2 December 2015

How to take charge of your project portfolio’s annual budget

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How to take charge of your project portfolio’s annual budget

Project and Programme Managers (PMs) are used to managing projects within a budget for the project stage or the whole project, but they sometimes overlook the context of the organisational annual budget; this is especially important if the project spans multiple financial years.

Project funding approval for a whole project or project stage can be thought of as the Portfolio Board deciding that the project’s business case is viable, and that the project should go ahead.

This approval can be given once for the whole project (usually if the project is relatively small, short in duration, low in complexity and risk), or gatewise at the beginning of each stage (usually if the project is relatively large, long in duration, high in complexity and risk). This approval can also be separate and distinct from the financial year budgeting process.

Inclusion of project funding in the financial year budget can be thought of as (usually) the Finance department deciding that the organisation can afford to spend £x on projects as a whole, with the projects making up the budget being selected based on some prioritisation rationale.

So a project managers’ forecasted project costs need to stay not only within the budget for the project (current stage and overall), but also the financial year budget (this is especially important if the project covers more than one financial year).

So how to apply this to portfolios? I was brought into a PMO facing an annual project budget considerably smaller than the previous year’s, with no way to forecast whether the proposed portfolio could be delivered within budget. The organisation had also mandated moving labour spend from Consultants, via Staff Augmentation (comprising flexible resources and independent Contractors), to permanent Internal staff. This is how I approached it:

  1. I devised a standardised way of classifying labour costs to enable comparison across projects (projects had previously been accounting for labour costs in a variety of ways).
  2. I introduced an approach requiring PMs to validate their remaining project cost forecasts every reporting cycle when updating actual costs.
  3. I created an automated report to extract financial data from the project portfolio system and present a monthly breakdown of costs over the financial year (with actuals in the past and forecasts in the future). Labour was broken down further (Consultancy / Staff Augmentation / Internal) to reveal trends (figure 2).

Thus, stakeholders could see every month whether the portfolio was on track to deliver within the financial year budget and track the movement of labour from high towards lower cost labour sources as mandated.

After a few months monitoring, I noticed that there was a “bow wave” phenomenon, with projects seeming to “push” cost forecasts in front of the current month. I suspected this was because the projects were forecasting to use up the remainder of the funds allocated to them, so I challenged the PMs to ensure that the forecast to the end of the year represents the forecast cost of the work remaining.

After some revisions to the forecasts, and delays to a number of projects (some deliberate, and some arising from outside the organisation), the outcome was that all the projects in the portfolio could be delivered well within the new lower budget, with a surplus being returned to the organisation.

Does your organisation monitor against annual financial budgets as well as end-to-end or gatewise project budgets? How does your PMO ensure that projects stay within all of these? Let me know in the comments.