AHP: The foundation for a great portfolio in just 8 weeks

Written by Dan Dures

I used to tell my kids the story of the three little pigs - the one with the houses made of straw, sticks and brick, and the big bad wolf with the attitude problem. The little pigs who used straw and sticks probably did a great job in planning their houses, perhaps with a Gantt chart and milestones mapped out, but (spoiler alert) they were destined to become homeless from the moment they picked the wrong material.

And it's the same thing with project prioritization. 

If you pick the wrong projects, people will, at some point, realize this and want to change the plan. Probably after you’ve had the project kick-off and iterated the roadmap five times. Or maybe after you’ve delivered the work. Or perhaps the process isn’t very inclusive, so when that smooth talking Sales Director has a bright idea, he’ll be looking to shoehorn it into your backlog, not appreciating the value of what’s there already. Now you’ve got Too Many Projects, your utilization rate blows up, and your day becomes a process of firefighting to explain why projects are all late and why the Marketing Director can’t have his pet project too. Either way you’re wolf food.

Conversely, let’s think about the little pig who built his portfolio from bricks (excusing the mixing of metaphors). Success comes from selecting the projects with the greatest alignment to the goals of the organization, and from embedding a process which is transparent, inclusive and data led. We believe the right solution for the job is AHP. It helps you identify the right ‘bricks’ for your plan and joins them together with the ‘mortar’ of a robust scalable process.

And don’t think you don’t have time. You can have this solution in place to wolf-proof your portfolio within 8 weeks. That’s two months of fixing for a lifetime of not being eaten. Here’s how:

(1) Make a plan
Get the right people in the room to define what it is that success means. Reflect on how planning works (or does not work) in your organization. We recommend a simple 3 P’s framework as a place to start:
  • Process: How does the prioritization exercise align to the allocation of resources? What scope / timeframe does this imply? Who needs to be involved?
  • Politics: Who are the key stakeholders? Is there good alignment between teams? What changes are needed to ways of working?
  • Projects: What is the size and scope of the backlog under review? Decide if you are prioritizing projects, programs, features… or something else, and avoid mixing within the same model.

This can happen in 1 week, or longer for a more complex portfolio, but resist the temptation to skip it as it will make everything else work far better.

(2) Build & Weight Criteria
Building an AHP model is not rocket science (unless, like NASA, you’re using it to support your space missions). Learn the basic rules, use our template library for inspiration and engage your leadership team so you know what they are looking for in the portfolio. The pairwise review session where leadership weight criteria is a key milestone, and a great chance to build engagement with AHP. We have an e-book on this coming soon - reach out for an early read if you want to learn more.

If you’re pushing it, this can be done inside 3 weeks. Longer is fine if you need change to be more gradual. It’s critical to get quality time with your leadership team to ensure you fully realize the value of journey, or as one client’s CEO put it:

“We’re having conversations we should have had years ago”

(3) Sort Out the Data
AHP modelling will create much of the data you need, but there will be other data needed to deliver prioritization. Answer these questions to get started:
  • How will projects be sourced?
    Do you have a Project Management database to export, or are you going to collect ideas as part of this process? What are the lead times for your chosen solution?
  • What are your resource constraints?
    Typically portfolios have capital and/or resource limits. There are often multiple limits with different teams representing different potential bottlenecks. They key is to find the right level of detail. Extensive bottom-up estimates may be wrong for an initial review, while high level T-Shirt sizing may be too unreliable for major capital programs.
  • What other flags or lenses do you need for analysis?
    Overlaying a reporting hierarchy or requesting team is often important, especially if you have a ‘spaghetti-mess’ problem. Identifying mandatory projects is also often important.

This can all happen in parallel to your criteria build, so aim to have in place by week 4.

(4) Get Scoring
It’s important not to rush this step as it’s where a lot of the magic happens, when people compare votes and learn from one another. That said a well-structured model shares the workload, so folks can score in parallel across different projects and criteria. We recommend this simple 4-point checklist to know if you’ve nailed this step of deployment:
  • Pick the right scorers
    Having 3+ people reduces Noise in scoring by 50%, and should be a minimum target per question. Adding more respondents increases accuracy but at the cost of workload and complexity. Figure out the best balance for your review.
  • Chase compliance
    Make sure people vote. It’s easy to do, but even easier to ignore. Senior sponsorship and ‘name and shame’ updates work well here.
  • Address disagreements
    People don’t have to align, but it’s key that they have listened to counter arguments, such that any disagreements are purposeful, and noise in the data is minimized 
  • Solicit feedback
    Done well this process is designed to build buy-in, but it’s important to check-in to capture any ideas for further improvement.

Allow 2 weeks for this process, or slightly more if it’s in ‘holiday season’. It can happen in parallel to weighting criteria if you’re under time-pressure.

(5) Prioritize
Once you have all the data structured into dashboards this step is far simpler than it has ever been before. Use the ‘Efficient Frontier’ view to identify the best projects, by ranking based on value for money. This gives you the '80:20' split for maximizing portfolio value while saving precious resources. 

Or apply an algorithm to pick the best combination of projects if you have multiple constraints to manage. Speak with us to see the one we have.

Don’t forget you can prioritize start date too. Having a portfolio of projects all start on January 1
st isn’t helpful. Far better to map out a month-by-month plan that optimizes resources and creates a realistic set of commitments to hold people to account. Again we have a magic button to make this happen if you want to build a Roadmap without the pain.

This can all happen in an hour. However, we recommend allowing 2 weeks, so people have time to reflect and feedback, and develop buy-in to the outcome. Offering the leadership team different scenarios is also often a good idea.

So that’s 8 weeks of focus for a wolf-free plan. And it doesn’t have to be a one-off. Make your annual planning process a continual review cycle, with the ability to change your roadmap as new projects come up, or projects run late. Overlay scenarios to respond to fresh challenges from the market. Adapt capacity in-line with changes in bandwidth. The key point is that you always have an up-to-date, data-led plan that maximizes value with a realistic set of deliverables.

For those of you starting on this journey you will always hear (at least) one colleague challenge you – “couldn’t we just do this in a spreadsheet / meeting room / PPM tool”? We don’t have time to do this right now. Here the reply should be simple. It might be quicker to build a house from straw (or sticks) but how much time will you waste re-building that house again and again as your construction fails to withstand the rigors of a big bad wolf? Surely, it’s far better to deliver quality at pace than to stick with a solution that doesn’t work.

AHP is providing the foundations for an agile way of governing your portfolio that will keep you safe no matter how much your CEO huffs and puffs. We believe it is the bricks and mortar for effective project prioritization, so why waste time on building with anything else?

Ready to learn more? Read more about our 8-week plan here in our Deployment Guide or book a meeting with us to talk through your use case.


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