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The Good Business Reason—Designing Your Project Portfolio

When we pursue traction, we’re looking for ways to drive our companies forward. Sometimes we’re stymied by the slippage that we’ve just discussed. In other cases, the problem is the sheer volume of demands on our time, energy, and resources. If you’re a manager with even a modicum of intelligence and ability, you are probably inundated with requests for your help on this or that project, team, or task force. Narrowing these demands to the essential few that ought to become a part of your personal project portfolio is an ongoing challenge.

Regardless of how these projects make it our way, there’s a lot of power in a very simple question: What’s the good business reason for doing this?

Actually I can’t take credit for the question. I owe it to my friend Jason Jennings.

An author, consultant, and motivational speaker, Jason has studied thousands of successful firms and in three best-selling books has examined 30 of the best—companies that have grown by more than 20 percent per year for more than 20 consecutive quarters. When profiling Herb and Marion Sandler, the founders and operating owners of World Savings (one of the nation’s 15 largest banks and thrifts), he learned that they attributed their success to a corporate culture that never makes a move without first asking that same very simple question: What’s the good business reason for doing this?

For World Savings, it meant a lot of things that other banks considered essential didn’t get done. World Savings didn’t launch a network of ATMs until years after the competition. The team at World Savings felt they couldn’t justify the capital expense because their savings and time-deposit customers (at the time the heart of their customer base) didn’t have much of a need for ATMs. It wasn’t until World Savings decided to pursue high-balance checking account customers that it made economic sense to install the machines.

Based on that one simple question, the Sandlers created a culture where the justification for every decision needed to be demonstrated and, if possible, quantified. The results have been incredible. World Savings beats their competitors in profitability year after year.

Now I use the same question to help me focus on the projects and activities that make the most sense for me and my company. If something is really worth doing, there will be a clear and compelling answer to that powerful question, What’s the good business reason for doing this?

Here is some additional advice about developing your personal project portfolio—the set of activities and initiatives on which you will choose to focus and with which to become identified.

Perhaps the most important suggestion is to think of your “to-do” list as just that—a portfolio of projects. The echo from investment management is no accident. Every project you commit to should be viewed as a personal investment—not of money, but of time and energy, both of which are limited and precious resources. Just as you should think about your financial portfolio is terms of overall risk and reward, so should you plan your portfolio of projects.

Your personality will play a role in the project decisions you make. If you are a high-risk player, you’ll take on more high-risk projects, recognizing that the likelihood of failure is significant but that the rewards for success can be enormous. If you are risk-averse, you may take a safer route by sticking to projects you know you can bring to successful fruition. Either strategy can lead to success over time. It’s just a matter of how you feel comfortable getting there.

Ian Beavis, vice president of marketing for Kia Motors (the Korean-based company that is the world’s fastest-growing automaker), told us that he built his career by taking on the projects that nobody wanted—the tough challenges that once solved really defined him as a winner. Quanah Bonrud from Enthusian, the Web-based talent acquisition and management provider, feels the same way, advising, “Do what others are not willing to do, and then do it well.”

At the same time, we found that while these managers made their names on their home runs, they also hit a lot of singles and doubles—in fact, they were experts at getting on base consistently and often. Clearly they balance the most difficult assignments with more manageable ones, which enable them to rack up wins quarter after quarter, adding value all the while.

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