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The idea is that this team of 6 lower, mid and upper managers would would prioritize all of our IT development and infrastructure projects instead of trying to have us work on everything at the same time. Along with this, we would be breaking Development/QA/Integration into two cross-functional, semi-stable Kanban teams. We would have other teams depending on project need and resource availability. I will be running and facilitating the meeting, I will not have any say as to priority.

Here is the issue, the senior member of the team, the CFO, has high influence but low engagement. My two bosses, the directors of infrastructure and development, are the most junior members. In fact one of them reports directly to the two mid managers on the team. The two mid managers are the most senior of the engaged members and I happen to know that they are opposed to setting priorities (ie, they are all high priority, do them all, do them now). The CFO wants priorities set, my two bosses want priorities set, the loud people in the middle don't. I think they don't want that accountability because many are customer facing projects. The observant reader will notice that I have only mention 5 of the 6 participants, this is because that person is hardly ever seen in the office.

My fear is we will meet, the CFO won't show (75% chance of no show) and after an hour of talking, there still will not be any priority to the projects. There is also the issue of the new red hot project that spring up between meetings.

What sort of norms or frameworks can I set up to get portfolio management team to prioritize projects?

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3 Answers

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TL; DR

You have an X/Y problem. You can't solve your problem without addressing the underlying political issues. No methodology or portfolio-management practice will help until you address the real problem head-on.

The Y in Your X/Y Problem

In your case, Y is the tool you're hoping will help your group prioritize in the face of absentee management and lack of authority. If solving for Y, you just need to apply any methodology that builds consensus among the stakeholders. You won't get 100% agreement from any committee; just look for sufficient buy-in instead.

One possible tool to create consensus is Theme Scoring. Here is the description:

Theme scoring is a prioritization technique that can be used to prioritize themes (groups of user stories) and epics (large user stories) against one another. It can also be used to prioritize projects or products against one another.

You can also download a short document about prioritizing the Product Backlog, along with some sample templates, directly from Mike Cohn's web site. He covers prioritization options quite well.

Regardless of what technique you use, your goal should be to get the stakeholders to agree on the criteria against which each project will be assessed. If your stakeholders can't agree on the metrics for determining what a successful project looks like, there's no point in looking further into the details of individual projects.

Common criteria often include:

  • Capital outlay or projected budget for each project.
  • Expected return on investment for each project, in total dollars or as a percentage of the project budget.
  • Marketing or strategic considerations.
  • Regulatory compliance requirements.

The specific criteria don't really matter from a project management point of view. However, there must be stakeholder consensus; the criteria must matter to each stakeholder personally, as well as to the business at large. Once acceptable criteria have been established, then you can apply your chosen portfolio-selection methodology using the agreed-upon criteria.

With consensus on the criteria, the methodology becomes useful politically. By turning opinions on what matters most into measurable comparisons, you create opportunities for consensus and buy-in that (not coincidentally) also lead to self-evident priorities for each project.

The X in Your X/Y Problem

You suffer from absentee management and lack authority. So, it seems, do the rest of the stakeholders. You say:

  • [As the project manager] I will not have any say as to priority.
  • [The CFO] has high influence but low engagement.
  • The two mid managers...are opposed to setting priorities.
  • My two bosses...[are] junior members. In fact one of them reports directly to the two mid managers on the team.

In a nutshell, no one with any authority has the desire to set priorities. Let that sink in for a minute. Assuming that the mid-managers have the authority to make prioritization decisions in the first place--that actually hasn't been established here--you state that they are actively opposed to setting priorities anyway. So, unless your managers are politically savvy enough to be able to manage upwards, you are in an untenable position.

You have no authority. Ultimately, the responsibility for the success or failure of the business lies with the executives. Therefore, your only professional responsibility is to make the costs of indecision visible to the management team, and to use your influence (if any) to suggest a constructive course of action that would mitigate those costs.

If you are able to use your influence to build consensus around some strategic value statements and portfolio-selection criteria, by all means do so. You can then follow-up with a metrics-based, politically-neutral approach to evaluating projects for the portfolio.

Just Say "No" to Accountability Without Authority

Projects require an executive sponsor or project champion for a reason, and your current situation exemplifies the need. If managers and executives with authority do not support the initiative, and you have done your best to provide recommendations on how to move forward, that's the end of your professional responsibility. You are not accountable for business decisions made higher up in the organization, and if you're then held accountable anyway, as a professional you must let the organization face the consequences of its own (in)action.

Sometimes the remaining choices are unpalatable. It may require rejecting the role of facilitator for a broken process and moving on to a different role within the company, or dusting off your resume and looking for a better opportunity.

Accountability without authority is not sustainable, and sometimes a project manager's influence just isn't enough. In the final analysis, once you've done your professional best you must simply decide whether to fish or cut bait.

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Concur with @CodeGnome that you have an XY problem. I've got a slightly different tl:dr than he does.

tl;dr

The PM's job is to close the project. That may mean killing it fast, cleanly and thoroughly so that nobody gets blame.

Trapped between incompatible agendas.

The CFO has a desire which is at odds with middle management. You do not want to get in the middle of that. If, like most of us, you don't have the option to step aside and allow someone else the privilege of glorious high visibility failure, you need to arrange for the failure to be fast and thorough. (A PM's job is to close the project).

Looking for norms & frameworks will only create a third stake in the conflict, and become a magnet for failure and blame.

update in response to @CodeGnome's comment You can't close the project; the PM generally doesn't have that authority. The PM has the responsibility to analyze the alternatives and communicate the alternatives and consequences to the stakeholders. You can make sure that everybody knows that this portfolio/project/initiative is bound for failure, and that the failure is likely to affect the careers of everyone involved. Fast closure is the least unpalatable alternative for all concerned.

If I were in your shoes, I'd negotiate with the CFO and the middle managers to find the criteria by which this portfolio will be judged. Best of all possible worlds, you manage to reveal that there is no criteria acceptable to all stakeholders, and the portfolio dies fast.

Next best outcome is that the engaged stakeholders agree on a metric for the portfolio - something that they both agree represents success. Give the portfolio process a chance, manage to that metric and it will either succeed or fail. Make sure that you are responsible for (and perceived as responsible for) successful communications about that metric. If the portfolio crashes and burns, you will have predicted it.

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I agree with much of what you've said, but doesn't closing the project require delegated authority that the OP doesn't have? –  CodeGnome Feb 19 '13 at 13:44
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PM professionals can help minimize politics

As CodeGnome said, "You can't solve your problem without addressing the underlying political issues." However, while you may not have any say on priority, as a Project Management professional, here is a list of things you can do to shine the light on the underlying issues and present the options to the decision makers in stark terms:

  • Mission Statement and business drivers: As a Project Manager you should partner with your customer (whether internal or external) to understand and articulate the problem or opportunity that precipitated the project in the Project Charter. Based on that, list the Key performance indicators (KPIs) which should be measurable.
  • Delivery commitments and consequences of failure: In more concrete terms, document what delivery commitments have been made and what are the consequences of failure for each of the projects. For example, one of the contracts may have a penalty clause.
  • Project kick-off meetings: As the PM, you should schedule Project kick-off meetings, if you are not doing so already. With good prep work from you, including the points 1 and 2 above, these kick-off meetings will help put everyone on the same page.
  • Resource constraints: In a large organization like yours, it is entirely possible that all of these projects can be completed to meet their individual delivery timeline. In case you determine that it is not at all possible, you should be able to articulate resource constraints in clear, specific terms with the help of detailed project plans. Some examples are:

    In week 5 the DBA can either load data for Project A or migrate data for project B. If we do the first, Project B will be delayed by one week.

    From week 7 to 9 the designers will be in Chicago working with the consultant for Project A. To avoid delaying Project B, we don't have any option but to outsource the design work for Project B.

At this point, the decisions will become less political and more business judgments. While the Managers may still lobby to get priority for their own projects, it will be clear what the trade-offs are. Politics cannot be avoided completely, but professionals can help minimize it with better planning and communication. For those specific issues that are still unresolved, you can then escalate to the CFO and seek a decision.

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