Deciding which projects to back, and which ones to cut: thoughts for execs

Deciding which projects to keep and which ones to cut: thoughts for execs

My last project was supposed to be about Setting Up for Success – coaching and an external perspective on the initiation and governance of their strategic initiatives. It turned into a Portfolio Review, or as the finance team put it a CAPEX Cull.

“…it sharpens your perception, when your back’s against the wall.” Almost Lucy, Al Stewart.

I’ve done three of these in as many months in different organisations. One was in a positive, forward-planning mode. Another was a considered proactive paring back in an overstretched organisation. The last a full-on cash preservation exercise.

It struck me that the decisions we took quickly in the latter were strategically and commercially sharper, and consequently had better support and enabled us to proceed with conviction.

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Two observations which might usefully be applied to any portfolio review:

  1. Decision weighted towards delivery-focused criteria. Away from business case detail and ROI (but obviously not completely away from). The tone was more ‘can I get at the benefits (soon)?’ less ‘which project (notionally) has the greatest benefits?’
  2. We stopped activity that didn’t make the cut. We didn’t just trim it back, reduce the scope or ask for savings. Nor did we just reduce the contractor resource and hope it could continue. We stopped it. Actually do fewer things, rather than observing that we were trying to do too much.


Our delivery-focused criteria took the form of three simple questions. If a project didn’t get ‘three yeses’, then it got cut. Sharing here with the client’s permission:

a) Does the project have a leader who is taking accountability and is actually ‘in’ the project?

Not just a sponsor, not just a really good project manager but someone who is driving the expenditure in pursuit of the promised benefits. No project should proceed without this. Ever.

b) Is the project staffed with a team who have a shared view of project approach and purpose?

You can’t do a project without people working on it. I’m always amazed at how organisations approve external spend but withhold heads and then try to proceed. Staff it, or don’t do it. Hiring a load of new contractors and consultants into client-side subject matter roles doesn’t work either. You’ll be spending money and not making progress – the worst of both worlds. (Obviously good consultants can be incredibly helpful! Just play them into the right roles.)

c) Do the project groups talk more about output and outcomes than plans and meetings?

If the governance conversation is about governance and process not substance and benefit realisation, then the project is doomed. Worse is the “the steering group is here to govern risks and spend, not to take project decisions” nonsense. Without being too Machiavellian about it: the trick here is to ask a few key stakeholders about the project and see where the conversation starts.

If you’re in cash preservation mode, then some basic screening pre-qualifying questions will be in order too: Does this protect my in year revenue? and Does cutting this now bring me new costs or material risks later this year?

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Possibly not. So, if you are in a more strategic mode then take a look at the projects that didn’t get ‘three yeses’ and pick out the ones that have apparently more compelling cases and are on strategy. Why aren’t they getting done?

It may be they are too hard, or are somehow dangerous, or too complicated, or require new capabilities we don’t have. And as such, they haven’t been naturally picked up and owner. If that is the case then some executive intervention is required to energise those initiatives.

My humble experience is that these things find their levels and that good senior managers are filtering the right things to do. The day-to-day tendency will be towards the urgent not the important, there is always a need to correct for that.

Before you muscle in and start re-prioritising pause to understand the right projects aren’t getting done – what is the root cause. Are you prepared to stop other projects? Are you prepared to spend more/resource more? Or do you just want more for less?


I had a flashback to a project we ran for a large property business some years ago looking at their innovation pipeline. In deciding which one to proceed with the CEO’s principal criteria was: Is there someone in my team who is excited about this?

So it’s the same old conclusion. Back the best teams because that’s how stuff gets done. (And if you find you have your best teams on the wrong projects then take a look at how you do planning!).

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