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Portfolio map

Blog Post

Why use it?

The purpose of an interactive portfolio map is:

  1. To create a holistic picture of projects - in progress and potential / on hold
  2. To facilitate a conversation about the range and balance of projects
  3. To make democratic risk v impact decisions at a programme / lab level

What is it?

An interactive portfolio map is one that is created on a wall for discussion across the team. This is a digital example for the purposes of clarity.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

The purpose is to generate a conversation and a way of discussing innovations or projects to seek balance across risk, impact and the various parameters of success: eg. meeting needs of target group.

To create a portfolio map:

  • Take each innovation/project and discuss/score in terms of impact and risk
  • Add on the parameters such as: problem type; target groups; geographical area
  • Stand back and assess for balance and range - what stands out? what insights can you draw? what will you resolve to do next?

Portfolio maps are used across sectors wherever there are many initiatives or projects to oversee. It’s a lightweight, agile alternative to more heavyweight programme management tools. The emphasis being to oversee and balance the range of projects rather than to ‘manage’ as arguably programmes shouldn’t be ‘managing’ as in making detailed decisions about individual projects beyond the: stop, start, continue, pivot, double efforts - kind of funding and goal setting decisions. To ‘manage’ projects you need to work alongside them - but that’s a discussion for another blog!

How we used it.

As with all of these tools, the main purpose is collaboration and conversation. We used this tool a number of times, firstly when the labs were trying to pick innovations to go through to the next round of funding, then secondly, when the labs and programme team were deciding on which innovations would be selected for the London Demo Day.

The need was to create a balanced range of innovations in terms of risk, impact and across other parameters. Risk and Impact can be defined in many different ways; this is certainly, as one participant said, “an imperfect science”.

Risk factors

  • Market risk: Is the innovation certain to meet the needs of a target community in a unique and accessible way? How well tested is this idea in this (or similar) communities?
  • Execution Risk: Can the team deliver? If technology powers the service/product, is it mature? Will it find acceptance in the community within a reasonable time? Is it likely to achieve financial sustainability?
  • Environment Risk: Are there circumstances beyond the innovators’ control (e.g. political uncertainty) that could derail the project?

Impact factors

  • How relevant to the target community’s needs? How basic are those needs?
  • If the innovation succeeds, how broadly and/or deeply might it meet their needs?

Both market and execution risk are common in commercial Lean Start Up view of innovation risk. We added environmental risk as it could be a more significant risk for some of the innovations based in disaster affected communities. For example, political situations disrupted the work of one lab and in other they were under the constant threat of refugees being legally prevented to partner in businesses. On the other hand, as many of these innovations were directly linked to disasters as preparedness solutions - the environmental risk also could have a positive effect on the market. But it’s balancing out the nuances here which is where a really good conversation using the full team’s expertise and experience is much more valuable than the diagram itself.

There is detailed information on how to use this adapted version of the Portfolio Map in this new and improved guide.

Feedback / our own reflections.

Overall the feedback was positive, this was helpful as a visual tool. One participant said “the product doesn’t mean as much as the conversation” - which is the intention of the tool. It certainly seems to be new to the humanitarian sector and it’s not something necessarily to be used very often so its use still needs monitoring and improving. But with the coming of adaptive management, this may be a tool which gets used more widely in the future.

Improvements and recommendations.

We’ve improved the guidance and templates - particularly making the language more comfortable to the average humanitarian including changing some of the icons. Because it’s much more about the conversation than the tool, we recommend that this isn’t seen so much as a ‘tool’ and more as a session or workshop - so should be passed on through training or example. Whilst the guide has improved, this is such a different way of working to usual programme management that it probably needs to be seen and discussed in person before it’s adopted. If anyone takes this approach on from just the guide, we’ve added in a slide on ‘handling challenges to this approach’. We’re happy to give further advice, we are familiar - as we said on the first blog of this series to that our experience is in helping organisations discover new ways of working, so we know this isn’t always a smooth ride!

Keep reading:

DEPP Innovation Labs DEPP Labs key document

  • by Zofia Piotrowicz