Thinking in portfolios


Advances in Project Management


By Prof Darren Dalcher

Director, National Centre for Project Management
Lancaster University Management School

United Kingdom



Portfolios offer an established way of organising, prioritising and delivering streams of work according to strategic intent. Portfolios enable organisations to optimise their investments based on their context, their appetite for change, transformation and risk, and the availability of and ability to utilise key resources. Portfolios often encompass and rely on projects and programmes, as well as other activities including business as usual, but they do differ significantly from projects and project thinking and require different ways of contextualising and responding to needs, priorities and potential opportunities. Effective development and management of portfolios demands strategic awareness, new skills and different mindsets that transcend beyond traditional project mindsets.

Starting with projects

Projects are ubiquitous to most aspects of life and society as they are increasingly utilised as the chief method of achieving change and attaining progress. Development and progress are thus actualised through streams of project-related activities. In many ways, projects have moved into the mainstream and are becoming a defining characteristic of work and life. This trend appears to have intensified as society endeavours to pivot and introduce immediate change following the Covid-19 pandemic and the related societal upheaval.

Even before the pandemic there has been a growing recognition that projects act as the economic engines of our times, requiring a rethinking of their wider role and impact (Nieto-Rodrigues, 2019). According to PMI (2020) we are shifting into a project economy, one where business is increasingly utilising projects to handle work and solve problems:

In many ways, the organization is its projects—led by a variety of titles, executed through a variety of approaches, and focused unwaveringly on delivering financial and societal value. This is what we call The Project Economy.’ (PMI, 2020: 1)

Similar trends have been observed at the societal level, as we increasingly make sense of and engage with the surrounding world through projects (Jensen, 2012).

The projectification of business and working life is ongoing and strong. The movement goes beyond traditional project-oriented sectors such as construction, consultancy, media and entertainment. Project thinking is spreading to most parts of society, including industrial enterprises, governmental organizations, educational institutions, and volunteer groups. Not only do people relate to project organizing in their working lives, but they even think and speak of their daily lives in project terms.’ (Lundin et al., 2015: ix)

However, the increasing reliance on projects also raises some fundamentally important questions: Are there any implications to developing a project-related view of life? Specifically, do projects encourage a short-term fixation with optimising for execution? More critically perhaps, do they blind us to seeing beyond our own internal project boundaries? Ultimately, is the project vision too disconnected and limiting?

If we extend the questions to the organisations we work for and the society we belong to, it becomes possible to identify a further layer of open questions around the nature of organisations, their permanence, and the need to temporarily organise and deliver through projects: Does temporary organising through and via projects, impact the more permanent structures and the pursuit of goals and purpose? Alternatively, are we in the process of shifting into liquid and fluid modes of redefining purpose, society and attainment, where projects offer the only legitimate method of responding to emerging conditions?  Ultimately, therefore, how do we balance long term ambition, with short-term delivery mechanisms? And how do we continue to address and balance immediate necessities, such as those emerging during the pandemic, that defy long term plans and projections, and also capitalise on emerging opportunities whilst maintaining a vision and strategic intent.


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Editor’s note: The PMWJ Advances in Project Management series includes articles by authors of program and project management books published by Routledge publishers.  Each month an introduction to the current article is provided by series editor Prof Darren Dalcher, who is also the editor of the Routledge Advances in Project Management series of books.  Prof Dalcher’s article is an introduction to the invited paper this month in the PMWJ. 

How to cite this paper: Dalcher, D. (2020). Thinking in portfolios, Advances in Project Management Series, PM World Journal, Volume IX, Issue XII, December. Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/pmwj100-Dec2020-Dalcher-thinking-in-portfolios.pdf



About the Author

Darren Dalcher, PhD

Author, Professor, Series Editor
Director, National Centre for Project Management
Lancaster University Management School, UK


Darren Dalcher, Ph.D., HonFAPM, FRSA, FBCS, CITP, FCMI, SMIEEE, SFHEA, MINCOSE is Professor in Strategic Project Management at Lancaster University, and founder and Director of the National Centre for Project Management (NCPM) in the UK.  He has been named by the Association for Project Management (APM) as one of the top 10 “movers and shapers” in project management and was voted Project Magazine’s “Academic of the Year” for his contribution in “integrating and weaving academic work with practice”. Following industrial and consultancy experience in managing IT projects, Professor Dalcher gained his PhD in Software Engineering from King’s College, University of London.

Professor Dalcher has written over 300 papers and book chapters on project management and software engineering. He is Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Software: Evolution and Process, a leading international software engineering journal. He is the editor of the book series, Advances in Project Management, published by Routledge and of the companion series Fundamentals of Project Management.  Heavily involved in a variety of research projects and subjects, Professor Dalcher has built a reputation as leader and innovator in the areas of practice-based education and reflection in project management. He works with many major industrial and commercial organisations and government bodies.

Darren is an Honorary Fellow of the APM, a Chartered Fellow of the British Computer Society, a Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute, and the Royal Society of Arts, a Senior Member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a Member of the Project Management Institute (PMI), the British Academy of Management and the International Council on Systems Engineering. He is a Chartered IT Practitioner. He sits on numerous senior research and professional boards, including The PMI Academic Insight Team, the CMI Academic Council and the APM Group Ethics and Standards Governance Board as well as the British Library Management Book of the Year Panel.  He is the Academic Advisor, author and co-Editor of the highly influential 7th edition of the APM Body of Knowledge. Prof Dalcher is an academic advisor for the PM World Journal. He can be contacted at d.dalcher@lancaster.ac.uk.

To view other works by Prof Darren Dalcher, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/darren-dalcher/.