Imperial China was reputed to have invented a horrible torture as a means of example and execution: death by a thousand cuts. The victim died a slow and painful death. Each cut in and of itself would not kill, but the accumulation of cuts led to unimaginable suffering and a lingering death.

That is the fate of organizations today that lack project selection capability. Each decision inflicts pain. Often this pain goes unnoticed – for a while. But sooner or later, the consequences make themselves felt. Weak growth, dwindling profit, and a slow erosion of value make up make up the predictable declining trajectory. Failure to create profit rarely comes from one single cataclysmic disaster.

Happily, there is a much better alternative to this slow death. Complexity doesn’t have to be overwhelming, and, though intuition is necessary, we don’t need to rely on it alone. Project portfolio management is a rational approach to mastering complexity, optimizing value, and delivering profitability.

Vantage Point

In the days when sailing ships plied the oceans, the crow’s nest high atop the mast was an uncomfortable and often dangerous place to be. No one knows who invented this ancient technology but being able to see further across the water let sailors know what was coming. From his high perch, the lookout was in a better position to help the boat avoid dangerous rocks or hostile ships.

Christopher Columbus observed how the masts of sailing ships appeared to sink into the horizon the farther away they were. This led credence to the somewhat controversial idea at the time that the world was round. It’s still true today that a change in vantage point leads to a change in thinking.

Sixty-six high-precision antennas reach into the thin air over 16,000 feet atop the Chajnantor Plateau in Chile. The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, known as ALMA, is the newest and largest astronomical telescope in existence. Its job is to look further into deep space than any existing telescope. This international collaborative effort hopes to discover the origins of the universe.

Better vantage points give us newfound knowledge. The essential nature of technology is to extend our reach – to see more. Radar, X-ray, and ultrasound technologies are able to detect previously hidden threats and opportunities. Science has triumphed in ways unimaginable to previous generations through the method of divide and conquer.

The Babel Fish

We live in a world of specialist expertise. However, when we specialize, we risk misunderstanding or undervaluing how a specific project interacts with others. In any portfolio selection, the ability to see the whole picture gives a bird’s-eye view of the scope, interconnection, and interdependencies of projects.

Author Douglas Adams addressed the problem of crossing specialist boundaries in his humorous science-fiction book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with the use of the Babel fish. The guide advises you to put the Babel fish in your ear and you will be able to understand every known language spoken in the universe. If only real life were so simple! Yet the idea of a holistic view in which all things are intelligible from one perspective has been around since biblical times, hence the story of the building of the Tower of Babel.

Without a process to get us to a vantage point where we see the whole picture, we can become frustrated and defeated. Peter Senge, in his book The Fifth Discipline, references physicist David Bohm, who likens trying to see the whole from an assembly of fragments to the near-impossible task of reassembling a broken mirror. A nursery rhyme said the same thing: All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.  

The problem lies in part with our conditioned tendency to generalize from specific observations or knowledge. Yet a holistic vantage point is not only possible; it is a must-have capability.

PPM allows you to explore how your projects operate. You’ll gain a better understanding of the resources they consume and the value they derive. And it won’t involve putting a Babel fish in your ear.   

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