The Atlantic puffin is an agile creature, diving from the air or the water’s surface down into the depths of the sea to feed. Underwater, it is highly manoeuvrable and has a remarkable capacity to carry up to thirty small fish in its beak at one time.

Question: When it gets back to land with multiple fish, which one does it eat first?

Answer: The biggest one. The puffin must drop all the fish on the ground in order to pick up just one. Opportunistic seagulls will pounce on anything they can steal. The puffin has only a short window of opportunity. It needs to make the right choice. First it eats the biggest, then the next largest, and so on.

For the puffin, choosing the biggest fish is an instinctive demonstration of efficiency, value, and execution. So how do we know which are the biggest fish for us?

The puffin has evolved over millions of years to know its business. Fish have always been in the sea, and the puffin instinctively knows how to go about getting them. You could say this bird is a highly optimized system. It’s so optimized it can rely on intuition that is a result of the bird’s refined perpetual systems.

While leaders with intuition are likely to outperform those without it, intuition is not enough. The ability to see is a hunter’s advantage. Puffins see well underwater. Two vital necessities for leadership have always been clarity of vision and the ability to act decisively. Business processes have not had millions of years to evolve. Nevertheless, by using algorithms – mathematical simulations – we can crank up the speed of our biological evolution. Think of our business goals as environments, with their attendant constraints and hidden opportunities, and the portfolio as a species that is either well-adapted or maladapted to its environment.

The rigorous process of portfolio selection allows us to see which projects are over-consuming precious resources. Moreover, we can score the fitness of the projects well-adapted to our business goals. Algorithmic portfolio selection gives us the hunter’s eagle vision.

Portfolio Selection

As a senior manager, you are all too aware of the pressure on you to make the right project portfolio selection. The tenure of the CEO is shortening all the time. The world of senior management is survival of the fittest. Fit means not necessarily the strongest but the one who is well adapted to changing circumstances. It’s not just your career that’s riding on making these decisions, but the very existence and health of your company.

Getting project portfolio selection right matters. You are expected to know what you’re doing. That’s your job. So how do you understand the scope of all the projects available at any one time? What method do you use to anticipate contingent factors? In other words, what impact will the projects you select have on each other? How do you even know what the contingent factors are?

Relying on past experiences presupposes a static environment. Today, the world of business is dynamic and complex. One thing we do know for sure is that the future is unlikely to look like the past – and you need a system in place to recognize your biggest fish, with efficiency, value, and execution.

Extract taken from Michael Menard’s book, A Fish in Your Ear, The New Discipline of Project Portfolio Management. Available on Amazon.