‘Portfolios’ and the Project Management Literature

By Alan Stretton

Sydney, Australia


This paper looks at some of the different ways the word ‘portfolio’ is used in the program/project management literature. The first usage examined is strategic program/project portfolios, and we look at perceived problems with varying descriptors of this entity. A compacted model of the composition of ‘strategic portfolios’ is then presented. The paper goes on to look at what two authors have described as ‘portfolio programmes’, and links these with components of the strategic portfolio model. Three totally different definitions of ‘project portfolio’ are then discussed, focusing on how the component projects are seen to be related. One says they are inter-dependent, which is seen as synonymous with a program. The second says the projects are independent, and the third says they could be either. All three are linked with components of the strategic portfolio model. These three totally different understandings of the same descriptor are perhaps the most striking example of the conflicting and confusing ways the word ‘portfolio’ is used in the program/ project literature. A possible way of overcoming such problems is suggested, but it is conceded that a consolidated solution is unlikely to be found in the near future.


Like programmes, portfolios do not have a uniform homogeneous definition. The term ‘portfolio’ has been in use for some time and is used across different sectors and throughout many and diverse organisations. It therefore has a multiplicity of meanings.                                                                                        (Aritua et al 2008)

This paper is mainly concerned with some of the different ways ‘portfolio’ is used in the program/project literature. There is little, if any, agreement about the nature of portfolios in the program/project context. Indeed, the descriptor ‘portfolio’ is used in so many different ways in the program/project literature that the following analysis is unlikely to  cover all of them. We first look at strategic portfolios of programs/projects.

STRATEGIC PORTFOLIOS – of programs/projects

A portfolio is a collection of components (i.e. projects, programs, portfolios and other work such as maintenance and ongoing operations) that are grouped together to facilitate the effective management of the work to meet strategic business objectives. The projects or programs within a portfolio may not necessarily be interdependent or directly related and are in fact normally unrelated, although they may share a common resources pool or compete for funding.                              (PMI 2008b:9)

The Standard for Program Management (PMI 2008b) and The Standard for Portfolio Management (PMI 2008c) use the single descriptor ‘portfolio’ for what some others (e.g. Van Den Broecke 2005) have described as a ‘strategic portfolio’. Indeed, it is probably more properly described as a ‘strategic program/project portfolio’ Such a descriptor would help non-project people better understand what these standards are really about.

The lack of identification of the nature of ‘portfolio’ in the title of PMI 2008c drew the following comment from Archibald 2009.


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About the Author

Alan Stretton, PhD      

Faculty Corps, University of Management
and Technology, Arlington, VA (USA)

Life Fellow, AIPM (Australia)

Alan Stretton is one of the pioneers of modern project management.  He is currently a member of the Faculty Corps for the University of Management & Technology (UMT), USA.  In 2006 he retired from a position as Adjunct Professor of Project Management in the Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), Australia, which he joined in 1988 to develop and deliver a Master of Project Management program.   Prior to joining UTS, Mr. Stretton worked in the building and construction industries in Australia, New Zealand and the USA for some 38 years, which included the project management of construction, R&D, introduction of information and control systems, internal management education programs and organizational change projects.  He has degrees in Civil Engineering (BE, Tasmania) and Mathematics (MA, Oxford), and an honorary PhD in strategy, programme and project management (ESC, Lille, France).  Alan was Chairman of the Standards (PMBOK) Committee of the Project Management Institute (PMI®) from late 1989 to early 1992.  He held a similar position with the Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM), and was elected a Life Fellow of AIPM in 1996.  He was a member of the Core Working Group in the development of the Australian National Competency Standards for Project Management.  He has published over 100 professional articles.  Alan can be contacted at [email protected]