Legibility in Project Portfolio Management
Legibility in Project Portfolio Management

Why a Lean PPM Tool Is the Smart Way of Increasing Legibility

6 min read

People who are responsible for project planning want to be in the know: How many units of a product do we sell per quarter? How many software developers do we have anyway, and what do they cost per day? Planners can sleep easy when there are precise answers to such questions. If there aren’t, they can only guess and sooner or later their plan will fail due to wrong assumptions.

Luckily for the planner, these things have, in the words of political scientist James C. Scott, a high “legibility”, or readability: The planner can see the precise number of units sold and dollars paid, because somebody else has counted, calculated, and recorded this information. He can sit at his desk and try to influence the world, because the world has been made “legible” to him thanks to a more or less detailed “map”.

So the higher the legibility of their area of responsibility, the easier life is for planners. Of course they know this, and that’s why some of them tend to demand more and more legibility. They expect others to catalog, count and measure as many aspects of their environment and actions as possible in a format the planner understands.

Over-Motivated Planners Misuse PPM Software to Maximize Legibility

Now when a company wants to start using a project portfolio management tool, this type of planner with his knack for ruthless legibility increases will lick his lips. He just sees the tool as another map which will help him read the world around him:

“A project portfolio management tool? Great! It should monitor everything: which projects we are doing, which resources we are using, which status a project has, who works when and how long on which task, both planned and in reality, what type of pants they wear and what kind of espresso they drink!”.

What happens next may well decide if the company will still be around in five years.

If everyone agrees with the planning fanatic, a tool will be chosen which may well claim to do project portfolio management, but is actually doing a dozen other things: from executive-level strategy definition to project management down to managing individual employee’s tasks, plus prioritization, resource planning and, of course, time-tracking. A Swiss Army Knife type of tool with a totalitarian vibe. Then, the planner can see when everybody arrives in the morning, what they’re working on, and if they all wear matching socks. Oh right, and in between all that there will be some project portfolio management, if time allows.

Worst case would be that the promised increases in legibility are so attractive that the decision-makers add insult to injury. Because they now see exactly how everybody’s working, they will soon straighten up and standardize all processes. Everyone must use the same methods and the same tools, just so that it makes overseeing it all easier.

Often, this path will end badly for the company. Everyone hates the tool, except for the legibility freak. The most skilled colleagues feel gagged by the increasing administrative overhead and the limiting standardization and will leave the company at some point. Those who stay will undermine the legible utopia with incomplete or erroneous data entry.

Lean PPM Tools Keep the Focus on the Project Portfolio

However, the meeting regarding the use of a PPM software will be entirely different, if, following the enthusiastic pitch by the planner-in-chief, a voice of reason speaks up:

“Why do we sit here today? Because we want a project portfolio management tool. Yes, one of the benefits would be to finally get an overview over what we’re actually working on. But the increase of legibility is not what we’re really after! It only serves to accomplish our real goal, to design and to steer our portfolio so that we can really complete the most valuable projects from now on. Why would I care how team A manages its projects, or team B its tasks, or whether somebody works 7.59 hours or 8.12 hours? The team leads can handle these things.

And yes, maybe we really can squeeze a little additional productivity out of using standardized tools and optimizing our project management. But we are meeting here today because we need to do something which increases our productivity by 50 or 100 or 200% by doing the right projects in the right order at the right time – straightforward project portfolio management. Why not let the teams decide for themselves how they work, and we focus on giving them the right projects to work on? I say we need a tool that puts project portfolio management front and center.

Applause all around, except for the legibility fanatic who shoots angry looks. A lean tool that integrates with existing tools and workflows is chosen, and everyone loves it. The right projects are selected, and the most qualified people are working on them. The company has a promising future ahead of it.

The second decision is successful because it follows the Lean principle: The PPM tool should not increase the organization’s legibility more than absolutely necessary. Anything extra would be wasteful. The decision also reflects that the more information you gather, the more likely you’ll lose focus and get bogged down with insignificant details.

Maybe most importantly, the decision to not standardize so many tools and processes may actually be the reason for a good chunk of the overall productivity. The various solutions and workarounds that were never part of any corporate guideline and which may even look eccentric or stupid to the central planner, are likely what people choose to use because they simply help them do their job more efficiently. Local solutions forged by local knowledge.

Put differently, employees are happier when they have a certain level of control over how they work. In turn, they are more productive, and this productivity often more than offsets the promised gains in productivity achieved by standardizing tools and processes.

Yes, a certain degree of increased legibility, that is a better visibility of your portfolio is a sensible goal when introducing a PPM tool. Just because digital technology makes increases in transparency easy and attractive, don’t let that blur the real reason for actually doing project portfolio management and don’t underestimate the downsides of increased legibility.

Even States Fail at Extreme Measures to Increase Legibility

State-sponsored projects to achieve maximum legibility serve as striking cautionary tales regarding the wrong way to do things (Source: James C. Scott – Seeing Like a State). Whole forests were reduced to only one type of tree because Prussian state planners understood only the economic benefit of timber while being oblivious about or at least ignorant of the value of underbrush for rural people, and because it made it easier to count the number of trees owned by the state. Elsewhere, roads and plots of land were straightened and new permanent names were created because kings and colonial rulers thought they could infinitely increase legibility in order to raise taxes more efficiently. Most of these kings and rulers are no more, but the variety that they sought to harmonize has endured to this day.

Successful enterprises learn from the history of state mega projects that failedThey choose, not the tool which falsely promises to make a complex world controllable, but the tool which most efficiently solves their actual, most pressing problem.

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