Ways to avoid (accidentally) creating an elitist portfolio team

Ways to avoid (accidentally) creating an elitist portfolio team

A portfolio team plays the role of translating the enterprise vision into action (or in some cases also defining the vision). They help set broad strokes to align teams on the ground.

The downside is that this team of strategists and architects can be perceived as elitist. That perception can erode relationships and slow down your impact. Since the whole purpose of having a portfolio team in the first place is to improve and scale outcomes, there’s no point in making your job harder.

A portfolio plan doesn’t matter unless it’s executed. And the value-added by a well-allocated portfolio helps amplify the outcomes of execution. These tips can help you reduce any actual or perceived division between your teams:


1. Be aware of the narrative

People on a portfolio team need to have a higher-level view of the business. They’re executives, managers, or professionals who mastered their field at a local level and took on gradually more complex initiatives that increased in scope. They probably have a different worldview, training, and past experiences than other people in the enterprise. They’re in charge of larger budgets. And let’s be honest, the team is probably a group of workaholics, at least partially driven by achievement and status.

Cross-cutting insights and leadership help avoid local optimization. They are critical for transformation according to John P. Kotter, a change management expert. However, the difference between the portfolio team and the execution teams becomes less productive when accompanied by a tone of “we know best” or “we’re the smartest in the organization.” That mentality can be detrimental in rapidly changing complex systems. Where no one has complete information and many factors can influence an outcome.

One way to sidestep an unproductive elitist tone is to avoid phrases like “this is the A-team” or “we’re the best.” Seems simple but you’d be surprised how often that happens, without people realizing what they’re saying. Be aware of private comments too because they will eventually get out. Even if it’s just a mentality, others will perceive that you’re treating them differently. Celebrating accomplishments is fine to help with team bonding, but avoid comments that position the portfolio team as better than other teams.

This also impacts how you should pitch the value of creating a portfolio team. Focus on the gap that portfolio can fill to support the other teams. Not a narrative that the teams are broken and this new team will come in and fix what they couldn’t.


2. Re-frame your purpose as service

Portfolio team activities can become a top-down way to design your business. However, a more effective scope would be centered around the information and support that teams need to achieve enterprise objectives. Portfolio teams should focus on sharing a holistic vision, supporting centralized capabilities, facilitating cross-unit coordination, obtaining new funding, and providing training.

This allows teams on the ground to make informed decisions. It will also reduce the workarounds and technical debt that they take on to make progress in the absence of a business and enterprise architecture that supports them. A Portfolio Team that serves other teams and reduces barriers instead of dictating what they must do is an asset, not elitist.


3. Build collaboration into your workflow

Making portfolio decisions that affect existing teams behind closed doors can backfire. The inputs could have been inaccurate and the results could be obsolete by the time teams are ready to act. Which ends up wasting time and resources, or causing teams to blindly follow recommendations without question.

A better approach if you need to create a high-level design that impacts a few teams is to invite representatives from those teams to participate. They can share insights and help design the solution before you make further investment decisions. You could run through a short Enterprise Design Sprint with them before deciding whether further portfolio funding is needed. Sharing insights and creating solutions together will lead to better relations and more ownership over the decisions then handing off a solution.


4. Rotate team members

One way to keep perspectives fresh and to build relationships is to rotate members. Seek out people in other positions who are interested in a more strategic perspective or would benefit from a broader view and incorporate them into your team for a few weeks or months. You could do the same with portfolio team members by embedding them in an execution team for a delivery cycle.


5. Share outcomes

Lop-sided expectations can breed resentment. If people are required to put together extensive reports and yet never hear back from portfolio discussions, then they’ll feel like there’s no point or that their time isn’t valued. Whether your meetings are open or not, share the outcomes as quickly as possible. If a decision hasn’t been made yet then share that update.


6. Invite people to meetings

Extending an invitation to your portfolio team meetings helps people feel like you’re all one team. Plus they can hear discussions and decisions. They can also learn more about what you actually do, which dispels assumptions.


7. Visit other people’s ceremonies

Demos, planning sessions, wireframe reviews, all are opportunities to show your support and offer insights that the team might not be aware of. Chastising people for not spotting a cross-cutting implication when a product is about to go out the door is a less effective strategy.


8. Ask questions (and listen)

Teams understand that they can’t be everywhere and that some conversations have to happen at a portfolio level without them. So ask them questions. Understand at a high level what they’re working on and what they think the opportunities and challenges are.


9. Share your vision and reasoning by keeping good records

It seems like the further you move up the ladder, the less time people personally spend on documentation. Portfolio teams can add more confusion than good if they simply share a decision with no indication of what went into it. Who was consulted? What paths were explored and why were they abandoned? Which aspects of the new direction are concrete vs. flexible?

Being proactive and sharing your vision, decisions, and reasoning can help dramatically. Especially when people can’t attend the original meeting. Verbal communication is a good step, but documentation also helps provide a self-service reference later on which is great for alignment and onboarding. It also helps other teams more easily see how they can help you achieve the vision, instead of waiting for the next set of instructions.


Self-organizing autonomous teams are great. But a cross-cutting and longer-term view is also necessary for the sustainable success of a company. Your organization can amplify the impact of both groups by paying attention to any unproductive divisions you’re (accidentally) creating.

Have you encountered (real or perceived) elitist teams in your organization? What behaviors and actions helped? Which didn’t?

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