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A project portfolio is traditionally a collection of projects that an organization selects. These projects form a roadmap of work to accomplish. Most companies have requests from various business units. This creates a situation where there are more potential projects than funding available. Portfolio management involves the selection of projects that are well aligned with organizational goals. The goals should be mapped from 12 months to 3 years later. Portfolio management provides a means by which to ensure executive visibility. It provides guidelines for staffing needs and serves as a vehicle by which to communicate progress on projects. Similar projects are grouped into programs. Most efforts are delivered using some type of stage gate process. This process is to validate each portion of the linear delivery of traditional projects.

Project Portfolio Challenges

One of the challenges with using a traditional project portfolio approach is that issues are generally identified later in the life of a project. Traditional projects cannot always adapt to changes and changes could derail the project success. This can lead to frustration from all members of the project team as well as stakeholders. Frustration grows when the delivery does not meet the changing needs of the organization.

Agile Project Portfolio

Agile portfolios are based on the development of flexible themes across a defined timeline. These themes meet the iterative and adaptive model of Agile. Any products requiring delivery in a program may require features from other projects in the program.  Agile project portfolios are based on a collection of backlogs, epics, and stories. These are managed as multiple scrum projects. They each have dependencies on the priority and feature focus area. Traditional portfolios are managed from the top-down whereas Agile portfolios use a build-measure-learn approach.

There are 2 types of Agile portfolios:

  • Multiple themes that are part of a larger organizational backlog.
  • Multiple products delivered to meet one theme in the larger organizational portfolio.

Large Organizational Backlogs

An organization that has fully embraced the Agile principles will create multiple themes across the company to enhance collaboration. Projects are mapped to themes as part of a larger backlog. This backlog can be used to monitor a project ranking. Themes can be modified within prioritization as the needs of the business evolve over the course of the defined timeline. Features in a lower priority theme or project can be moved into a higher ranked effort if dependencies are noted.

Agile project portfolios at the theme level will require the skills of an Agile portfolio manager. The portfolio manager is highly skilled in delivering scalable portfolios.  A separate Scrum Product Owner will be required for management of the feature backlog within a theme. The Agile program manager will host a weekly Scrum of Scrums meeting to obtain status and manage issues across active themes.

Agile themes that are managed as a program

Agile project portfolios can be divided into smaller themes depending on the needs of the business.  A theme delivering more than one product and using multiple Scrum Development Teams is managed as an Agile program. Agile programs require the services of an Agile program manager as well as a scrum master per scrum team. The Agile program manager is a Scrum master with experience in using Scaled Agile Frameworks (SAFe).  This individual is responsible for understanding the progress of individual scrum teams as well as championing the principles in the delivery of the minimum viable product for the overall program.  

Our Favourite Agile Books

We found these books great for finding out more information on Agile Scrum:

For larger programs an architectural team may also be assigned to provide technical guidance to the individual scrum teams and minimize technical debt.  An Agile program will also require the services of an Chief Product Owner who is responsible for aligning the program backlog with product feature delivery in the individual scrum teams. Within an Agile program, individual projects can be adjusted to move features to other teams and cancel sprints if needed.

The Agile program scrum master is responsible for the following activities:

  • Track and coordinate all program dependencies
  • Lead communication across the individual Scrums
  • Manage program level issues and risks
  • Lead the teams in efforts to consistently improve delivery and define what is done.

Track and coordinate all program dependencies

The Agile Program Scrum Master tracks epics across the individual projects to report deliverable dates and dependencies across the projects. The program Scrum Master does not track stories at the sprint level and require that the Agile Scrum Master provide status updates as epics are completed. The Agile Program Scrum Master also does not manage the individual project backlogs. This role works in parallel with the program product owner to ensure that epics delivered are meeting minimally viable levels of delivery. The program scrum master is not expected to attend all the ceremonies for the individual scrums but is welcome to do so at any time. 

project portfolio: Communication across the Scrum Teams

The program scrum master may find it difficult to host daily stands up ceremonies, so a weekly stand up that lasts 15 minutes will be held with project scrum masters in attendance. It is here where the status of epics, major issues, and possible roadblocks are raised at a program level. This is called the Scrum of Scrums ceremony. It is the responsibility of the program scrum master to report progress to the applicable executives as required. The Scrum of Scrums acts as a buffer to the individual project scrums to ensure that they can complete their sprints unencumbered.

Manage program level issues and risks

The Agile Program Scrum Master is not only responsible for tracking program level issues and risks but, is also responsible for ensuring that they are addressed or accepted.  The program Scrum Master will partner with the program Product Owner to address any questions on features. With access to senior level executives and management, the program Scrum Master can quickly resolve or determine that the organization will accept risks and issues raised by a scrum team.

Project Portfolio: Delivery Improvement

The principles of an Agile program are no different from that of individual Agile scrum projects. The framework for the inspect and adapt model within scrum are designed to ensure that the delivery of features follows a continuous improvement model. Continuous collaboration during the product backlog, sprint planning, daily stand-ups, sprint review, and retrospectives are managed at a higher level during the program.  The program Scrum Master is responsible for ensuring that those ceremonies are completed within each scrum team so that the program is successful in delivering minimally viable features to meet the needs of the organization. 

The Agile scrum framework can be used successfully at the project portfolio and program level. Additional individuals such as a portfolio manager and program Scrum Master are needed to champion the framework and keep larger initiatives on target. SAFe is a proven framework that utilizes the inspect and adapt principles of Scrum along with Lean capabilities to scale organizational initiatives. 

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