Be Smart and never buy a standard project portfolio management tool

Organizations throughout the world are often ill-advised to buy a standard project portfolio management tool to keep track of their project and assist with project selection. It should be simpler and cheaper to buy a software tool that’s already made some might argue, which fits well with what would be common sense, but is it so?

The core functionalities of any project management tool are standard, such as scheduling with some sort of critical path and PERT calculations, resource and team allocation, workflow and risk tracking. Each of these functionalities can be supplied separately cheaply, or freely, in the market, but there’s a lot of value in have them integrated, right? Not really, with today’s technologies and standards for integration, based on XML or native to some platform such as JEE and NET, integrating those disparate solutions is no biggie.

The critical point is when you need to customize the tool to very specifics of your business. Those that make it stand from all other businesses out there. All in all, you should select and run your projects in a manner that gives you a distinctive advantage. Project and portfolio should help your business gain and sustain an edge over your competitors not turn it into a commodity. Most vendors will claim that their tools can be customized, which is, at best, a half-truth, since, in most cases, what they offer is a way to change the built-in forms or to create or adjust some workflow, if you do ask for something more specific, they will say that your request will be evaluated in a pipeline for some future version. C’mon, are they saying that the needs specific to your business shall be put in a pipeline and for those needs to be implemented there should be many similar requests? How could you gain an edge if your needs are the same as those of many others? Sometimes the vendor will offer to implement the functionality for you for an above-average cost — They have a monopoly on the solution you are buying, remember? — , accepting such an offer is certainly the least wise decision to take since you’ll be locked forever to the version of the software being customized.

To illustrate the point, a reputable government agency I was doing consulting to bought a project management tool that measured program benefits in terms of an NPV of future cash flows. Nothing could be farther from the needs of a government agency as that, since government programs normally do not generate and are not intended to generate any positive cash flow at all, some such programs are even designed to hand money for free to the poor or disadvantaged citizens. The vendor claimed that implementation of the changes would take at least four months, while using run-of-the-mill software development frameworks they could be done in no more than two weeks.

With my 10-year plus experience in project management consulting I am not reluctant to say: don’t buy a have-it-all project management tool, instead have one consultant with deep knowledge of your business integrate various cheap solutions and gain and sustain an edge through your unique project and portfolio management.