portfolio kanbanPortfolio Kanban is an under-utilized tool to ensure alignment with key corporate strategies and to communicate marketing’s alignment with and progress on those key corporate strategies.Regardless of whether you practice Scrum, Kanban or Scrumban, Portfolio Kanban can be used as a visual tool to keep the team on track and to communicate important progress. Let’s take a look at the What, Why and How of Portfolio Kanban.

What is Portfolio Kanban?

Portfolio Kanban uses a hierarchy of  Kanban boards to allow individuals and teams to visualize multiple projects and tasks and how those projects and tasks fit into the company’s core strategies and major programs. For executives, it can show at a glance the status of various programs and projects, and where things stand in terms of execution and deliverables. Portfolio Kanban can replace status reports and status meetings, saving the team time and providing management an up-to-date view of critical projects without the delays and overhead associated with other methods of reporting.

Portfolio Kanban also allows management and the team to see project investments as a portfolio – a mix of different kinds of project investments designed to balance risk, balance geographies or balance different kinds of marketing activities. Just as your financial portfolio might have large cap and small cap stocks, bonds, domestic and international investments, real estate and alternative investments in order to reduce your overall risk and to take advantage of hot markets, so to can your portfolio of project investments include low risk and high risk investments, multiple markets and multiple channels, in order to create a balanced approach.

Portfolio Kanban also encourages collaboration, allowing different teams to see how their work fits into the whole, and how delays in one team not only impact the schedule, but also how they impact other teams.

Lastly, if the Kanban principles of visualization, work in progress limits and flow management are used, portfolio Kanban can improve the smooth delivery of work and its predictability of delivery.

How Do Marketing Teams Use Portfolio Kanban?

There are at least 4 different ways that I’ve seen marketing teams use Portfolio Kanban:

  • Within the marketing team to manage multiple initiatives
  • Within the marketing team to manage their portfolio of work, both in terms of type of work and in terms of near-term vs long-term
  • Beyond the marketing team, as a visual status tool for multiple departments and sometimes the company or division as a whole
  • As a true Kanban tool, managing the work of multiple teams and applying work in progress limits and flow management

There is a 5th approach that marketers should be aware of, particularly if their company is practicing SAFe. Portfolio Kanban is used in SAFe to manage epics and to apply lean portfolio management techniques, primarily for developers.

Let’s take a look at each of these in turn.

Managing Multiple Initiatives

Let’s say that your marketing team is trying to deliver several initiatives at once: you’re writing a new lead magnet offering for new subscribers, you’re doing a major facelift of the front page of the website, and you’re implementing a new welcome sequence in your marketing automation software. You’d like to track the status of all three of these initiatives and to see at a glance how they’re progressing. You can construct a relatively simple Kanban board with a swimlane on top representing the initiatives and a second swimlane below representing the work breakdown. The various cards representing the work breakdown of each initiative are tied to the initiative in a parent child relationship. For example, if the new lead magnet has 5 chapters, each of these chapters might represent a work item, and be represented in a card. These 5 cards are child cards of the parent initiative card.

As child cards are moved from column to column, the initiative card may either be moved itself, or a percent completion indicator may be updated. For example, in the portfolio kanban board below, if one of the work breakdown cards in the New Lead Magnet initiative is moved into the Doing column, then the Lead Magnet Initiative card is moved into the Doing column. In a similar fashion, if all of the work breakdown cards of the New Front Page initiative are moved in to the Done column, indicating that 100% of the work is done for that initiative, then the New Front Page initiative card is moved into the done column. As work breakdown cards are completed, the percent completed status will also be updated.

Some tools, like Kanbanize and Swift Kanban, perhaps others, can move cards automatically and updated the percent complete. Other tools require modest manual efforts to move cards and to track percent completion.

Managing the Marketing Portfolio

I learned this method of using Portfolio Kanban from Denise Grey when she was at Leankit. This approach allows a marketing team to visualize their portfolio of work at a glance, both in terms of type of work, and also as they track the work that they’re going to do in coming months and quarters.

Denise divided her Kanban board into three major sections: what we’re currently working on, near-term deliverables and further out initiatives. In the what we’re currently working on section, she further divided the work into strategy, awareness, demand generation, product marketing and marketing operations. She then tracked the work in each one of these areas in a simple workflow of planning, doing, reviewing and deploying. In the section on near-term deliverables, she looked at this month, next month and two months out in terms of the same four categories of awareness, demand generation, product marketing and marketing operations, and tied these into major marketing initiatives (i.e., strategy). Finally, in terms of further out initiatives, she listed a backlog of items, some for next quarter, some for two quarters out.

Portfolio Kanban current
Figure 1 – Managing the current portfolio of marketing work
Portfolio Kanban Planning
Figure 2 – Managing planned marketing work

This board allowed Denise and her team to see at a glance the portfolio of work that they were currently working on, as well as to plan future work, and to make sure that they weren’t neglecting any one particular area.

Visual Status Tool

The third approach to Portfolio Kanban, represented by the image at the top of this post, provides a visual representation of work items, projects and programs across multiple departments, and how those projects and programs contribute to key corporate strategies.

To do this successfully requires multiple boards. For example, a team may have their own team kanban board, tracking that teams individual tasks on cards, with that teams flow of work. A higher level board may show how those tasks relate to various projects, with parent-child relationships between the work item cards and the projects. Projects will require work from multiple teams, and the flow of work in a project can be tracked both by stage and by percent completion in each stage.

Project level boards can be owned by project managers. In turn, program managers may have their own board, tracking multiple projects contributing to each program. The highest level board would track the various programs, and how they contribute to the key corporate strategies.

Although in this example, the highest level is at the level of the CEO, it is not necessary to build a Portfolio Kanban at the CEO level. Boards can be built at any level of the organization or of the work to be done.

Using Portfolio Kanban as a visual status tool can be used both by teams that practice Kanban and also by those that practice Scrum. IThe most important contribution of this approach is the visual delivery of status. This reduces the amount of status meetings necessary, and also ensures that status is always up to date.

Portfolio Kanban with Active Management

For teams that practice Kanban, portfolio kanban can be a powerful tool to manage the work of multiple teams and to ensure the consistent flow of work, identifying bottlenecks and eliminating blocking factors before they delay entire projects and programs. With this approach, teams will need to establish work in progress (WIP) limits throughout the hierarchy of boards, measure cycle time and flow and look at certain advanced Kanban metrics such as cumulative flow diagrams and heatmaps. This approach can replace GANNT charts and traditional backward-looking project management approaches, but it requires a high level of Kanban knowledge and team discipline. It also requires coordination across multiple departments and at different levels of the organization. While powerful, it is also quite complex.

If you’re not currently using Portfolio Kanban, I encourage you to take a look at it and see how it can be used in your marketing organization. For additional resources, take a look at this series of articles on Portfolio Kanban from Kanbanize or this video from Swift Kanban.

Jim Ewel

I love marketing. I think it’s one of the most difficult and one of most exciting jobs in any company. My goal with this blog is to evangelize agile marketing and help marketers increase the speed, predictability, transparency, and adaptability to change of the marketing function.

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