top of page

The movie-goer’s guide to whether it’s a project, programme or portfolio by Phil Stanton

The takeaway for the impatient:

If you’re wondering if you’ve got a project, programme or portfolio then ask yourself the question whether the thing you’ve got is closer to:

  • A Bond film — you know the basic plot, it’s just the details that you need to fill in, in which case it’s a project

  • Lord of the Rings — you know broadly what you need to achieve, but there’s an element of “quest” and uncertainty about how you’re going to achieve it — in which case it’s a program

  • Or a movie studio — you’ve got is mix of stuff that’s related somehow — including some business as usual stuff — in which case you’ve got yourself a movie studio — or portfolio.

  • Like Bond, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, projects, programs and portfolios have crocodiles, Ring Wraiths and Dementors.

Excuse the reminisce. I’ll get to how this might help you project and programme management thing in a moment…

One of my favourite memories of my childhood was queuing up with my dad to see the latest James Bond film. We’d go to the rather lovely — and terribly underappreciated — art deco Odeon in Newport. At least I think it’s art deco. The queue would stretch from the front door, under the bridge of the railway line that runs behind the cinema.

I have distinct memories of it being summer(the bond films were released in June in those days) and I’m pretty sure my first film was Live and Let Die.The one with the crocodile jump, which is a good metaphor for some of our projects and programmes…

Years later; living in London and after the Dalton-Brosnan hiatus, I’d go to the Odeon in Leicester Square for a late night show, just before Christmas. The thing I liked about the late night show is that everyone had been to the pub beforehand; everyone knew the “fundamental James Bond plot” and the audience wasn’t averse to getting a bit vocal. “I bet he’s going to have her” nicely summarises the spirit.

Which brings me, rather circuitously, to my point…

The plot of every James Bond film I watched growing up is something along the lines of…

  • Opening scene. James Bond finishing his last mission. Scenes of Bond in peril, followed by huuuuuuuge stunt. Cut to…   

  • ....titles. New bond theme. Dancing girls. Fancy, before their time graphics. James Bond walks on and shoots the screen. Cut to…

  • …scene of international peril…

  • James walks into Moneypenny’s office. Banter with mild innuendo.

  • Briefing by M.

  • More banter with Moneypenny. M tells James to get on with it via the intercom.

  • Briefing with Q in the development “lab”, which improbably moves around the world, trailing M’s location. Demonstration of some preposterous gadgets, some of which turn out to be closer to the truth than anyone involved might realise at the time. Q gives Bond some gadgets and(usually) a car. Q makes Bond promise to bring things back without breaking them. Bond confirms that he won’t break it — replying in the tone of voice that a 14 year old boy reserves for his mother. The gadget in question will be the first one destroyed. Cut to…

  • Glamourous international casino. Bond in tux. The villain of the film or their amour just happen to gamble there. Bond gambles. “Martini. Shaken. Not stirred.” Bond wins. Crowd gasps. “Bond. James Bond.”

  • In this scene or the next Bond will either meet the baddy(who will be male) or the woman...

  • And so on until…

  • …captured by baddy who tries to kill you using the most improbable form of killing.Ever.

  • ...loud explosions as baddy’s base blow up.

  • Bond has his girl.

  • Closing innuendo.

  • Closing titles.

  • “Bond will return in…” message on screen.

You get the idea.

What you’ve got there is a classic project.Nicely defined outputs(dead baddy and amorous encounter with girl) (footnote 1) and a clear understanding of how you’re going to get there.

So. If you know what / how from the outset(i.e. it’s a James Bond plot) then it’s project.Project = James Bond(footnote 2).

  • I’ve always thought that programs have an air of Lord of the Rings about them.

  • “What do you mean, we’ve got to put the ring in Mount Doom? Are you kidding me?” 

  • “Nope. That’s what the old bloke with the pointy hat and beard said.”

  • “Did he give you any idea of how we do that then ?” 

  • “Nope.” 

  • “Do you have any idea about how we go about doing it ?” 

  • “Not a clue.” 

  •  “Any thoughts on what we should do first ?”

  • “Leaving the Shire might be a good idea ?” 

  • “Done.” 

  • “You’d better bring some sandwiches…”


Programs almost always have an element of “quest” about them. You almost always know what needs to be achieved (ring in Mount Doom), but not what needs to be delivered or the route between here and there.

You’ll often find that there are side quests and sub - plots aplenty.If there’s one thing you can’t accuse a Bond film of then it’s a sub - plot!

So, if you know what needs to be achieved, but it’s unclear about how you achieve it then it’s probably a program. Think Lord of the Rings without the elves, but very much with the Ring Wraiths(footnote 4) present.

Somewhat tangentially…

Think of some of the things a movie studio does:

  • talent spotting and development   

  • script development

  • raising funding

  • film production(and potentially distribution)

  • paying everyone

There are a few things worth noting:

  • all of these things are broadly related to the single objective of making and selling films

  • some of them(for example, script development and film production) are definitely projects

  • some of them(for example, talent spotting and development) might be either projects or ongoing, everyday work(“Business As Usual” in the jargon)

What you’ve got there is a classic portfolio — a set of projects, programmes or business as usual activities contributing to a single (set of) objective(s).

So, if what you’ve got is like the output of a movie studio then it’s almost certainly a portfolio.

This is, of course, all just an approximation. But an approximation is often more than enough…


1 You can argue all day about the output / outcome thing. But please do it on your own time.

2 Romantics in the audience might want to go the RomCom route, of which Four Weddings and a Funeral (footnote 3) is an ideal example — four nice things are going to happen and one sad thing.

3 Digressing even further…chaps who aren’t into RomComs (shame on you) might want to take refuge in Hottub time tachine. There’s a hottub. It’s a time machine. End of plot.

4 Dementors for Harry Potter fans ;)

We understand how to raise your capability because we have helped many organisations get better at delivering meaningful improvements

bottom of page