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Understanding portfolio thinking to improve your organization

Categorize information into meaningful “buckets”

I think one of the things that I see more often than anything else is organizations struggling with getting information in the right places to make the right decisions. There’s a sense that they’re not sure how they’re performing or it’s hard for the organization to understand how it’s doing. A lot of times when you get in and you dig through it, one of the issues that they have is they’re struggling with looking at things from a portfolio perspective. Oftentimes they’ve got great information on an item by item basis, whether that’s assessments of facilities, particular IT investments, a specific system, application or an initiative but where they struggle is knitting those things together into a whole that is meaningful. The have a hard time understanding things like:

  • How do these things pull together to accomplish our objectives?
  • How are we performing across these items?
  • How do I sit at the top of these things and understand what’s working and what’s not?

I think that as you look at those problems, you’ll notice that they are all portfolio oriented issues. The real struggle is in taking all of that detail that you have in pockets or in things that you manage on an item by item basis, and coming up with an appropriate way to pull that information together. Particularly if you’ve got lots of those types of items, categorize them in a way that allows you to put them in meaningful buckets for analysis; sometimes from multiple different views for different. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges that organizations face.

You look at so much of what you see in the news, at least in the DC area around sequestration and things like that, and one of the things that floats to the surface is that executives are struggling. They are struggling with the question of how do they continue to provide services in the face of the sort of economic hardships that are being passed across not only the public sector but the private sector as well? Certainly in the private sector this is a huge issues as well because as you attempt to achieve competitive advantage, one of the things that you have to be able to do is look across all the things that you do and identify what works and what doesn’t so that you can make the types of decisions that will enable you to continue to perform at a high level. I think the first step like with many things is recognizing that you have a problem. I think that is something that you can only do by asking yourself a couple different questions starting with:

  1. Do I understand the individual items that I manage? If you can’t look at a particular thing, a facility, an investment, or whatever it is, and understand it in a way that would help you make a decision about that particular thing, rolling it into a pool of other things isn’t going to help you. It’s just going to take you farther back. So I think that’s the first question and I think more often than not the answer is yes. A lot of organizations are great at the detail of a particular thing. The trouble comes when they try to roll those things together.
  2. Do I have a way to understand these things If I pull them all together? Do I need to come up with subgroupings of these things? The answer to that is almost always no. When I say “Do I have a way to understand these things when I group them together or create subgroups out of them,” oftentimes the understanding part is the hurdle. By understand, I mean do we have a way to answer meaningful organizational questions when we group these things together? Do we understand how the sum of these things plays towards organizational goals? I think that is where a lot of organizations have hurdles.

Now this is a thread I will pick up on a few times over the next few weeks. I will try to string these things together in a way so that you can sort of step through them and get a better understanding of how portfolio thinking can help you as an organization go from managing at an item by item level to understanding what you have at the aggregate level. Hopefully than you can use that understanding to make better decisions at an item by item basis as well as in total.

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