One reason why your portfolio isn't working

One reason why your portfolio isn't working

Building a portfolio management system that transforms an organization can be a challenge.

To support you during the journey, on this site we talk about the kinds of activities and people you could include. Artifacts to help view your work in different ways. Plus frameworks and tools to simplify your work and guide others.

These details are helpful for turning a dream into something tangible. You gather the components, assemble them, test them out, tweak them, maybe even further customize some pieces to better fit your circumstances.

You end up with meeting notes, graphics, to do lists, prototypes, working code, and products in the real world. People retweet your message and buy your product. Or maybe they don’t.

Some tough love: If the results you truly want aren’t occurring, it might be your fault.

Because your portfolio will deliver the results you designed it to deliver.

As you were creating your portfolio, there were some design constraints you added that you might not be aware of. The good news is that you can change them, once you recognize them.


Illuminating the portfolio boundaries

Like a gas, your portfolio of work will adapt to the size of your vision and any artificial constraints you place on it. Many organizations don’t consciously consider the bounds of their portfolio: the physical, temporal, and vision.

  • Physical bounds: Who and what the portfolio covers or doesn’t cover. Which resources can we “control” or influence? Which ones are fixed?
  • Temporal bounds: How far you’re looking out into the future. One year? 50 years? Further? What timeframe are you looking at? One point in time or a range? What kinds of highs and lows would you need to adapt to over that timeframe?
  • Vision bounds: The extent of the impact you’re dreaming of creating in the world. What impact are you looking to create in the long term? In the short term? For you, your employees, customers, or others? What’s your exit strategy? What value does this enterprise create after you’ve moved on? How far does this vision push you beyond what you can already do or could easily achieve within the next year?


The impact

The boundaries shape what the portfolio delivers. They concentrate focus. They’re set either explicitly by leaders, or implicitly, through a series of small decisions that gradually influence the culture.

In some cases, the bounds are at odds with each other. This mismatch causes the portfolio to conform to the most limited dimension.

For example, all of these portfolios will deliver different results:

  • A portfolio designed to improve the customer experience across an entire enterprise will prioritize understanding, designing, and implementing a new end-to-end experience.
  • A portfolio designed to improve the interactions on a website will focus on the interface design, and perhaps the underlying data and business process that surface the data. Or perhaps the teams that own the underlying data and processes are outside of the physical scope of the portfolio, therefore the vision isn’t truly achieved. In this case, often the vision is descoped to something the team can control so they can still declare some form of “victory.”
  • A portfolio designed to copy what your competitors are doing will result in a business that is always behind the trends.
  • A portfolio designed to focus on the short-term will be influenced by the trends of the day.
  • A portfolio designed to consider the next 20 years will be swayed by the themes of tomorrow.
  • A portfolio designed to purely handle incoming requests, will be directed by the quality and breadth of its inputs. Those requests may or may not propel you toward the vision.
  • A portfolio designed to transform an enterprise will proactively cover the entire enterprise.
  • A portfolio designed to protect current market position will look different than one that involves creating a new “blue ocean.”
  • A portfolio designed to maximize stock market value will look different than one that aims to provide a societal value or lifestyle for its employees (or some combination of those goals).
  • A portfolio designed to transform the life of a particular type of person will include obsessive research into who that person is, their context, and what they want and need.
  • A portfolio designed to solve a societal problem will include obsessive research into the system dynamics that created it.
  • A portfolio designed around consensus and stability will deliver “safe” results.
  • A portfolio designed to break down a vision instead of revolving around what’s easier or possible will find ways to make the vision possible.
  • A portfolio focused on a specific group and set of issues can make progress quickly.
  • A portfolio that puts everything on the table, including policy, business model, experience, and technical changes can reshape popular thought patterns and ecosystems.
  • A portfolio designed by a group of people with different ideas of what the physical, temporal, and vision bounds are will lead to conflict, resentment, or compromise down to the least common denominator, if not addressed.


Portfolio management is a tool for getting more out of your enterprise resources, just like time management or budgeting and investing can help us extract more value from our individual lives. Taking the action to build in systems is an important step, but only a step. It gives you a way to cut through overwhelm and make things happen.

But if you’re acting and not achieving results, it’s time to relook at what’s flowing through the portfolio. By examining the constraints you purposefully or inadvertently put in place.

Are you looking wide and far enough? Is your vision ambitious? Are you constraining one area, like the scope, the timeline, or the vision in a way that prevents you from accomplishing the others?

The portfolio will expand to fit the limits of the boundaries. One portfolio design is not inherently better than another, your purpose and goals play a strong role. However, a mismatch between expectations and design is a fast way to be dissatisfied with the results.

Have you witnessed these boundaries in your projects? What impact did they have on the results?

Share your thoughts