Balancing Project Portfolios

A Five Minute Read

Pop Quiz!

Your organization’s consolidated project calendar looks like:

  1. An organized Gantt-style chart of projects threading their way to scheduled completion
  2. Air Traffic Control over the Northeast during a blizzard – hundreds of projects circling, with few places to land
  3. What’s a project calendar?

Projects get chartered when:

  1. The organization identifies a gap between current practice and future needs, and the work requires a diverse cross-section of skills and responsibilities
  2. We need IT to do something for us
  3. Somebody has an idea

A project is “strategic” because:

  1. Its objectives accomplish documented long-term operational goals that translates “mission” and “vision” into action
  2. Someone from upstairs said it was “strategic”
  3. It is really expensive, will take a really long time, or just seems really big

When the work required to accomplish current projects is greater than the total amount of resources we have:

  1. We take a critical look at the portfolio, and either bring in additional help or shut down projects
  2. Tell people to “work smarter”
  3. Silently suffer through subpar performance reviews, sneaking home K-Cups to make up for lost bonus


If you answered “A” for any question, go back to work. You are either lying to me (or yourself), or you don’t work on projects. If you answered “C” to all the questions, go work on your resume. For everyone else, here is a way to streamline your project portfolio.

A common complaint from project managers of all stripes is “too many projects, not enough resources”. “Resources” usually refers to people to do the work, but lack of time, money, equipment, materials all compound projectsthe problem. Organizations need discipline to control the flow of projects and ensure they accomplish strategic goals, and do not become resource-wasting, soul-sucking distractions.

Creating a “Project Management Office” is not necessarily enough – or even the right alternative. Without solid portfolio management techniques in place, odds are good that mission-critical projects are struggling while unimportant initiatives fill peoples’ days.

To best balance a project portfolio, there are two separate and distinct analyses that must be completed: The first is a strategic review of all projects, and the second is a resource appraisal. An easy mistake is to try to save time by combining the evaluations, but each answers a very different question. The first analysis asks, “Should we attempt this project?” and the second, “Can we do it?”

Strategic Project Review

A strategic review determines if the organization should even think about spending resources in pursuit of the project. “Strategic” is a hard-and-fast criterion, not a political judgment. A project is “strategic” because it aligns with the overarching goals of the organization.

At the most basic, managers should review the strategy and match at least one project dedicated to accomplishing each of its objectives; then, they should look at each project and see which strategic objectives it will achieve. If there are holes in that first check, then there are strategic objectives that are not being worked on; failing the second check means people are wasting time and money on non-critical projects.

A more structured approach involves scoring projects against multiple criteria. Independent of the individual projects (and their managers or sponsors), leadership should identify the key measures of strategic success. Think in terms of production, finance, marketing, and risk (For example, “Maximize market share”, “Maximize revenue”, “Minimize product cannibalization”, “Minimize business risk”), but do not worry about minimizing constraints at this point (such as whether there are enough database engineers or brand analysts to do the job).

Here is a list of objectives and projects from the client discussed in this post:

Once those objectives have been articulated and agreed upon, prioritize them. A great way to do this is to weigh them on a relative scale between one and ten; be careful not to make everything a ten, and that the different weights truly reflect relative priority (e.g., a “10” vs. an “8” vs. a “2”).


Now, leaders should evaluate the projects against each criterion: Best practice tells us to take each strategic objective individually, and judge every project against it, before moving on to the next. It is a little more time consuming, but it provides for a cleaner analysis, and is ultimately far more accurate. (As a consultant, I am professionally required to suggest creating a matrix).

A matrix with objectives along the left (Y) axis and projects across the top (X). (Click to enlarge)
Starting with the first objective, find the relative value of each project.
Starting with the first objective, find the relative value of each project.


Fair warning: Here comes some math.

Every project should have a score for how it performs on every strategic objective, each of which is weighted. Multiply those two numbers, and add them up for each project. This gives every project a combined, relative priority. An honest analysis should show a fair spread between the high performers and the low performers. Egos are sure to be bruised.


Now that it is clear what the most important projects are, it’s time to determine which ones can be achieved.

Resource Review

While the high-priority projects may not be fully defined at this point, project managers should make a determined effort to identify the types of resources needed. Additionally, the organization should already know its capacity – not just by skill set or experience, but also in full-time, part-time, contract, or consultative roles.

Completing the resource review simply becomes a matter of loading resources against the highest priority project; if there are still resources left, move on to the next. Once a pool of resources is spent, the constraint becomes evident. This doesn’t mean the project is dead in the water – it can be delayed until resources are freed, or the decision can be made to bring in additional resources – but now an intelligent, rational discussion can be held around this.

A completed resource scorecard. The projects that introduce a resource constraint have been highlighted.
A completed resource scorecard. The projects that introduce a resource constraint have been highlighted.


This all may feel like a dry exercise, when more exciting “work” could be done. Careful, periodic scrutiny of projects – first for strategic fit, then for resource ability – ensures that people are working on things that matter, and that resources are available to keep the work moving forward. Having a robust, objective process for evaluating projects in the portfolio will maintain a focus on actively supporting the strategy, to identify the projects that don’t belong – and an objective way to say “No” to those projects.