leader a baseline snapshot with which to compare against alternative practices among industry peers and best practice leaders.

Most of my client base is split between three main personal development concerns/topics/goals:

  1. Can you help me increase my knowledge and vocabulary on project and portfolio management topics?
  2. How can I be more effective and informed as a project and portfolio governance team member?
  3. What are the basics I should know about innovation management, and how does that tie into project management?

You see some common themes in that list.  Increased knowledge of general project and portfolio management discipline.  Improved awareness and understanding of what their project management teams are doing.  Education regarding the expectations of them as portfolio, oversight and decision-making leaders.  Tactics and strategies around why innovation, project and portfolio management are all connected and how they are leveraged to deliver new products and/or services faster and more efficiently.

Working with us, these executives and senior business leaders are exposed to new ideas, alternative methodologies and the latest in “next practices” in the project and innovation management arena.  They increase their own education on strategic execution and can compare what they know or experience within their own organization to their peers.  It is, in the purist sense, a professional growth opportunity.

Whenever I receive an inquiry from a prospective executive coaching client, I send them this “What to Expect…” guide.  It answers the most common questions and concerns raised during our initial discussions and provides an overview of the engagement approach, curriculum and expectations for each party.  My clients have found it to be a valuable tool in validating, and preparing for, engaging with us.  If you’d like to review the material, simply click on the graphic below. (PDF Download)


What To Expect From Your Executive PM Coaching Engagement


If you have any questions, or would like to discuss a potential engagement, please email us at: info@thinkforachange.com or call us at: 920-445-8858

Deciding When and How to Kill a Project


One of the most difficult decisions that executives face when assessing the performance of their project portfolio is when to terminate a poorly performing or irrelevant project.  The act of putting a stop to projects that no longer meet strategic organizational objectives, or cannot deliver expected key performance metrics, is a politically risky undertaking.  Killing projects means admitting failure right?  Oh, and don’t forget there are sunk costs to take into account.  What about all of the promises that were made to so many different stakeholders and potential customers?  And then there’s the stigma of not having the courage to persist through adversity to consider.

While those are all perfectly reasonable excuses, that’s exactly what they are…excuses.  And poor one’s at that!  Organizations that do not actively search for, and cull out, projects that no longer hit the mark, nor have the capacity to be saved in an affordable manner, will suffer from that failure to act for many quarters and, potentially, years to come.

That suffering is realized in many forms:

  • A shortage of available resources (human, financial and time) for additional and alternative projects
  • Failure to realize anticipated benefits from projects still in the queue
  • Lack of leadership focus on the future due to an increased need to remain engaged with the failed effort
  • An increase in support resources needed to deal with the poor results that were implemented into business operations

As one former eloquent executive was once overheard saying, “We don’t kill projects around here, we just wound them.  They continue a slow, painful death march forward, consuming resources, attention and organizational energy until they produce a feeble deliverable that someone can call a ‘win,’ meet a natural death or are mercifully put down.”  These “zombie” projects, as they are known, reside in almost every organization’s portfolio.  Some are highly visible, but are ignored or tolerated like the proverbial “elephant in the room.”  Others have found a way to stay just below the radar or camouflage themselves enough to stay alive.

So how do executive teams and project portfolio management professionals ferret out these wounded, zombie projects and clean up their portfolio to include only those initiatives that support the organization’s strategic road map?  Through the use of effective portfolio governance models and approaches!

Portfolio governance is the accountability methodology for ensuring that projects contained within the portfolio maintain performance metrics that demonstrate they are healthy, align with the strategic direction of the organization and have an appropriate amount of oversight to ensure anticipated benefit delivery is achievable.  So what are these performance metrics and how are they managed and enforced?

Sample Project Portfolio Health Metrics:

  • Traditional Project Performance Metrics
    • Schedule, Budget and Scope/Change Control
  • Alignment to Existing Strategic Vision and Goals
  • Alignment to Intended Markets and Competitive Landscapes
  • Project Portfolio Investment vs. Risk vs. Benefit Analysis Scoring
  • Return on Investment, Benefit Delivery and/ Future Performance Measurements

Flushing out the zombies and ensuring that the other projects in the portfolio meet the guidelines and health metrics most important to the organization requires regular, periodic analysis.  In the world of portfolio management, that means something along the lines of an effective and efficient phase-gated or financially controlled review and approval process needs to exist.  Phase-gating (commonly known as StageGate®) is the process of establishing regular checkpoints where projects must present themselves for analysis to determine health, alignment, performance and other factors before being allowed to proceed to the next phase.  Traditionally, these occur after the project is initiated, defined, designed, tested and staged for implementation.  Financially controlled reviews are similar in nature, but provide the project with only enough funding, authority and other resources to reach the next gate.


These portfolio analysis processes, as you may have already gleaned, require discipline and maturity in project management methodology and business acumen.  Methods for capturing, tracking and displaying key project performance metrics must be in place.  Solid financial management fundamentals must be established to provide a real-time snapshot of expenses vs. intended benefits that can be accurately calculated.  Effective risk and change management protocols must be adhered to so that potential issues and impacts can be assessed, scored and ranked.

As the project progresses through the various phases, gates and approvals, confidence is built around the likelihood of success.  Not to say that projects won’t run into trouble along the way.  In fact, they most likely will!  But this oversight mechanism provides the opportunity to control the pace of the effort and take the time necessary to properly analyze whether or not the trouble is temporary or permanent.

Finally, portfolio analysis processes that support a phase-gated model also require courage and responsible leadership that will stand firm in holding each project to the set of criteria that has been pre-determined and equally applied to all projects.  This model quickly breaks down if different classes of projects (executive pet projects, for example) are given a “wink and a nod” past the gating process.

In the end, the goal of any great project portfolio control system is to establish appropriate analysis and scoring criteria so that the emotional factors of decision-making are removed.  Either a project meets, or does not meet, the pre-selected and well-communicated criteria.  All that remains is nothing more than a simple pass/fail equation.  When executives are able to make necessary decisions in an environment that provides accurate real-time information based on key performance indicators of all active and proposed projects in the portfolio, the correct business investment decisions can be made with high confidence and low emotion.


Announcing Executive Project Management Tapas™

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It’s Time for Project Leadership To Have A Seat At The Executive Table

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It’s time.  Honestly, it’s long past time.  It’s time for project and strategic management to be directly represented at the executive round table, in board meetings, and in the ‘C’-suite.  It’s time for singular ownership and accountability for organizational strategic planning and execution.  It’s time for dedicated focus on organizational resource planning, allocation and utilization.  It’s time for focused attention regarding return on investment, earned value on execution, appropriate risk management and post-execution benefit capture.  And finally, it’s time for single-sourced, unambiguous communication regarding strategic balance, allocation of resources and prioritization of the directives that constitute the portfolio of investments that the organization makes on its own behalf.

We’ve all seen (or heard stories of) high-profile projects where the lack of sufficient oversight by executive sponsors or key executive stakeholders resulted in catastrophic failure.  Then there are those organizations that trade in the public market and are subjected to regulatory demands and accounting practice audits.  Some find themselves failing tests for financial, security or other general controls resulting from absent or immature project investment oversight.  If they were lucky, the impact of the failure stays inside the walls of the organization, lessons are learned and steps are put in place to not make the same mistake twice.  If they weren’t so lucky, well…financial journalists and stock analysts are rarely forgiving.  Is this lack of oversight and attention perhaps caused by project management and strategic execution functions being embedded in department structures that aren’t the primary focus of that particular executive sponsor or leader?

Since its common acceptance and adoption within business operations back in the 1940s, project management, and “ownership” of the discipline, has typically been relegated as a sub-set of duties assigned to a particular line of business, most traditionally aligned to executives with an administrative, operational or information technology focus.  During the sequentially historic eras of industrial, corporate, information and operations business cycles, this was probably an appropriate approach. However, as we transition into a new era, one based on knowledge and understanding, organizations face a gap in emphasis regarding both recognizing, and making, the shift in strategy and tactics.

Members of traditional executive leadership teams are often collectively accountable for the myriad of important capabilities that keep the company in business:  creating customer value, building and maintaining a profitable line of business, formulating a well-defined vision and strategic direction, focusing execution activities on the delivery of organizational objectives that match the strategic direction, and having an ability to identify and quickly respond to changing market conditions.  Additionally, each member of an executive team also brings a unique individual core expertise such as: financial (CFO), operations (COO), information systems (CIO/CTO), marketing (CMO), administration (CAO), and et cetera ad infinitum.

In the not too distant past, project management focused simply on responding to initiatives that had already been conceived, scoped and strategically vetted through a single line of business.  For the most part, it was up to the C-level executive responsible for that line of business to validate that the project aligned with organizational strategy, ensured executive team agreement with the investment and anticipated benefits, and kept the resource impact outside of their own line of business to a minimum.  As the organization matured and its projects became more cross-functional across business lines, it became very difficult for a single business line to effectively and efficiently manage the multiple streams of work.  This reality ushered in the need for PMOs to centralize the portfolio of initiatives, ensure strategic alignment, manage resource supply and demand, and report key performance metrics back to the C-suite to confirm that key strategic initiatives were being successfully executed.

However, even this model is now being quickly outgrown.  Strategic execution is the new organizational dictum.  But delivering strategic results requires strategic positioning.  Strategic positioning requires strategic focus.  Strategic focus requires alignment of strategic priorities with initiatives that are organized, governed, funded and planned to execute the defined strategy.  And a dedication to strategic prioritization, oversight and execution cannot, and should not, be shared with a dedication to focus on financials, or operations, or marketing, or administration…you get the point.

So what does the future hold?  Organizations that want to successfully make the transition into the new knowledge era (or use it as an opportunity to make a market/segment leap) need to have a dedicated senior management or executive team member that has primary responsibility for the development and execution of its strategic direction.  This role may be as senior as a Chief Project Officer or Chief Strategy Officer, or may have a slightly smaller seat at the table such as an EVP or SVP of Strategic Execution or Strategic Portfolio Management.  But the point is, they have a seat at the table and a voice in the conversations…and that’s the key takeaway.

This role would have direct oversight and leadership accountability for the following areas:

  1. Strategic Planning & Execution Management
  2. Strategic Portfolio Investment Management
  3. Project Portfolio Strategic Road Map
  4. Enterprise Project Management Office

Benefits of this structure include improved communication and increased visibility on delivering corporate results, ensuring benefit realization on strategic investments, improving the effectiveness and efficiency of processes through standardization, and the establishment of a methodology that ensures project initiatives meet stringent financial, time to market, risk management and scope/change control guidelines.

Another benefit of this approach is cultural.  By creating an executive role charged with strategic and project execution, an organization sends a very strong message about its pledge to strategic execution excellence.  A dedicated executive-level function also instantly eliminates any misconception that strategic execution and project portfolio management are simply an IT or operational issue, and instead demonstrates commitment on the collective organizational level.

Sourcing this role will require finding candidates that bring a unique combination of skills that span several disciplines.  They must be capable of complex financial management and analysis.  They must demonstrate strategic thinking and organizational skills.  They must have a track record of successful execution and benefit capture.  They also must be able to identify and manage risk, build a team structure that excels at strategic, project and portfolio management, and have deep understanding of effective portfolio management approaches.  Finally, the ideal candidate will have the innate skill and, most importantly, courage to know when the time has come to stop a poorly performing, out of scope or de-prioritized project early enough to cut their losses and minimize sunk costs.

As the business world transitions into the new knowledge-based era, the executive management boardroom table should include one additional seat.  One occupied by a single, specially qualified individual, whose sole focus is accountability for the strategic management and execution-focused portfolio of initiatives for the entire organization.  It is this person’s primary obligation to ensure that the strategic investments made by the organization are delivering a positive and profitable return on those investments.  We expect that in every other functional area of an organization, so why wouldn’t we demand the same from strategic execution?


The Case for Visual Project Management

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As the speed of business continues to increase, and as focus on an ever growing number of project data points is needed to keep business and project execution in control, new and innovative tools and techniques are required to help busy executives make efficient and effective decisions on where to place investments in money and resources.  Because many of these decisions are made in the moment, using whatever facts are available, executives need timely, data-rich and easy to comprehend information.  Lengthy, text-heavy project document artifacts consume too much time and effort to both generate and review.  New research only confirms that information presented in this manner is both ineffective and inefficient.  The fact is, in order for information to be conveyed most efficiently, it needs to be visual.

Let’s face it, a project manager’s world is already full of data visualizations, designed to transform complex and voluminous data into simple, effective communication tools. Traditional project visualizations such as Gantt charts, work breakdown structures, process diagrams, project team calendars, project stakeholder organization charts, and the like are beneficial in their own way, but they simply aren’t enough anymore.

One of many new customized approaches gaining traction in project management circles today is a concept that presents project-related information in a visual, often graphical, form to improve clarity, visibility and understanding of the scope and operation of the effort.  This “Visual Project Management” approach serves as an additional tool for project management professionals to provide:

  • At-a-glance views of project status
  • Real-time project status tracking
  • Real-time issue management and resolution status
  • Data rich environments for better decision making

Traditionally, project information distribution has been based on “push” methods of communication.  In push-based communication, the sender, typically the project manager, decides the “who, how, what and when” regarding project information flow.  This information is typically delivered in the form of e-mails, status reports, project status meetings, conference calls and in some cases, instant or text-based messaging.  The recipient doesn’t really get a choice regarding whether they receive the communication or not.  Nor do they have a say in what format it is delivered.

Alternatively, more and more information is being made available electronically, meant to be digested when the recipient has the time to review it.  In this “pull-based” form of communication, information is simply posted to a common location, akin to a bulletin board or document library.  The recipient chooses what information they want to receive and when they want to access it.  Most importantly, it allows for an opportunity for the project manager and the project stakeholders to have a conversation about what information and specific data points are most important to them.  Then, leveraging any number of visual thinking tools, the project manager can design the format that most clearly and efficiently serves the stakeholders needs.

The key benefit of this new approach is speed.  Critical project information can be produced, replicated and digested in more effective and efficient ways.  Another advantage visual project management provides is that the information is delivered in such a way that anyone can consume it at a time, place and manner that is convenient to them.

When it comes to improving project communication and collaboration, engaging project stakeholders, as well as visualizing processes, work flows and key performance metrics, Visual Project Management has emerged as one of the hottest new methods for leading and managing projects and this specialized niche within the project management community is having a tremendous impact around the world.

If you’d like to learn more about Visual Project Management, please click <HERE>.