Q & A With Johanna Rothman of Rothman Consulting Group

Johanna Rothman of Rothman Consulting Group works with companies to improve how they manage their product development–to maximize management and technical staff productivity and to improve product quality. Johanna is a prolific author on project management topics. She is also most recently the volunteer Chair of the Agile2009 conference, the largest Agile community conference in the world (see http://www.agile2009.com/).

Johanna is speaking at Agile Boston on September 23, 2009. You may RSVP here.

One of Johanna’s passions is applying agile techniques to project portfolio managment. She speaks on this topic at Agile Boston on Sept 23 2009. What follows is a quick interview on what this is and why you care. It’s important !!


1. What is Agile Portfolio Planning?

Planning (that is managing the project portfolio) is the set of decisions about when to start and stop each project and which project is #1. It works well with agile projects because agile provides a chance to re-evaluate the portfolio at the end of each iteration.

2. Why is it important?

It’s important because otherwise people are likely to multitask. The multitasking doesn’t even have to be on other projects. If someone interrupts you with a question from another project, do you know if you should answer it? If your project has a higher rank, that person should not ask you. If that project has a higher rank, it’s ok to ask and take the context switch. That’s because the other project is more important than yours, and you can take the context switch hit, but missing information on the other project is not acceptable.

3. What beliefs must be held by the organization to effective plan with

The organization must understand and be able to deliver in increments. I prefer time-boxed increments, but I can live with increments 🙂

4. Are there any cultural beliefs in an organization that might be impediments to this approach?

Of course! If the culture does not allow questioning, such as “Should we do this project at all?” I don’t see how to succeed with project portfolio planning. If the culture will not accept management collaboration to determine the project portfolio, that’s an impediment.

5. Tell us a scary story about portfolio planning, or the lack of it.

I once worked for an organization that didn’t have enough people to staff all of its projects (Sound familiar?). We had a strategic planning offsite. We spent 2 days working through what our strategy was, and came up with “Focus on Five.”

You know as well as I do that people don’t focus on *five*. They focus on *one*. We didn’t have a useful project portfolio, we didn’t choose good projects to work on, nothing changed. Oh, except we wasted two days at the offsite.

You’ve probably heard people say “I’m working on so many projects I don’t know what to do first.” That’s the problem that project portfolio planning solves.

Johanna’s book on the subject ‘MANAGING YOUR PROJECT PORTFOLIO:

6. You write ALOT, where can I find some of your writing on this topic?

On my blog, http://jrothman.com/blog/mpd. I’m also writing for PM Boulevard, specifically on this topic, and a little on gantthead.com .

7. What books are out there on this topic? Is yours the first?

Jochen Krebs has a book out, and I haven’t read it. I’m not aware of others.

8. You are the Chair of the Agile2009 conference just past. Did you any apply agile portfolio planning techniques to this project? If so, where.

Yes and No.

No, because this was a project. I was the project manager and there were no other projects from the Agile Alliance for me to try to manage.

Yes, because I was balancing all my other work. I would work until I got to a done place on other projects, or decide which project was most important right then.

9. Most people want to avoid “being wrong” and technology people are especially skewed this way. How can we encourage portfolio planners to ‘fail fast’ if they have a bias against admitting a mistake? How important is it to be willing to admit mistakes in this domain?

Instead of calling it a mistake, call it “more information.” Then, it’s not so hard to know if we’ve made a mistake, but we are getting more information. If you’re planning a project portfolio, the idea is to build in feedback loops so you can stop a project once it’s delivered enough value. That’s the more information part.

10. In your writing, you suggest that program managers meet with project managers once per iteration. Please explain why that frequency is better than, say, once a week or even more frequently.

Assuming an iteration is no more than two weeks long, once an iteration is probably enough. At a program team meeting, it’s important to air risks to the entire program. Some folks try to do this with Scrum of Scrums, and maybe for software-only projects a short once-daily meeting is right. My experience has been that once daily is too often, that once weekly *or* as often as people know enough about risks to the entire program is the right amount of time.

I also recommend that people use their brains, so if you think that once a day is right for your project, go for it! As long as you can talk about progress, or lack of expected progress, and risks, you’re meeting at the right time.

BTW, if you’re not using agile, I strongly recommend that program managers meet with the program team once weekly. Not any less often. That way, everyone is accountable for progress and risks.

11. How important is it for the iterations of multiple related projects to begin and end on the same day? Is it important at all? If so tell us why.

It’s critically important that everyone have the same drumbeat, which is why iterations need to start and end on the same day. Otherwise, people can cherry-pick the backlog, among other problems. It’s also too easy for people in offset iterations to break the build–unintentionally–and delay others from making progress.

12. Assume the reader has no plans to attend your talk on September 23,due to a commitment elsewhere. What is the single most important agile portfolio planning fact you want this person to know?

Do not multitask on several projects. Choose one project for now, work on the most valuable things you can do for that project, and get to a finish state.

Attend the Meeting !!

Johanna is speaking at Agile Boston on September 23, 2009. You may RSVP here.

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