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Submitted by Christy Swift for The Solarity Group

Ever heard of the Canadarm 2?

The Canadarm 2 is a remote-controlled robotic arm attached to the international space station. Named for the country who constructed it, the giant appendage was instrumental in the construction of mankind’s football-field-sized “home” in space, and, now is used for maintenance, moving equipment and supplies, handling payloads and supporting astronauts working in space. The original Canadarm was first used in 1981 on shuttles, and the technology has been an integral part of the space program ever since.

 But what does this have to do with project management and your career?

 Well, nothing.

 And everything.

Projects, Program and Portfolios

 A project is a “temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service, and is progressively elaborated.” – PMBOK Guide, 5th Edition

 A program is a group of projects managed in a coordinated way and working towards a common goal.

 A portfolio is a collection of projects or programs organized in a way that enables efficient management of the whole.

 The Canadarm 2 was a huge feat of engineering, computer programming and construction. Sure, as with any large-scale, complex project, there were bumps along the way, but overall it performed better than expected, serving in ways never dreamed of by its designers (once astronauts even used a friendly tap from the arm to knock dangerous ice buildup off of a shuttle before re-entry). In the overall scope of the international space station, the Canadarm was an extremely important project in the program of the construction of the international space station.

 But what if decision-makers and stakeholders had nixed the arm? What if its value hadn’t been recognized? The space program would no doubt have suffered, perhaps even unacceptable losses. Who makes those decisions? And why? How do you even choose from among a myriad of great ideas, the ones that will achieve the goal within the given constraints while providing the critical return on investment?

Portfolio management is the interstellar space travel of the project management world. It’s the big picture, overarching plan. It involves prioritizing, assessing and managing projects and programs; ensuring projects and programs align with the organization’s strategies and objectives; and making certain those program will work within the constraints of budgets, resources, and other limiting factors. It involves deciding where to put the company’s resources and when. It’s knowing when to say no and when to say yes. And that doesn’t mean always shying away from risky endeavors. By looking at the whole picture rather than just individual parts, executives are better able to balance risk. They may, in fact, be willing to take on a high-risk/high-reward project, for example, if it is buffered by something large and relatively low-risk.

 Portfolio management is a relatively young field, but the best executives are doing it quietly, out of limelight, and they are learning from each other. These are the guys who are not only building the next proverbial space station, they are finding the M-class planet that will save humanity, warping space to get us there, and brokering a deal with the Cylons at the same time. Who wouldn’t want to be them?

Portfolio Management Professional (PfMP)

 PMI offers a Portfolio Management Professional (PfMP) certification geared at solidifying your skills as an executive or senior-level decision-maker and portfolio manager within your organization. PfMPs are recognized as experts in aligning projects and programs with organizational objectives, choosing the right programs to invest in, and delivering or exceeding the expected ROI. In fact, PMI’s 2012 Pulse of the Profession research found that 62 percent of products produced by organizations rated as “effective” in portfolio management met or exceeded ROI expectations. It has also been shown that organizations with portfolio management maturity achieve strategic project success 72 per cent of the time as compared with 46 per cent for organizations without portfolio management maturity.

Companies that adopt a portfolio management strategy (and the number of them is growing every day) report doing it for one of the following great reasons: customer satisfaction, cost reduction, or revenue growth.

If you are an executive or senior-level practitioner managing a portfolio (or portfolios), what is your motivation for managing your organization’s projects utilizing portfolio management? 

After all, you could be one major decision away from making your company (ahem) take off.