What is Agile portfolio management?

Agile portfolio management is an approach to managing connected, interrelated, and dependent projects and programs by applying agile methodologies.

The Agile methodology was created as a response to the issues and problems inherent in the traditional ‘Waterfall’ approach to software development. Where Waterfall methodologies were linear and sequential, dividing the development life cycle into distinct phases that could only commence once the previous phase was completed, Agile created a delivery methodology in which multiple teams could operate collaboratively and simultaneously. By performing relevant tasks concurrently using repeated cycles or iterations, teams could now deliver increased value to end users much more quickly. This is because Agile is built on the concepts of continuous delivery and continuous improvement.

Agile portfolio management takes these Agile principles and applies them to managing project portfolios. Rather than following a more-traditional, top-down approach with work planned out in stages over extended periods of time, Agile portfolio management allows organizations to respond quickly to unanticipated project, product, program, or investment feedback, and to make abrupt course corrections whenever necessary.

Because Agile portfolio management is based on the Agile software development methodology, it maintains a similar structure and shares many essential components. Vital factors in Agile portfolio management include:

Iterative approach

Constant feedback and smaller, more-frequent releases targeting specific issues or changes allow organizations to operate with increased flexibility. Rather than working only on specific functionality subsets and only releasing changes incrementally, the iterative approach turns projects into works in progress, where the project itself is seeing constant improvement with every release.

Decentralized control

The Agile methodology puts change management in the hands of the development teams themselves. This increases project velocity and allows for an increased number of cycles in a shorter amount of time. It also frees up change management teams to focus more on unexpected issues that may arise.

Continuous experimentation

Organizations that employ Agile methodologies can constantly perform small, budget-friendly experiments to determine the viability of individual projects. These experiments monitor and test project elements throughout the project life cycle, and give teams the insights they need to adjust for emergent issues, pivot to meet changing goals, or even discontinue any projects that may no longer be viable.

Prioritization

Agile methodologies allow portfolio managers to reallocate funds as project priorities change. Continuous experimentation, as mentioned above, helps teams determine which projects are most valuable to the company, and thus which should be prioritized.

Simplification

At its heart, Agile is about maximizing the amount of work not done. Or, to put it another way, it’s about maximizing the outcomes of the work that is done. Cutting away at unnecessary planning, determining which metrics are important and which are not, and then validating the project and its features based on those metrics, Agile allows teams to identify and remove extraneous features and unnecessary complexities, resulting in a more-simplified approach.

Transparency

Agile is only effective when teams can collaborate seamlessly, and this is only possible when relevant goals, progress, and potential issues are readily apparent to everyone involved. Transparency in Agile portfolio management ensures that teams know what they’re doing, what others are doing, and how the projects are progressing overall.

By decentralizing and de-seqentializing portfolio management, businesses see many advantages. These benefits include the following:

Improved Outcomes

Continuous improvement in the Agile methodology means that valuable feedback need not wait for future revision cycles. Instead, innovative ideas may be applied at any point. At the same time, companies that embrace Agile project management enjoy an improved process for experimentation and validation, allowing them to make better-informed decisions regarding which projects to pursue and which to place on the backburner.

This results in more-valuable projects and products that are better placed to generate positive returns on their initial investments.

Graphic outlining the benefits of Agile porfolio management.

Transparency at scale

Transparency has always been a vital component in project management. Traditionally, this transparency came at the cost of valuable project manager time and effort, with managers personally having to create detailed status reports whenever updates were needed. Agile project management frees up managers to do more with their time, while also providing all team members with shared purpose and real-time progress visualization.

Agile project management dashboards provide organizations with visual boards capable of clearly displaying the current state of multiple projects and other portfolio-relevant data. High-level forecasts and estimates can also be refined based on actual data, to dial in estimates to better account for all available information. This makes it possible to retain complete transparency into company portfolios, even when faced with a growing number of projects.

Increased strategic alignment

Agile portfolio management places the responsibilities for tasks into the hands of teams, rather than individuals. These teams must understand the goals of the project as well as the overarching objectives of the organization. But Agile does more than just place everyone on the same page; it allows teams to create their own culture while still aligning with the rest of the organization on strategic vision. With goals set and business value properly defined, teams can determine for themselves the best course to achieve these goals. And, if strategic objectives shift, Agile gives teams the flexibility to pivot along with them and focus their efforts on new priorities.

Faster response times

Agile is just that: agile; it gives teams and organizations the power to respond swiftly and to alter course promptly to account for changing needs. With faster response times, projects can be updated with new data from customer responses. Outcomes can be driven by value, and goals can be built from market demand, rather than simply based on project delivery. Faster response times also allow organizations to minimize many of the risks associated with project delivery. Constant customer feedback keeps projects in line with customer needs and expectations, with change requests automatically incorporated into project backlogs. And, if the decision is made to redirect or even eliminate a project, these changes may be implemented quickly, before too many resources have been applied towards no-longer-relevant objectives.

The Agile approach to portfolio management can help businesses across nearly every industry more efficiently achieve their project goals. But to do so, they must approach Agile portfolio management correctly and take care to establish the right infrastructure to support this new project methodology. Best practices for Agile portfolio management include the following:

Breaking down organizational silos

The advantages of Agile transparency within specific projects are well recognized, but it should go further than that. Agile methodologies may also be employed to communicate across portfolios, allowing entire organizations to better coordinate on issues such as business goals and direction. By breaking down organizational silos, Agile portfolio management helps create a more-unified company.

Limiting the number of concurrent projects

Although Agile portfolio management is an approach that allows businesses to move forward on multiple projects at once, it is still a better practice to focus only on a relatively few number of projects at any one time. This helps prevent team burnout, and more closely matches capacity with demand. Agile can help organizations better prioritize which projects are worth devoting more time and effort towards.

Keeping projects simple and streamlined

Agile portfolio management is not an approach for those who feel as though they should be following up on every request; it’s a methodology that forces teams to be strategic with their time, and to prioritize resources appropriately. Successful practitioners of Agile portfolio management are those that simplify projects and workloads as much as possible.

Focusing on value

It may seem obvious, but when prioritizing projects in Agile project management, the defining factor businesses need to consider is the project value. Rapid experimentation makes it possible for teams to vet projects and gather relevant data early on, and to determine which projects are more likely to bring in positive returns before fully committing to any that might prove non-valuable.

Just as the Agile methodology has improved how businesses approach software development, its principles may be applied to portfolio management to give organizations a faster, simpler, more-transparent route to project success. But getting there means working with the right tools and resources. ServiceNow, the leader in IT management, has the solution.

ServiceNow Strategic Portfolio Management (SPM) is built on the revolutionary Now Platform® and empowers businesses with the support they need to orchestrate their Agile portfolios. ServiceNow’s SPM is a set of philosophies, capabilities, and processes, all supported by integrated technologies. Working together, these tools empower organizations with improved capabilities to develop and implement vital portfolio strategies, driving business outcomes by bringing strategy fully in line with day-to-day work.

Track all relevant data and releases in a single, real-time view. Streamline processes and apply advanced automation solutions to eliminate bottlenecks. Guide investments. Communicate plans. See work in the correct strategic context. Increase project velocity and accelerate time to value like never before. And through it all, enjoy the unmatched coordination, collaboration, and transparency that comes from operating on a single, unified platform. ServiceNow makes it all possible.

Optimize your portfolio business value; try ServiceNow Strategic Portfolio Management, and make your Agile transformation a successful one.

Get started with Strategic Portfolio Management

See for yourself how ServiceNow is leading the KPI revolution and get ready to guide your business towards success.