Article - Reverse-Engineering iPhone's Project Portfolio Selection: The "Joker" Project Example

"Yes, portfolio management is great,

but what about the proverbial gut feel?"

An attendee of my Project Portfolio Management

workshop at a large German conglomerate


Sometimes there comes a proposal across the steering committee's table that scores very low across almost all of the scoring criteria and yet the key decision makers feel that this is a very important and valuable initiative that can become the next breakthrough project that would generate millions if not billions of dollars for their company.

Let me use a somewhat “fantasy” scenario to illustrate this concept. The work on the first iPhone started in Apple in 2004. I don’t know whether Apple used a portfolio scoring model to assess its project ideas.  If they had one, I wouldn’t know what variables exactly they use in it. So, let us make two not-too-far-fetched assumptions:

  1. Apple does use a portfolio scoring model
  2. Apple’s scoring algorithm is not too dissimilar with other hi-tech product companies

If we continue our logical line of thinking, then it is safe to expand the second point and assume that their imaginary scoring model included parameters like:

  • Financial value,
  • Competitive advantage,
  • Technical risk,
  • Commercialization risk,
  • Technical feasibility and
  • Time to market

Let us try to pretend that we are in the same room with Steve Jobs where he just proposed to embark on creating something called a “smart phone”. What would the assessment of this proposal look like in 2004?

  • Financial value – Very inconclusive. Very high project costs and unpredictable revenues (see the “Commercialization Risk” discussion). Verdict: either 1 point out of 10 or 5 points out of 10 if we are to use the traditional scoring model.
  • Competitive advantage – Again, inconclusive. Yes, we will be the first ones on the market with the touch screen model, but there were several attempts before us; some of them failed and some became very popular. Verdict: 5 points out of 10
  • Technical risk – Very high. Yes, we know about producing cool computers, but this project takes us into the domain that we are not entirely familiar with. Also, new touch screen and apps technologies have never been used before. Verdict: 1 out of 10 points.
  • Commercialization risk – Very high. Will people like this new product? Will they be willing to pay $600 per unit? Will the mobile companies collaborate with us and create attractive data plans or the iPhone users? Verdict: either 1 point out of 10 or 5 points out of 10.
  • Time to market – Very unpredictable due to the technical challenges to overcome. Probably longer rather than shorter. Verdict: 1 point out of 10.

So, what is the total value of the proposed project? Either nine or seventeen points (out of fifty) depending on whether you are a pessimist or an optimist. Either way it is a very low score and the project is a candidate for cancellation. And yet – we are still in our fantasy scenario – Steve Jobs overruled the decision of the steering committee and insisted on undertaking this project. I don’t have to remind you how this little venture ended: in 2012 iPhone sales alone exceeded those of entire Microsoft including revenues from Windows software, Office suite, Xbox, Bing and Windows Phone!

Another, less “glamorous” example of a need for a joker project was encountered b me at one small North American university. One of the project proposals raised by the executive board recommended an upgrade of the university’s student information system that included modules like student information management, online learning, assessment development and analysis, curriculum mapping, special education, finance and human resources. At the time of this conversation the “university ERP platform”, as it was often referred to by the organization’s employees had not been upgraded for nine years and, as a result, has been slowly crumbling, causing more and more problems as the time went by.

Organizational scoring model looked like this:

  • Strategic Fit (included components like attracting more local and international students, improving university reputation locally and internationally, providing the best possible mix of services and benefits to students and employees and increasing the social value of programs and initiatives undertaken)
  • Resources Required (the less resources are need, the more attractive is the project)
  • Technical Feasibility (the more external resources are required, the less attractive is the project)
  • Financial Value (either revenue generation or cost savings)
  • Riskiness (included reputation, regulatory, financial or operational disruptions risks)

How did the proposed project score in each one of the above categories?

  • Strategic Fit – very low, no impact whatsoever on attracting students, improving reputation or increasing the social value, although one can argue that it helps to improve the mix of services and benefits
  • Resources Required – very low, as the project in question was expected to be the largest ever the university has ever undertaken
  • Technical Feasibility – very low, since most of the resources on that project had to be external
  • Riskiness – again, very low score, because the project would have exposed the school to all of the risks listed including reputation, regulatory, financial or operational disruptions.

Interestingly enough despite its alarmingly low score the project received an approval from the executive committee for one simple reason: the university would have ceased to function if this issue remained unattended for another year or two.

What lessons can we learn from these case studies?


  • It is very difficult to generate a project idea that scores very high in each of your company's scoring model categories
  • Sometimes a proposal that scores very low across almost all of your criteria is actually a hidden gem that could turn your company's fortunes in a year or two and sometimes it is a "do it or die" undertaking
  • The executive board of any given organization practicing project portfolio management should be made explicitly aware of the possibility of such situations
  • Projects that receive very low scores should not be automatically killed right away, especially if there is a strong feeling in the room feel that it is a right thing to do. Doesn't mean they should be accepted right away either, though

Hence most of my clients usually agree to introduce the "joker" project concept. This methodology allows placing the project candidate at the very top of the rank-ordered list of project proposals even if it scores very low in the current company’s scoring model. The joker power should be used sparingly and only for the projects that are of extreme importance for the organization. They usually fall into one of the two categories: business continuity or the next great breakthrough project that will change the fortunes of the company. In either case the responsibility for the project success or failure will rest on the shoulders of the executive committee.


About the Author

Jamal Moustafaev, MBA, PMP – president and founder of Thinktank Consulting is an internationally acclaimed expert and speaker in the areas of project/portfolio management, scope definition, process improvement and corporate training. Jamal Moustafaev has done work for private-sector companies and government organizations in Canada, US, Asia, Europe and Middle East.  Read Jamal’s Blog @