Growing Ideas on Portfolio Boards

Ideas grow. Scope creeps. Before we know it, we have some rampant behemoth that encompasses everyone’s area of concern. At the same time though the rapid growth omits loads of useful stuff, and ends up giving patchy coverage of a diverse range of requirements.

Flickr/Bruno Cordioli

Flickr/Bruno Cordioli

Wouldn’t it be great if we could keep our idea small, and control the growth. If we did this, we could watch it grow, see the intricate detail, and ensure that we aren’t missing opportunities. We could make it so that we give our idea the right support at each stage of its lifecycle.

But we’re really challenged to get all this well meant stuff across on our busy portfolio board.

So why not use a bit of wisdom from horticulture?

When you plant tiny seeds for flowering garden (‘Bedding’) plants, it is common to sow them by evenly scattering over some compost. So you prepare the growing medium, find a way to scatter the seeds evenly, a mist of water, and then into a warm place to get them started. After a few days the seedlings will have started to appear.

The next step would be to separate them, which is sometimes called, ‘pricking out.’ The idea is to get individual plants, and transfer them into segmented trays, for growing on. So again, prepare the growing medium, transfer the plants (carefully), a drop of water, and into the wider greenhouse while they get stronger.

There might be a few weeks in a cold frame too, but for our purposes, the final stage would be to plant them out in the border. So again, prepare the growing medium, transfer the plants, a good glug of water, and hope that Jack Frost doesn’t come back.

The lesson is that we have always been dealing with the same plants. Sure we have a wider view of the entire program, which was to have some lovely flowers in the garden this summer. However, rather than try to shoehorn all the activity into our progressive portfolio board columns. We accept that we are doing the same thing a number of times to progress our tiny idea, into it’s fully fledged, enterprise wide, result.

This learning, makes it so that we can develop an idea, with no pressure on individuals to deliver too much too early. It makes sure that we have appropriate controls in place to handle scope and budget creep. It stops people trying to make their project look mature, when really it doesn’t stand a chance in the cold wind of enterprise wide deployment.

By running an idea through the whole portfolio cycle a number of times we retain the original idea, ensure that it develops, gaining the organisation’s values, without mutating the steps that the organisation uses to recognise maturity.

An example would be to conduct a feasibility exercise for a new management tool, affording the organisation a chance to find out the pitfalls, and potential benefits. Then taking this out to a select group, which requires a small procurement exercise, and some further work to understand the cost benefit pattern. The third run of this project through the portfolio board, would be the enterprise wide deployment.

By the third run, the organisation will have the fine detail it needs to enable a successful procurement, or development exercise. All the relevant departments will know exactly what their involvement will be, and we should start to see much smoother movement of projects across portfolio boards. Referring to other work it is also quite likely that we will have exerted some spin on the original project, causing it to change layers as it gains momentum (not necessarily speed).

I realise I’m not the first person to try out a gardening metaphor. The only reason I mention this, is that as I was exploring this thinking with a client, I was reminded of my Grandad, who taught me all this when I was about ten years old. Sometimes, in our big important roles, it is so easy to forget that most of the things we value, were taught to us when we were small.