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Why Your PMO Won’t Save You!

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Photo by Baptiste Valthier on Pexels.com

In executing on the organization’s ambitious strategies for growth, innovation and change, managing the portfolio/program and its projects is only half of the picture and one part of a much broader solution. 

The real challenge facing organizations wrestling with project success is to bridge the gap between strategy and execution.  It is to translate the fine words and lofty aspirations of the CEOs annual report into projects and initiatives that have the potential to shape the future of the organization, perhaps even its industry.

Project, Program and Portfolio Management are important, but the real issue is the gap between strategy and execution. Moreover, it is a gap that is too wide to be filled by Project Management of the PMO alone.

They say ‘if all you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail’.  But, when something as big as the gap between strategy and execution needs fixing, the PM toolkit is simply not going to be enough.

How projects and portfolios are managed has an important role to play in bridging the strategy execution gap. Yet it is only a part of the solution.

Projects are just a means to an end – the realization of some business vision or goal.  Typically, such business goals relate to either performance, growth, innovation, change and transformation.  Project management is only a part of the solution to these business challenges.  Above all they demand leadership, change and innovation. 

PMO in the Dock

Increasingly project management is being put ‘in the dock’ over the organization’s failure to bring its ambitious strategies to life. The statistics showing high rates of project failure appear to make it an ‘open and shut case’. However, while project management may not be innocent, there are many other obvious suspects.   

There are many reasons why strategies fail at the point of execution.  These include culture, structure, leadership, innovation and change – just to mention a few. These are systemic factors, which even the most experienced and committed project management team has little control over.

Embracing Change

Delivering ambitious projects in a dynamic fast changing environment adds a new level of complexity. It puts pressure on traditional management methods. It requires a new way of working – one that is characterized by speed and agility, collaboration and innovation.  That is not instead of, but in addition to effective project management.

Project management is no magic solution or silver bullet. If the organization struggles to grapple with change or innovation, then project management is likely to struggle with it too.  Indeed, there are times when it may compound the problem, with an ‘old school’ approach to project or portfolio management acting as a bureaucratic barrier to agility and innovation.

The Challenge is Not Just Technical, but Adaptive Too!

Of the countless books and articles written on change or innovation, few if any mention project management as the missing ingredient.  That is because many of the challenges faced by organizations in the execution of complex and ambitious projects are adaptive, not just technical

In other words, success requires changes in mindset, behavior and even culture.  While the application of new project management skills, tools or techniques is important, they are relatively powerless to deal with the adaptive.  That said the almost complete omission of the concepts of project discipline or rigor is also a serious blind spot both among managers and management writers.

The PMO is born of the organization and steeped in its culture. So, an organization that is bureaucratic and hierarchical will likely have a PMO that operates similarly. If projects and initiatives must be delivered with speed, innovation and agility, then the PMO may be part of the problem rather than the solution. 

Give a Person a Fish…

You know the saying ‘give a person a fish and you feed them for a day, teach them how to fish and you feed them for a lifetime’. This same principle applies to the role of the PMO in saving any project or initiative. If the PMO jumps in to save a project, then it may find itself having to do this a lot. Better that it invest in developing the competencies and skills to enable those people running projects to manage their own projects.

Rightly or wrongly, project management has fallen from grace within many organizations. It is often seen as being bureaucratic and is tarnished by a legacy of failed or floundering projects. But let’s not let that cloud the issue. The requirements of successfully executing on the strategy goes beyond any one function or department. It is an organizational capability rather than a specific department.

Work the Team Not the Project

As one PMO head put it: ‘Our Job is not to save projects.  It is to support those charged with making it happen in tackling the KSFs and risks faced by projects’.

Projects are as much about talent and teams as it is about project plans, Gantt Charts and so on. That means you need to work the team not the project.

Talent, passion and skill of those running a project is the primary ingredient of success.  Looking to outsiders (such as the PMO) to save a project denies the project team the opportunity to rise to the challenge. A PMO that runs roughshod over those who are running a project can alienate and demotivate.

The Best Time to Intervene

When a project is floundering and about to go under, it is generally too late to intervene. The best place to intervene is the first mile of a project – that means ensure that a project gets off the ground successfully. Also, it means preventing false starts, prioritizing and sequencing those projects that matter most. Moreover, by helping to institute robust processes around how projects are conceived and primed for success, the PMO’s influence can be felt most widely.

Concluding Thoughts

There are two contrasting views in respect of the role of project management in the execution of critical projects and strategic initiatives. The first is that ‘project management is everything’. The second is that ‘project management is nothing’. The truth is likely somewhere in between. The essentials of project, program and portfolio management are as important as ever.  Yet, expecting your project management office to save you (or your projects) would be unrealistic. This is just one part of the total solution to the challenges of executing on increasingly ambitious strategies in an ever more complex and fast-changing world. Also required are strategy, leadership, agility and more (as illustrated in the ‘Priority Track’).

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