As a Managing Partner at Atomic Object, I find that proactive, strategic management of our project portfolio has a huge impact on the overall success of our organization. Our portfolio’s health affects employee happiness, client satisfaction, resource utilization, and economic sustainability.
Diversification is one of the strongest drivers keeping my team’s project portfolio healthy. I pay attention to diversification across three dimensions: clients, project stage, and project team composition.
1. Diversification of Clients
I like to keep a healthy mix of clients from different industries and different sizes and types of companies. A diverse client portfolio has many benefits. In times of economic downturn or uncertainty, certain types of businesses and client organizations will be affected differently than others. Some companies may be quicker to cut projects when there’s a whiff or recession in the air, some might slow things down for a while, and some industries are virtually recession-proof. Having a range of clients helps keep our business stable even when the economy is more unpredictable.
Another advantage of a diverse portfolio is the breadth of experience we’ve developed across different industries. When we start a project with a new client, we bring a wealth of knowledge from our prior work. We can often borrow patterns and make connections across industries that our clients might not have seen on their own because of their deep experience in their own vertical.
Having a diverse client portfolio also helps us constantly evolve and move toward the future. Because we’re not anchored in any industry or technology stack, we can nimbly move to where the world is going.
Diversification is not without its challenges. It means we have to be experts at becoming experts, constantly learning and adapting as we drop into new situations. And, in certain situations, there is no substitute for deep specialist knowledge. For the most part, though, it makes sense for specialist knowledge to come from our clients because it’s part of the “secret sauce” that differentiates them from the competition.
2. Diversification of Project Stages
In our portfolio, I like to see a mix of projects in different stages. We’ll have one or two clients that have been working steadily for a year or longer and have no plans to slow down. I look at these as “anchors” or “cornerstones” in the portfolio, something to fall back on when unexpected things happen with other projects. Then I like to see a mix of medium-sized, medium-length projects, some just starting and some wrapping up. These represent variety and new opportunities. And finally, we have short, bursty engagements filling in the cracks. These engagements might be a discovery engagement for a new client or a burst of maintenance and software enhancements for an existing client. It can also be a time-boxed technical planning and architecture work for an upcoming project.
I don’t like to see too many projects continuing in perpetuity. This means we don’t have the chance to develop relationships with new clients. I don’t like to see too many things all starting and ending at once, either. That’s because too much churn in the portfolio creates a sense of stressful change throughout our office. I can’t always control when projects start or end, but sometimes I do have the chance to shape things a certain way. Taking advantage of those opportunities can help our business run smoothly.
3. Diversification Within Teams
Our project teams form, change over time, disband, and reform as projects in our portfolio kick off, grow, and ramp down. One of my goals is that Atoms have the opportunity to work with a variety of different colleagues throughout a career at Atomic. It may seem counterintuitive to split up a team or a pair of developers that work well together and have a string of successes under their belt. However, team members who work together for a while (even over multiple projects) eventually level off in the amount they can teach and learn from one another.
When assembling a team, I pay attention to the personality of the client organization and stakeholders. I also do my best to matchmake team members who will mesh well with the client and find the work both rewarding and challenging. Staffing a team with a diverse mix of skill sets and experience levels allows our clients to access both the expertise senior Atoms bring to the table and the curiosity, enthusiasm, and innovative thinking of younger folks. The ability of newer folks to ask “What if we…?” and “Why not?” is an asset to the team and is a catalyst for creative thinking.
Keeping a Project Portfolio Health
Many nuances contribute to keeping a project portfolio healthy for an organization like Atomic Object. And, the work of managing that project portfolio is never done. Keeping an eye on a healthy client mix, project size and shape, and team size and shape is an ever-evolving puzzle, and many constraints can emerge that make it hard to achieve the “ideal” mix. However, I’ve found that managing with these “best practices” in mind allows me to identify potential issues sooner and proactively address them. In turn, that allows our clients and our team members to have the best chance of project success.