Sharing Strategic Portfolio Management Experiences | ValuePoint Dec 2019

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

by David Matheson and Ralph Morales III, SmartOrg

At this invitation-only Community of Practice (CoP) for strategic portfolio management held in Boston this past October, executives from a broad spectrum of industries came together in an intimate, confidential setting to share experiences and knowledge in their portfolio management journey.

For the fourth year in a row, SmartOrg coordinated a professional gathering. Shawn Williams offered to host the event at the Rogers Corporation Innovation Center, which is co-located at the Kostas Institute for Homeland Security on the Northeastern University campus in Boston. Peter Boynton, CEO of the Institute, provided a tour of the facility he directs to achieve the mission of “enabling innovation at the seams of start-ups, enterprise, and government in service of homeland security.” His primary job role: “finding red tape that gums up the speed of innovation and skillfully cutting through it so that we can move quickly to results.” Isn’t that what we all do?

CoP members standing in a drone-testing anechoic chamber

What are these strategic portfolio leaders doing in a drone testing anechoic chamber?

SmartOrg values creating and fostering professional relationships. The CoP members—Bose (consumer electronics), Google (information services), Fidelity Labs (investment services), ExxonMobil (energy), Corteva (agriculture), DuPont (engineered materials), and MITRE (federal R&D)—get away from the office to step back, slow down, lean in, and collaborate on a common theme of balancing innovation and incremental opportunities. Here are the highlights from the day.


To help the CoP members get to know one another, each member presented their work in a confidential overview. Understanding what others have accomplished and what they still have left to do was inspiring and informative. As each presentation unfolded, members discovered similarities and intriguing challenges that broadened their perspective. “We don’t have that issue now, but I can see how that will be a big deal as we progress down our development”—insight from a peer orientation.

Tear sheet from seminar

Tear sheet from seminar

Experiential Learning

SmartOrg provided a portfolio simulation developed for Stanford executive education. This game involving dice to represent uncertainty takes away the fog of technology and go-to-market complexities to focus on a few core lessons inherent in successful portfolio management:

  • No one can pick winning projects. The rejected projects of two teams had a greater value than the selected projects. Doh!
  • Playing it safe with projects in your portfolio doesn’t produce a safe portfolio. A team with the “safe” projects failed to meet adequate ROI, even though they were break-even.
  • Good vs. great projects are a choice. To get great projects in your portfolio, you may have to kill merely good ones.
  • Innovation Oyster projects (high risk, high return) are often falsely perceived as relatively low value, compared to Bread & Butter incremental type projects.
  • To find the Pearls, you have to focus on proving out Oysters with an Oyster farm strategy.

Kostas Institute Tour

While every innovation lab has whiteboards, post-it notes, and an endless supply of Sharpies, does your innovation center have a scanning electron tunneling microscope for materials science testing? How about a full-scale anaechoic chamber for in-flight EM resilience testing? The tour gave us a chance to stretch our legs, get in 4,000 steps and see how a high-functioning university, start-up, plus corporate innovation zone can work successfully.

Another tear sheet

Working in real time to identify value

Peer-to-Peer Coaching

Sometimes ideas need to bounce around in a safe space and reflect off of diverse backgrounds and experiences. Participants paired up by challenges of interest to share their current journey and receive advice on resolution approaches.

• Much of my organization resists evaluation of their projects. How do I get economic rigor in our portfolio comparisons?
• Should I drive change quickly or slowly in my organization?
• What level of rigor is appropriate for evaluating small bets?
• How do I deal with executive “cowboys” who want to chase their visions?
• How do I incorporate impact metrics (e.g. sustainability) alongside financial ones without watering everything down?
• What is the role of scouts in generating new innovative projects? How to fund them?
• What level of consistency in numbers do I need to support decision making? How do I get it?

One clear admission came from every group: project management seems to be at odds with portfolio management. Project management is the backbone of accomplishment— it’s how work gets done—while portfolio management is the brain of achievement. Stepping back from high-frequency project work to concentrate on portfolio work takes discipline.

Professional connections with your peers aren’t all about work. We also made time to break bread and got to know each other in a more personal manner. After all, if you need help down the road in your portfolio journey, it’s always easier to ask a friend than just a peer. Sharing the first concert ever attended, the trials and tribulations of parenting, and destination advice for future vacations proved that we all relish good food and conversation.

Have a great 2019 holiday, and we hope to see you at a Community of Practice in the new year.

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