5 Tips for Post-COVID Programme Portfolio Realignment

Written by Head of Consulting Delivery Darren Womack, at Airwalk Reply.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed many areas of life, and in the business environment there are impacts upon finance, working styles, business priorities, employee needs/wants and for many organisations a shift in strategic intent as a response to this new environment.  

For organisations with portfolios of change projects it is not unsurprising that many will be considering how to re-shape these, but what are the things to consider when restructuring and endeavour to optimise?

1. Identify the velocity of your programmes and determine where to slow down, where to speed up and where to stop but with a strong link to business case arguments and benefits realisation.

  • The rationale for each programme and each initiative within a portfolio will have incurred a natural re-prioritisation as you consider the COVID-19 impact.  For example, what was once an imperative to boost revenue in an area may now be a moot point if the market has shrunk and with little opportunity for increase sales in the short term.  
  • However, considering the intangible benefits and opportunities for improvement on the journey to realising the original core benefits may still be worth exploring.  Asking yourself 'what was broken that I was trying to fix?' and 'where was the risk I was containing and how is change?' may seem simple and obvious questions but it is interesting how many companies don’t enquire sufficiently deeply when re-examining the case for change.  Be honest, be firm and be enquiring of your own reason for executing a change project.
  • When we encourage clients to take the benefits case for their whole portfolio and then de-compose to identify the hierarchy of supporting benefits, we have found that quite frequently this can deliver a hierarchy of value.  Once you have your 'benefits tree' it is possible to navigate a new path to your post-COVID world strategic ambitions.
  • Taking a benefit driven approach and slicing horizontally and vertically across the portfolio then overlaying the time dimension can help create the post-COVID business case for your portfolio of change that re-purposes existing programmes, programme components and benefits realisation and thus provides useful data in answering the question 'is this project still relevant in the post-COVID world?
  • Your new business case can inform where to do more (go faster), do less (slow down), stop and start in relation to individual Programmes to form your new portfolio.

2. Remember, there are good costs and bad costs

  • The immediate natural reaction in a cost-conscious environment is to take a wholesale and sometimes harsh look at outgoings and to simply turn off the taps.  Quite a natural reaction when the scales are tipping in the direction of simply haemorrhaging cash as a business.  
  • It is worth slowing down at this point and bringing an element of calm to proceedings.   Not so long ago you considered these costs as a worthwhile investment.  Consider what the cost buys your organisation in terms of containing or reducing risk, increasing revenues or potential for future revenue, bringing a capability uplift to your organisation when using 3rd parties and so on.  It’s also important to factor in the additional costs of turning the taps back on again of course.
  • When cutting costs, it’s important to realise that you may be doing so at the risk of replacing a tangible cost with an opportunity cost.  Stopping a programme to increase your organisations capability in an area could lead to you forgoing the opportunity to exploit a profitable situation in the future.  It’s about thinking longer term and always cycling back to the rationale for the cost initially.  It is important to balance affordability with investment return against the organisations risk appetite.
  • Looking at the values of your significant cost areas within programmes it is interesting to consider how much 'fat' was built – some call this contingency whereas the UK HM Treasury regard this as 'optimism bias; the natural tendency to underestimate cost, duration, and risk premium on a programme.   Some programme regimes will have built this in, and we have found that many clients can cut costs by virtue of reducing the over-estimation value for costs through demonstrable risk mitigation.  Ask yourself if you added resource, duration and budget 'just in case'.  This would be you addressing your initial optimism but if you are now further into your programmes and have a clear understanding of where the risk truly resides you can potentially cut the costs of mitigating certain risks as means to reducing the overall programme budget.

3. Regulatory driven programmes – yes, but what about your discretionary ones when you have to make choices?

  • Regulatory and compliance obligations are clear when considering resetting your portfolio.  Maybe there are opportunities to address the speed of delivery and reduce the 'burn' rate and still meet your obligations in this space, but the real impact most probably comes from addressing the 'discretionary' part of the change portfolio.  Notwithstanding putting a benefits realisation lens on the analysis how else can you think about your discretionary portfolio?
  • Assuming the benefits case can still be made, you have identified the 'fat' and the investment in addressing optimism bias and cut contingency, so is there anything else you might consider?  
  • We have found with many clients that consideration of the destination rather than the journey can reveal some interesting insight into the purpose of a programme.  The time factor from when the programme conceived means purpose and rationale can erode, and the relevance of the benefit or objectives can be called into question.  Often, when a programme is of such strategic value organisations forget to look up and just check they are heading in the right direction.   The current situation, presented by COVID-19, gives organisations the opportunity to reset their purpose to match the prevailing market, employee circumstances or new government legislation.  
  • Your original intent might bring benefit in terms of a simple value return vs cost but asking 'is this sustainable' or, 'is this relevant?' can help work out what is important and that can make the case for massive positive change.

4. Rigour, control and strong programme governance is key to a portfolio reset

  • Throttling burn rates, driving out costs and reducing contingency, focusing on benefits realisation and strategic intent to try to make sense of the so called 'new normal' for your change portfolio is easy to describe but harder to realise in practice.
  • Key to executing a portfolio reset is strong governance and programme rigour.  Having in place the people and processes to control, track and monitor your programme or portfolio in an objective, evidence-based way is fundamental to success.  It is crucial to have the right data to be able to make the choices you need to make, and it is also critical to success of transitioning to a new flavour of portfolio to be able to track the impacts (both positive and negative).
  • A strong Project Management Office (PMO) coupled with robust and relevant tools and techniques are critical to your overall ability to have a sufficient line of sight on progress, the effectiveness of implementation strategies and most of all – clarity on the true position of the health of your portfolio.  There will be challenges initially and having enough trip wires in place to set off the alarms with sufficient notice for you to effectively address turbulence as it arises can only come from a well formed PMO utilising good practice and intellectual rigour.
  • Changing course is easy, maintaining that course in what seems like uncharted territory makes it tempting to revert to the comfort of what you know.  Clarity of your position in terms of progress, burn, risk, etc. provided by your PMO is key to success.

5. Only your people can deliver your change benefits so look after them

  • The previous tips have focused on benefits, costs, strategy, rigour, etc.  All very important but also all a product of the capabilities of the people who make up your programme delivery teams.
  • All the techniques, tools, good practice and benchmarking data in the world are worthless without their expert application from strong project people who can see beyond the technique, the risk log, the business case and can step back or sideways to frame what is being asked of them and the project.   Capable programme and project people can see problems with clarity and ask the 'so what' and 'why' questions that bring a healthy dose of intellectual violence to programme delivery and change.
  • In keeping your portfolio relevant and your organisation moving forward it is vital to identify and embrace those individuals in your organisation, and in that of partner organisations, who can challenge and navigate ambiguity in a structured way.  Portfolios of change are highly complex environments in a steady state environment and these skills are more pressing in the current turmoil brought about by COVID-19.
  • An enquiring mindset, delivery awareness, business domain knowledge and the ability to work with ambiguity and competing priorities during the transition from old portfolio to new is key.  Without these sorts of organisational capabilities any shift of focus, prioritisation or re-formulated suite of initiatives will be challenging at best.
  • Finally, the human factor.  Your people will have gone through a lot during the pandemic either suffering directly or seeing friends and family members suffer.  Even if they have been lucky and not been directly affected by the physical aspects of the disease, they most probably had the mental strain of working from home, worries about their jobs, income, and career path and of course a concern of what happens next.  It is important that the change in portfolio composition and direction is framed as a positive development and should be the start of a new opportunity.  
  • Even after positioning things in this way it is fundamentally important to be kind to your people or your gains will be short-term never mind it simply being just the right thing to do.