Creatures that slow down portfolio delivery

and how to kill them



By Marisa Silva
Portugal & UK


Henny Portman
The Netherlands




Many organizations struggle to finish their projects on time, on budget, and within scope. If you look into their portfolios, one of the first things to notice is the huge number of projects. I remember an organization with more than 600 projects. It was firefighting all over the place. Problems in one project were solved by resources from other projects and as a result the problem project is not at risk anymore (but delayed) and by using resources from other projects, these projects are now at risk too. And this approach was continuously repeated. Furthermore, the portfolio had independent projects delivering the same benefits (on paper) or delivering the same output. 100 percent resource utilization in optima forma and as a result a ‘traffic jam’ in the portfolio pipeline. After rationalization the final portfolio contained less than 100 projects and all of a sudden it was possible to finish projects and deliver benefits.

Portfolio management helps to solve these kinds of problems. Portfolio Management supports management by answering the following four questions:

  1. Are we doing the right projects?
  2. Are we doing projects the right way?
  3. Are we getting projects done well?
  4. Are we getting the business benefits?

In this article we want to focus on the first three questions by visualizing projects as specific creatures with their own behavior. For example, a pet project is a project that can be seen as a ‘pet’ or personal favorite from a senior manager and is not contributing to the organization’s strategy. This is not the right project (question 1) but by running this project you are absorbing scarce resources and change budget. The sooner this project is killed the better.

For each project creature you get one or more examples to understand the creature, to which question it relates, who must act, and how to kill the project creature or transform the creature into a project that fits in the portfolio.


Project creatures out there:

  1. Pet project

What is it? A project pursued as a personal favorite, rather than because it is generally accepted as necessary or important. Every organization has one of these – it might be the President’s last project, the CIO deciding that it’s time for a revolution, or even a Mayor dreaming of a library named after him. The projects are their “babies” and they will stop at nothing to have them implemented. Pet projects are a clear example of projects which might not be suitable to the portfolio, thus, they relate question 1 (are we doing the right projects?).

How to kill it? These types of projects are political and highly-emotional, and that is why they are so difficult to kill – they do not represent a rational problem, but instead they are linked to the egos and legacies of those who are trying to leave a mark behind. Unfortunately, most of the time pet projects do not entail real benefits to be achieved (or their business case is simply the result of confirmation bias) and are nothing more than a futile attempt for power games in the organization, wasting useful and often limited resources that would have been better employed in other initiatives. Because most times pet projects are conceived by the sponsors and others at the highest level in the hierarchy, the “whistleblower” needs to be someone independent from the project (or ideally, from the organization), such as a Project Management Office (PMO), or an Assurance or Audit department. However, remember this is not a rational project. Thus, there’s no point in coming to the sponsor with rational arguments or metrics, which will prove useless for this project creature. Instead, use a skeptical approach and ask ingenuous questions: “who are the customers of the project?”, “what will they gain from the project?”, “what does success looks like?”. To speak truth to power, speaking to their head is not enough, you need to speak at their heart too.

  1. Watermelon project

What is it? Watermelon projects, also known as watermelon reporting, refers to projects which are continuously reported as green (or healthy) on the outside but, when you look closer, surprise-surprise…they are red (in trouble) on the inside. The Red-Amber-Green (RAG) approach is a typical and well-established way of reporting the health of projects. However, while it is visually appealing and easy to interpret, reducing the pluralistic reality of a project to a single indicator may result in a loss of reliability over the real situation of the project and lead to such watermelon projects. Moreover, under the principle of management by exception, to present a project as red is almost as an invitation to senior management to dive into the situation, bringing unwanted attention to it, hence why the Project Manager may show a natural reluctance to flag the project as red. Yet, watermelon projects are symptomatic of a bigger problem and suggest that we are not doing projects the right way (question 2) nor getting projects done well (question 3).

How to kill it? Watermelon projects do not arise by chance but are usually a reflection of organizational cultures that promote ‘blamestorming’ instead of ‘brainstorming’, in this way influencing how facts are reported and risk management is addressed in projects. It is then crucial that the tone is dictated at the highest level from senior management downwards, encouraging transparency in status reports and emphasizing that a “red project” does not necessarily reflect poorly in the project manager but instead should be understood as a cry for help. Another approach that will prevent this project creature from happening is the existence of regular health checks, typically carried out by a PMO. This will ensure that there is continuous visibility over the project and that early warning indicators can be effectively and timely spotted. Finally, you can also consider reporting using multiple indicators rather than relying in just one – this mechanism will enable a richer picture of the project are areas in need of an intervention.

  1. Mushroom project

What is it? Can represent a project that pops up out of nowhere or be used to refer to a project kept in the dark. Let us take the first case first: projects that emerge out of thin air and in abundance, just like mushrooms. No one sees them coming, know where they originated or, sometimes, not even who is managing them. Such scenario begs the question “are we doing the right projects?” (question 1) and suggests, not only the absence of strong governance around how projects are initiated and approved, but also a lack of visibility over the overall portfolio of projects of the organization. As for the interpretation of mushroom projects as projects that are kept in the dark, these can also evidence poor visibility (and transparency!), but, more significantly, poor communication from the project manager, where the question “are we getting projects done well?” (question 3) becomes difficult to answer.


To read entire paper, click here


How to cite this paper: Silva, M. and Portman, H. (2019). Creatures that slow down portfolio delivery and how to kill them; PM World Journal, Vol. VIII, Issue IX, October. Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/pmwj86-Oct2019-Silva-Portman-creatures-that-slow-portfolio-delivery2.pdf



About the Authors

Marisa Sliva

Portugal / UK




Marisa Silva, the Lucky PM, is a PMO and PPM advisor, trainer, and international speaker, with a track record of building capabilities in complex organizations undergoing transformational change. A passionate advocate of the value of PMOs and project management, she was Programs Director at Project Managers Without Borders, Secretary of the APM PMO SIG, and is a certified PMO Value Ring consultant who co-authored the only APM-accredited PMO Practitioner course. Marisa is the author of “Bedtime Stories for Project Managers” and a Senior Consultant at Wellingtone, a leading project management consulting firm dedicated to enable step change in organizational PPM maturity. Marisa can be contacted at marisa.silva@wellingtone.co.uk.


Henny Portman

The Netherlands




Henny Portman is partner of HWP Consulting. He has 40 years of experience in the project management domain. He was the thought leader within NN Group of the PMO domain and responsible for the introduction and application of the PMO methodologies (portfolio, programme and project management) across Europe and Asia. He trains, coaches and directs (senior) programme, project and portfolio managers and project sponsors and built several professional (PM(O) communities. He is an accredited P3O, PRINCE2, MSP, MoP, PRINCE2 Agile, AgilePM, and AgileSHIFT trainer and a SPC4 SAFe consultant and trainer too. He is a P3M3 trainer and assessor and PMO Value Ring Certified Consultant. In addition, Henny is international speaker and author of many articles and books in the PM(O) field and blogger (hennyportman.wordpress.com).  Henny can be contacted at henny.portman@hwpconsulting.nl.