Best Practices for Project Portfolio Selection

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Developed by Phillip Hasselbalch

Almost any larger company nowadays must have a successful Project Portfolio Management (PPM) in order to preserve a positive revenue. PPM is essential to ensure that a company chooses the right projects to pursue, however it is not always as straightforward as it might seem to choose the best fit projects. In fact is it very challenging to choose which projects to have in a company's portfolio.

Coopers et al. (2001) analysis has concluded that there are five dominant methods or tools that a larger amount of organisations uses to ensure a good Project Portfolio Management. These methods or tools consists of [1]:

  1. Financial methods, includes financial key figures.
  2. Business strategy, defines the strategy for allocating financial ressources.
  3. Bubble Diagram, plots project in a X-Y coordinate where several factors are relevant for determine a projects worth.
  4. Scoring Models, sums up a projects score from a range of criteria.
  5. Checklists, uses yes/no questions related specifik to the company.

A combination of one or more of the methods and tools can be seen as best practices within Project Portfolio Management.

The aim of this article is therefore to enlighten the Project Portfolio selection methods and tools and their best practices. Furthermore this article describes the limitations and benefits of these best practices and how they can complement each other.



Projects are everywhere today, no matter where you look you will see a project. The variation of projects is almost impossible to describe. They can be everything from small, non-profit and private projects to large, expensive and global projects. Hence projects are the foundation of organisations, the ability to manage them becomes more and more essential for surviving in the business. Larger organisations with many projects rely heavily on managing their projects in order to ensure that the projects are beneficial for them. This is where Project Portfolio Management (PPM) plays an important role. So what is Project Portfolio Management? PPM has several reasons for its importance; financial – to maximize the return, to maintain competitive advantage, to properly and efficiently allocate resources, to ensure the link between project selection and business strategy, to achieve balance and focus in projects and to provide a better objectivity in the selection process. A shorter description is that PPM is the process of evaluating, selecting, prioritizing and managing an organisations projects with the end goal to have the best fitted projects for the organisation.

The selection process is one of the more important areas of PPM since it is the process where the projects gets chosen for the portfolio. This process can be very difficult to control due to the tremendous amount of methods and tools which can be applied. However Cooper’s (2001) [1] studies shows that five methods and tools are more commonly used by Senior Portfolio Managers and are his definition of best practices within the selection process of PPM.

The Five Tools

Cooper (2001) strongly advice that organisations use a combination of several methods and tools in the selection process. He also express how todays successful organisations are changing their decision making from primarily be based on financial tools to now base their decision making on not only financial tools but rather a combination of several methods and tools. This ensures that most possible factors are takin into account when selection projects for the portfolio. As described earlier Cooper (2001) has given his assessment of the best practices for project portfolio selection. This section will give an overview of the best practices by describing the tools and methods separately. The following section will describe their dependencies of each other.

Purpose of the tools

Financial methods

The financial methods and tools are used by 77 percent of businesses. The financial methods include a variety of profit and return metrics i.e. NPV (Net Present Value), RONA (Return on Net Assets) and ROI (Return on Investment)[2]. The financial methods are most often used to rank projects against each other by comparing the expected economic value that each project will generate. Other financial methods use the hurdle rate (also known as minimum rate of return) of each project as a comparison basis. These methods are often used on individual projects as a Go/Kill decision method.

Business strategy

The business’s strategy is also a very popular tool for project selection[3]. It is used by 65 percent of businesses which may be explained in that they have many strengths and few weaknesses. The business’s strategy is used to allocate resources. The resources are allocated into separate areas based on their strategic priorities. Of course these various a lot within the different business’s, but there are still tendencies to some areas being more dominating.

Bubble diagram

The bubble diagrams are getting very popular and are receiving a lot of exposure in different software solutions. The idea is fairly basic; projects are plotted on an X-Y coordinates map often as balloons or circles. Explained in other words consists the Bubble diagram of three sets of data; the first dataset is expressed through the X-axis, the second dataset is expressed through the Y-axis, and the third dataset is expressed through the size of the bubbles. The size of the balloons can indicate a number of factors i.e. the bigger the balloon, the bigger the project is. Each of the four quadrants represents a category and each project will be placed in one of the quadrants. The bubble diagram can therefore have many aspects depending on how you define the X-Y axis’s. The most common bubble diagram is the Risk/Reward diagram where you typically have the NPV on one axis and the probability for success on the other access.

Scoring models

The scoring model is in fact a very basic method, however also often used by organisations to create a fast and intuitive overview of the projects rating. 38 percent of organisations uses this model to rate projects[1]. The weighting scale is very easy to understand. It could as an example were a rating scale from 1-5 or 0-10. It can also be as simple as a scale with low, medium and high. This all depends on the question depth and its expected complexity. Some of the most commonly used criteria’s are financial reward and strategic fit, however the selection criteria can also be regarding risk and probability of success.


The last tool is the checklist. The checklist method is not as popular as the other where only 20% of the organisations uses it[1]. The checklist consists of a number of Yes/No questions as the evaluation criteria. To determine whether a project is good enough is must achieve enough Yes’s, or at least a specific amount of Yes’s. Checklists tends to be viewed at as a supporting tool instead of a decision making tool.

Dependency of each other

Cooper (2001) express that no method or tool used alone will give a correct result. Further he explains that the best results of portfolio management come from organisations relying on multiple methods and tools. Cooper’s (2001) studies shows that organisations who are best at portfolio management uses an average of 2.43 different methods and tools per business in their portfolio selection. Further the studies show that half (47,5%) of the best organisations uses three or more methods however organisations who practice portfolio management worst have a tendency to rely on far fewer with an average of only 1.83 methods or tools per business, where half of them only focus on a single method or tool. There is therefore a clear indication of how the methods and tools are depending on each other and how a combination of methods and tools will result in a better project-portfolio management practice[3].


This section will explain how each of the tools can be applied in an organisation. The examples will to some extent be a bit superficial, since the mathematical perspective of the tools won’t be explained to its depth. Some these best practices have a broader perspective than a specific tool (i.e. financial methods and business strategy) and therefore will the examples be explained one of the more popular methods within its area.


Financial methods

As explained above, the financial methods have a broad perspective and the example will therefore be on one of the more popular used methods. There are many factors there each play a role when trying to find how good the chances are for a project to be successful. The method there will be explained is used to determine the Expected Commercial Value of a project (ECV). The ECV method will help compare the probabilities of success for each project into an easier understandable net present value. The equation of the ECV method is as follows:

EVC = (NPV * PCS – C) * PTS – D

  • NPV = Net Present Value
  • PCS = Probability of commercial success
  • C = Commercialization costs
  • PTS = Probability of technical success
  • D = Development costs

The model below gives a more intuitive picture of how the equation should be interpreted. A quick walk trough of the model:

  • first of all, there are some costs in development,
  • then you get to a point where you analyze if the development resulted in a technical success.
  • If the development wasn’t a success, then the value of the project is zero.
  • If the development was a success, you will have to launch it,
  • and from there you will have to analyze whether the launch will be a success.
  • As before, is the launch analysis resulted is a negative commercial success, then the value of the project will be zero.
  • However, if everything is estimated to be a success then you will end with an Expected Commercial Value.

Figure 1: ECV model

Business strategy

The methods within business strategy is somewhat similar to the financial methods since it also is a very broad perspective. There are many different ways to use the organisations strategy as selection criteria for projects. A method seen very commonly in allocation of resources is the ‘Strategic Buckets’ method. The ‘Strategic Bucket’ method helps the portfolio managers categorize each project, which then makes it easier to allocate their resources. There are different ways to rank a project in each bucket, however when all projects are ranked it gives the portfolio managers a complete overview of projects and resources. There are many different factors that you can divide your bucket list into. An example could be a bucket for each production line, a bucket for the maintenance of the production line and perhaps one for productions reductions. That gives the portfolio managers four buckets where they can sort their projects in. Each bucket will most likely also have a maximum budget allocated, so by listing all projects within each area helps in getting an overview of how the budget should be prioritized on the projects.

Bubble diagram

The Bubble diagram is actually a tool instead of the two methods described above. The Bubble diagram has many plots for analyzing projects. The most common plot is the Risk/Reward plot and is highly used in management practices. Since Risk/Reward is the most popular plot, the example will take its stand in that. The X-axis represents the Net Present Value (NPV) and the Y-axis represents the probability of technical success (PTS). Each project will be illustrated with a circle, where the size of circle represents, as an example, its annually resources. Other examples of axis used in popular Bubble diagram plots could be Technical Newness vs. Market Newness or Competitive Position vs. Project Attractiveness.

Figure 2: Bubble diagram

Scoring models

Scoring models typically consists of four basic components

  • Categories of criteria to determine model type
  • Range of values of criteria
  • Measurement and description of each value
  • Importance of weight of the criteria

When these components have been chosen, the scoring model can be created. It usually looks like a line of statements but divided into their respective categories. An example of statements could look like this:

  • Reward
    • Contribution to overall profit.
    • Technological payback (will this help in the technological development).
  • Strategic Leverage
    • Synergy with other projects within the organisation.
    • Platform for growth.
  • Business Strategy Fit
    • How well does the project fit with the strategy.
    • The financial and strategic impact of the project on the division/part of the organisation.

The idea is then to rate the statements on a given scale, 1-5 or 1-10 etc. In order to achieve the most correct and reliable answers, the statements has to be well thought through with the right combination of relevance and difficulty.


Since the checklists are as basics as they are, there won't be a figure showing how a checklist could look like. The checklists are fairly similar to Scoring models however they are not as popular. The checklist are not a ranking tool in the same way as the other methods and tools but are more Go/Kill decision tool, with the only focus on a specific project. The checklists is basically a list of qualitative questions with Yes/No answers and it is therefore crucial that the questions are thoroughly chosen.

Pros & Cons/limitations


There are many benefits when it comes to practicing project-portfolio management whether an organisation uses the best practices or uses other methods and tools for managing their projects. The selection process of the projects is probably one the most difficult areas with PPM, but it is also one of the most important. Of course the evaluation of projects is important as well since that process is feeding information to the selection process, however the selection process is the one that determines which projects go in and which projects go out. A good selection of projects can benefit the portfolio with projects that are closely aligned with the organisations strategy, which will help in getting the best usage of the available resources, which further helps on eliminating the redundant and underperforming projects[4]. Teller (2012)[5] also tells that a formal structure (i.e. using best practices) impacts PPM even stronger, which has a positive effect on the projects within the portfolio.


There are multiple positive effects of a good practice of PPM, however there are also some challenges. The selection process of projects to the organisation's portfolio can seem a bit confusing and unmanageable in the beginning, due the extensive amount of data or information gathering. In order to ensure that a company’s strategic objectives are taking into consideration when evaluating and especially selecting projects there has to be gathered a very detailed amount of information about current-, proposed-, and on-hold projects. All this information has to be rightfully stored in a repository so that it is always accessible for the portfolio managers. The portfolio managers have to be aware that collecting information on projects can create an overly burdensome reporting obligation, which can create negativity about PPM among the project managers. Even though there are many tools for this, it does not eliminate any of the described processes which has to be done in order to ensure that the selection of projects is as thought through and precise as possible.


This article enlightens Cooper's (2001) definition of best practices for project-portfolio selection and their pros and cons. Cooper (2001) defines five methods and tools to be the best practices when selecting projects for a portfolio. These five methods and tools are among the most common used by senior portfolio managers and are also often seen used by those practicing the best portfolio management. A good usage of the best practices combined will benefit the portfolio in many ways. It will help ensure that the projects in the portfolio are aligned with the organisations strategy. Having projects that follows the organisations strategy help avoiding redundant and underperforming projects.

Avoiding those projects also helps to the best possible allocation of resources, which is a key factor for projects being finished within the estimated time period.
Figure 3: Explicit & formal portfolio management - The Best vs. the worst[1]

As Figure 3 also shows from Cooper (2001) studies it is of high importance to have explicits methods with clear rules and procedures. It also shows how the best ranks those five areas higher the the worst performing portfolio managers. The best practices within the project portfolio processes (especially the selection process) are also resulting in a more structured and formal selection criteria, which Teller (2012)[5] explains has a positive effect on the projects. The positive effect could be higher motivation among the project team or a higher strive to finish the project within its deadlines.

Even though there are many positive results from using the best practices, there are also some cons or limitations. It can be very complex and confusing when implementing project portfolio management due the huge amount of information gathering there has to be done. It is necessary with as much detailed information as possible in order to make the best analyse of each project, which is the key to evaluate and select projects. The portfolio managers have to get the information on a project from the project manager or team for each project, which can be a stressing and burdensome liability. To avoid the project managers stressing liability it is important to have a formalised and structured way of practising project portfolio management. The best practices of evaluating, selecting, prioritizing and managing an organisations projects is the key to reach the end goal of having the best fitted projects for the organisation. Further is the best fitted projects often a mix between different types of projects[6]. Some projects can have a very long horizon with high profit and some projects can have a low profit, but still be as important to have. Some projects may even be non-profit but highly innovative which can be just as important since it benefits in motivating and developing the skill sets of an organisations employees.

The article can there fore conclude that that best practices within project portfolio selection is a very important part to master, since it has the possibility to benefit an organisation in many ways.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Cooper, R.G., Edgett, S., Kleinschmidt, E. Portfolio management for new product development: results of an industry practices study, October 2001
  2. Archer, N.P, Ghasemzadeg, F. An integrated framework for project portfolio selection, 1999
  3. 3.0 3.1 Cooper, R.G., Edgett, S., Kleinschmidt, E. New Product Portfolio Management: Practices and Performance, 1999
  4. LaBrosse, M. Project-Portfolio Management, Summer 2010
  5. 5.0 5.1 Teller, J., Unger, B.N., Kock, A., Gemünden, H.G. Formalization og project portfolio management: The moderating role og project portfolio complexity, January 2012
  6. Meskendahl, S. The influence of business strategy on project portfolio management and its success - A conceptual framework, June 2010
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