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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Portfolio Visualization

Portfolio Visualization post image

I’ve been lucky enough that throughout my career I’ve had occasions to work on different levels: from personal (that’s pretty much everyone’s experience, isn’t it?), though team and project to program / PMO / portfolio level. Not only that. In most of my jobs I’ve been involved in all levels of work concurrently. This means I’m schizophrenic.

Um, actually this means that I’ve been pursuing goals that require focusing on different granularity of work.

Granularity of Work

Let me give you an example from my company – Lunar Logic. If I have to complete a task to close a new deal for the company, e.g. to have a call with a potential client, that’s a personal level. It is something that has to be done by myself and it involves only my work. Most of such stuff would be rather straightforward.

At the same time I run a project where I’m supposed to know what’s happening and for example share my estimates when the work is supposed to be finished with the client. That’s a different kind of work. I mean it’s not only me anymore – there’s a team. Also there are a lot of dependencies. Unless bugs are fixed we don’t ask a client for acceptance, this task has to be finished before the other, etc. Of course, tasks will be bigger – we don’t want to run 30-minute long tasks through our task or Kanban board. At least not as default.

Then there is whole effort of coordinating different projects run in the company. It is about understanding which are about to be finished making people available to work on something new, how we can cover for unexpected tasks, what kind of free capabilities we have, etc. At this level a user story or a feature is meaningless. We’re talking about big stuff here, like a project here and a project there.

Depending on what I do I may be interested in small personal tasks, user stories or whole projects.

Actually, there may be more than just three levels of stuff. It is a pretty frequent case. Imagine an org that employs a few thousand people. They will have teams, divisions, projects, programs and product lines. On any level beyond personal there will be a few different granularities of work.

There may be a user story as the smallest bit of work that a team gets done. It would be a part of an epic. The epic would be a part of one of these huge thingies – let’s call them saga stories. Sagas would build up a project. A set of projects would make a program. The program will be developed within a product line… Complicated, isn’t it? Well, I guess it’s still far from what Microsoft or Oracle has.


Now, the interesting part. On every level leaders are likely to be interested in understanding of what’s going on. They will want to visualize stuff that’s happening. Wait, what that “stuff” is exactly? I mean, haven’t I mentioned at the beginning that work items that interest me may be very different?

Um, yes. However, in each context, and at any given moment, there’s only one granularity of work that will get my attention. When I wear a hat of a company leader I don’t give a damn about a user story in a project XYZ. I just want to know whether that project is progressing well, what are the major risks attached to it and how it can impact other projects and our available capabilities.

When I go down to wear a hat of a project leader, I’m no longer interested in timelines of other projects. I have project tasks to be finished and this is my focus. Scope of risk management would be limited to only a single project too. This means that I will be paying attention to a different class of risks.

Then I go even further down to wear a hat of a leader of my own desk (not even a real one) and granularity of stuff changes once more.

Good news is that vast majority of people don’t have this switching dilemma – since they’re always working on the same class of stuff there’s always the same level of work that they pay attention to. Always a single level.

Well, almost…

Second Level

One level of stuff will always be a primary focus. In many cases there will be a secondary focus as well. It will be either one level up or one level down. For example, when I was a team leader my primary focus was the features we were building. However, on occasions I was going down to development tasks and bugs to understand better the progress we were making. Not that I needed the view on all the development tasks and all the bugs all the time – it would make information cluttered and less accessible. Sometimes I needed that data though.

Another example. In my previous job I led more than a dozen development teams. Obviously user stories or features were far beyond my focus. My primary area of interest was projects on PMO level. I was expected to juggle projects and teams so we build everything on time, on budget and on scope (yeah, right). Anyway, the atomic unit of work for me was a project. Occasionally I was going a level up though, to program management if you will. After all, we weren’t building random projects. Teams had business knowledge specialization. I had to take it all into account when planning work.

You can think of any role out there and it’s very likely that this pattern will be true: main focus of one level of work and possibly secondary focus on work that is either happening a level up or a level down. The secondary focus is likely to be sometimes on but sometimes off as well.

Why is this so important?

Visualizing Work

My work around Portfolio Kanban and discussion on the topic made me thinking of what we should be visualizing. Of course it is contextual. But then, again, in any given context there is this temptation to see more. After all, given that we visualize what’s happening with the projects, it’s not that hard to visualize the status of the epics within these projects. And of course we definitely want to see what’s happening on program level too…

No, we don’t.

Again, in any given role (or hat) you have only one primary area of interest. If these are projects, focus on them and not on programs or epics.

Otherwise the important bits of data will be flooded in all the rest of information that is needed only incidentally, if ever.

Portfolio Visualization

For whatever reasons we get that intuitively most of the when we manage work on a team level. I rarely see task or Kanban boards that attempt to map the whole universe (and more). Maybe it is because we typically have some sort of common understanding what an atomic task on a team level is.

At the same time we go on a project level and things get ugly. I mean, what is a project anyway? For one person it will be a Minimal Viable Product (MVP), which is smallest increment that allows verification of a product hypothesis and enables learning. For the other it would be defined by a monolithic scope that is worth 200 man months of work. And anything in between of course.

Unless we remember the rule of focusing on only one level of work, any meaningful visualization of that work would be impossible. This is one of the reasons why visualization in Portfolio Kanban is so tricky.

Instead of creating one huge wall of information and throw all the different bits of data there, think about your primary focus and deal only with this. And if you keep switching between different roles no one forces you to stick to a single board.

Right now I’m using portfolio board, personal one and a bunch of different project boards. For each of them, there is just one level of work visualized. So far I never needed to combine any two of them or put stuff from one at the other. It seems that even for such a schizophrenic guy as me the single focus rule applies as well.

in: project management

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