Defining the boundaries of portfolios


Advances in Project Management Series


By Robert Buttrick

United Kingdom



Do the right thing?

Defining a portfolio’s objectives, scope and boundaries is the first and most critical step in portfolio management. Everything that happens afterwards depends on this being right. You have probably heard about ‘doing the right thing’ and ‘doing it right’. The former is about undertaking activities to further strategic aims and the latter means doing them in a consistent way. ‘Doing the right thing’ is related to effectiveness, whilst ‘doing it right’ is more about efficiency. An effective organization is more likely to survive and thrive than one which is merely efficient. Being effective and efficient provides a sound basis for success as an organization.

Textbooks, methods and standards provide advice on ‘doing it right’ but cannot tell you what the ‘right thing’ is for your organization. Setting the strategic direction is a fundamental accountability of the senior leadership team and no book, consultant or observer can relieve them of that accountability. If you are a senior leader, the most a text book, method or standard can do is prompt you to ask yourself the questions which prompt the most useful answers and provide advice on how to organize your business to maximise its effectiveness.

Defining a portfolio depends on having a thorough understanding your organization, its aims and how it works. This is as true of a government department as for a multi-national corporation, private company, partnership, non-government organization (NGO) or charity, regardless of size. If you do not understand the purpose and aims of the organization and how it is currently performing, you cannot hope to be successful. Without a clear strategic direction:

  • business plans will not be aligned;
  • short term focus is likely to prevail, to the neglect of the long term;
  • projects and other work might conflict;
  • priorities might be confused or conflicting;
  • decisions might be contradictory.

Not having a ‘right way’ of working might lead to:

  • inadequate information for decision makers;
  • too many projects started;
  • overstretched resources;
  • incompatible processes;
  • roles and accountabilities becoming confused or omitted.

Any of the above problems could lead to organizational failure. A critical element of implementing your strategy is deciding the most appropriate objectives for an organization’s portfolios and what the boundaries of those portfolios are.

Strategic and business planning context

Often the development of strategy is treated as external to portfolio management. I would, however, argue that the development of strategy and the defining of the portfolio should be part of the same activity. The reasoning for this is that if ‘definition’ is about setting objectives to support strategy, those who set the strategy should also set the objectives. Strategic alignment, a key tenet of portfolio management, is impossible without a clearly defined and communicated strategy. The interface between those who develop strategy and those who set a portfolio’s objectives and the respective accountabilities must be clear. If business strategy and objective setting are undertaken in isolation, by separate teams, they are less likely to be aligned, leading to misunderstanding, crossed accountabilities and extra cost.


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Editor’s note: The Advances in Project Management series includes articles by authors of program and project management books published by Routledge worldwide. Their contributions to the PMWJ are coordinated by series editor, Prof Darren Dalcher, Lancaster University Management School, UK.

How to cite this paper: Buttrick, R. (2020). Defining the boundaries of portfolios, Advances in Project Management series, PM World Journal, Vol. IX, Issue XII, December. Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/pmwj100-Dec2020-Buttrick-defining-boundaries-of-portfolios.pdf



About the Author

Robert Buttrick

United Kingdom


Robert Buttrick is an independent advisor on portfolio, programme and project management, specialising in business-driven methods, processes and standards. Recent clients include the UK’s Cabinet Office, Network Rail, and AXELOS.  He  is and a Visiting Teaching Fellow at the University of Warwick, a member of the British Standards Institute’s committee MS2 for project management and is a UK Principal Expert on the equivalent ISO technical committee, TC258 (dealing with international standards on portfolio, programme and project management.)

As well as being the author of “The Programme and Portfolio Workout” and the “The Project Workout”, Robert has worked in one of the world’s most turbulent and challenging industrial sectors, telecommunications, where he has been accountable for creating and running project-based frameworks for managing change, involving the direction of portfolios of over 2500 projects, totalling £4bn spend per year. Before this, Robert was with PA Consulting Group, a management and technology consultancy. There, he specialised in business-led project management, advising clients such as TSB Bank, National Rivers Authority, Property Services Agency, Avon Industrial Polymers, National Westminster Bank and RHM.

After graduating from the University of Liverpool with a first class honours degree, he joined Sir Alexander Gibb & Partners (now Jacobs) who provided consulting, design and management services for infrastructure, working in countries as diverse as Kenya, Mauritius, Yemen, Senegal and Sudan. He has also worked with the World Bank, in Washington DC on investment appraisals for major development projects.

Robert is a Master of Business Administration (Henley Management College), a Member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, Chartered Engineer and a Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers. In 2010, Robert received a Distinguished Service Certificate from the BSI for services to national and international project management standards, and in 2013 he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Association for Project Management.