What has the PMO ever done for us?

What has the PMO ever done for us

With all due acknowledgement (and apologies) to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, whose film The Life of Brian inspired this post.

THE INTERIOR OF A DIRTY CITY PUB. A SHADY BACK ROOM WITH A CONSPIRATORIAL ATMOSPHERE. We join a meeting of the Project Managers’ Revolutionary Front, where Brother Reg (the chairman of the meeting) is proposing a motion to the members (all Project Managers), and a CxO guest.

REG (gesticulating at a complex diagram on a flip chart): …So we break into the PMO, set fire to the methodology and sabotage the automated status report reminder email! Who’ll second me so we can take a vote?

[Apathetic silence]

BRIAN (a project manager): Are you sure we should actually be ransacking the PMO, Reg? I mean, some of the stuff they do is really quite useful…

Reg: Useful?!  Don’t make me laugh! What has the PMO ever done for us?

Brian: Well, the project management methodology makes sure we all talk the same language; before we had a PMO we didn’t know whether we were using PRINCE2® or the PMBoK®!

NIGEL (another project manager): That’s right Brian, and they update the methodology with Lessons Learned so it’s relevant to our projects and not over-bureaucratic…

SISTER SUSAN (another project manager, under her breath): Unlike these meetings…

[Sniggers all round]

Nigel (quickly): They do health checks to identify where our projects may be at risk, and help us to bridge the gaps.

Susan: And they develop user-friendly document templates to save us time

Reg: OK, so there are two things the PMO has given us…

LORETTA (a CxO): Well, they distil all the project reports into concise, executive-friendly information so that we know what’s going on.

Brian: …and they build project plans that we can actually use, rather than just stick on the wall and ignore like we used to…

Loretta: …and they prepare exec-specific views of the plans…

Reg: Well yes obviously planning, but what else?

Nigel: They keep an eye on the details for us…

Brian: And that’s where the devil is, isn’t it people?

[Nods and murmurs of general agreement]

Nigel: Yeah, like actions for completion; risks for review…

Brian: Exactly! They liberate us to manage our teams to deliver on time, to quality, and within budget.

Reg: Alright, I accept the PMO vitally underpins delivery of the project portfolio, but apart from methodology management, terrific templates, intelligent information, practical planning, and monitoring the detail, what has the PMO ever done for us?

Susan: Well, remember those “zombie” projects that we should never have started but that just wouldn’t die? They got those stopped…

Loretta: And that freed up some budget for projects that actually deliver benefits!

Reg: Hmm, this meeting isn’t really going the way I planned it.

Susan (just loud enough for everyone except Reg to hear): Maybe he should have got the PMO to run it!

[Amused guffaws. Reg looks frustrated. The laughter fades into awkward silence; the meeting seems to have rather lost its purpose]

Reg: All those in favour of going for a curry?

The Agile PMO – Leading the Effective, Value Driven, Project Management Office (Book Review)

by Michael Nir
Self-published by the Author as a Kindle eBook on Amazon.com, 46 pages (estimated, 10,400 words), £2.65 RRP (review copy supplied free of charge)
PragmaticPMO Rating:  ****

This book leads with a single central principle – that a PMO’s sole reason for existence is the creation of value for the organisation, and that the single most effective way it can do that is by managing the allocation of resources to projects. Of course, tools, methodology and processes are all good things to have, but identifying how to deploy resources for the best return on that investment is where a PMO really comes into its own.

I initially found such a forceful statement a little hard to swallow, but the book shows (using example scenarios drawn from the author’s consulting experience) several ways how the PMO can fail if it chooses to focus its efforts in other directions.

If a PMO fails to establish the necessary authority and credibility with the Project Manager (PM) community at a sufficiently early stage, it becomes relegated to performing only supportive, administrative work. This is so time-consuming that there is no time to develop more useful services, value delivery is limited and the PMO will be cut as soon as funding decreases.

If a PMO focuses on methodology, the PMs may superficially complete templates and processes just to keep the PMO quiet, but the completed templates and processes may bear little relation to reality. Unless the methodology is focused tightly on improving project delivery, this type of PMO merely increases administrative burden on PMs without enhancing value. Again, the PMO will be cut as soon as funding decreases.

PMOs that function mainly as a home for PMs do little to create value (other than managing the PMs as resources). Despite this it can persist for a long time as business value is not even considered, and the PMO duties are usually carried out by fairly junior (cheap) people.

PMOs that try to implement everything (resource management, methodology, templates, etc.) at once can appear to PMs as dictatorial rather than collaborative. This results in resistance to change and ultimately wasted effort in a failed implementation.

PMOs that focus on software tools before methodology, processes and templates spend a lot of time and effort customising the tool to accommodate the variety of approaches in the organisation. This is a very labour-intensive and expensive activity!

PMOs that implement an unsuitable methodology risk creating unnecessary barriers to implementation that slow down project delivery and upset customers.

So then, having covered several interesting (and familiar!) ways in which the PMO can fail, how is it to succeed? By treating the implementation of a PMO as a Change process, it is possible to increase the likelihood of success. Steps include: creating a sense of urgency; Creating a coalition of supportive stakeholders and engaging them to avoid surprises; Creating a vision with SMART short and long term objectives to instil pride; Communicating the vision regularly and consistently to instil trust; Empowering people to contribute and help to remove obstacles; Generating quick wins to gain support; and Embedding the changes in organisational culture.

Doing all this while focussing effort and new initiatives on the areas that will deliver the most benefit to the organisation soonest (and it helps if these also have influential and vocal stakeholders!) brings the best results.

The value created can be measured in terms of increasing the number of projects being delivered in a given time (since completed projects create value). As the availability of resources (people and/or money) is usually the single largest barrier to delivering more projects, increasing project delivery is often best achieved by creating a view of project and resource status to enable the most effective utilisation of resources across the project portfolio.

This is not a heavyweight book – you can read it from cover to virtual cover in about half an hour. Although it doesn’t go into detail describing the ideal approach (which in any case would differ in the detail from organisation to organisation), for me just as much of the real value in this book comes from the examples of what not to do and how that leads to failure.

Well worth the purchase price!

How to keep your programme schedule on the right track

Having created a project or programme schedule, how do you use it as a delivery tool? Here’s the approach I have used successfully on several recent programmes.

How to keep your programme schedule on the right track

Background

During the final delivery stage of a multi-year relocation and Change Management project, with a few weeks to go before moving ~800 people and their equipment between sites, I was managing the integrated programme schedule to confirm we were in a position to move on the planned dates (or not!).

The Steering Committee (SteerCo) and Internal Audit wanted reassurance (via a series of pre-move readiness meetings) that we would be able to move on the planned dates, to know that the Business and Stakeholders would be happy to move on those dates; and for the programme to take any appropriate action to enable this to happen.

Prepare

To enable this, I created a suite of intermediate “collector” milestones on the programme schedule:

  • “People ready” to move (reflecting the completion of Change Management activity, both “Must have” and “Should have”)
  • “Systems & Building ready” to receive the People (both “Must have” and “Should have”)

I worked on the basis that in order to be in the “Must have” category, the absence of the deliverable had to be big enough to stop the move; otherwise it wasn’t really a “must have” but a “should have”. I made these intermediate milestones immediate predecessors of the first move (with any slack available between these and the first move date being explicitly shown as schedule contingency).  I obtained current information on forecasts and actual start/finish dates through weekly Workstream Lead (WSL) reports and regular 1:1 schedule review sessions, and updated the schedule with this information.

Monitor

I monitored the plan (and especially the critical path leading up to the first move) for the effect on the final deliverables of any updates. Each time I updated the plan with new information, I checked to confirm we were still on track to deliver the final deliverables on the planned dates, adjusting the contingency buffer if necessary.

In this way I spotted anomalies – for example, having updated the schedule with revised dates from weekly WSL reports, I noticed final delivery milestone had moved 2 weeks later than planned. Each WSL’s detail plan appeared to be on track in isolation, but taken as a whole programme (taking dependencies into account) the final deliverables were late.

Detect

My typical approach to finding the cause of an anomaly such as this is to trace the predecessors of the slipped deliverable, working backwards in time to find where the delay is ultimately coming from (usually this is from missing or outdated inter-workstream or inter-project dependencies, raising the need for greater detail or revised dependencies).

In the case of the example, I isolated the problem to the start of a technology Pilot, which in turn was dependent on an IT system becoming available following Technical Testing and User Acceptance Testing (UAT).

Re-plan, Recommend, Resolve

I then analyse the situation and propose some remedial options, in the case of the example these included:

  • Removing the IT system from the Pilot scope (introducing a quality risk)
  • Shortening the duration of the Tech testing before the UAT and Pilot (also introducing a quality risk)
  • Combining the Pilot with UAT by selecting UAT users for the Pilot, killing two birds with one stone (recommended approach)

The programme team opted to implement the combined UAT / Pilot approach I recommended, bringing the programme back onto schedule. The approach for Change Requests is similar:

  • Create a new version of the schedule (or insert new activities in such a way that they don’t affect the “real”, working schedule) to use as a “what-if?”schedule.
  • Make the changes as detailed in the Change Request, making or breaking dependencies as appropriate.
  • Assess the impact on the delivery dates, resource utilisation, financial forecasts, and make a recommendation to the programme director and ultimately the SteerCo to accept or reject the Change Request.

Result

As a result of using this approach:

  • The programme was kept on schedule, to deliver on time;
  • SteerCo and Internal Audit were reassured that the run-up to moving was in hand, as they were kept up to date on an ever-diminishing list of pre-move “must have” deliverables;
  • The Go/NoGo decision on moving was taken in the full knowledge that: all “must have” deliverables would be in place on day 1; most “should have” items would be in place on day 1, and the missing “should have” items would become available on specific dates post-move.

In this way, the schedule was transformed from a collection of dates and coloured sticky notes on the wall into a dynamic tool with which to proactively manage programme delivery.

So that’s my approach to keeping a programme schedule on track, learned through training and experience. It this approach useful to you? How do you keep your programme schedules on track?

If you would like to have the benefits of an approach like this but prefer not to have to worry about this sort of techy stuff, why not talk to us about taking care of it all for you on your next big project or programme?

Processes are an organisation’s memory

Further to my post on Lessons Learned from project delivery, I’m going to take a calculated risk by standing up for the pragmatic application of process. Yes, that’s right, process.

Processes are an organisations memory

Now, people seem to enjoy a bit of process-bashing, and I get that: nobody wants to have their working lives organised for them to the point where they become a soul-less, heartless, brainless robot, but I am proposing the idea that processes are an organisation’s memory.

Let me illustrate this with a well-known story – the Fable of the Five Monkeys. If you don’t know this story, Eddie Obeng tells it beautifully in this very short (2½ minutes!) video.

Here is the story in a nutshell:

  • Five monkeys were kept in a cage with some bananas at the top of a ladder. Whenever one of the monkeys climbed the ladder to get a banana, all the monkeys were hosed down with cold water. Soon, the monkeys began to beat each other up to stop any other monkeys from climbing the ladder and getting them all hosed.
  • Eventually, the threat of cold water was removed, but the monkeys didn’t realise that and still stopped each other from getting bananas anyway.
  • Then, one monkey was replaced with a new monkey. This monkey didn’t know about the cold water, so when he tried to get a banana, the other monkeys beat him up to stop him.
  • One by one all the monkeys in the group were replaced, and all of them would stop each other from trying to get the bananas, even though none of the original monkeys were there, none of them had been sprayed with water and in any case the cold water had been turned off.
  • Effectively a culture had been created within which you get beaten up if you try to get a banana, but none of the monkeys understood why.

The meaning of this story is that to begin with, an organisation adopts a particular course of action – let’s call it The Process (e.g. ignoring the tempting bananas) for Sensible and Compelling Reasons – the result of lessons learned from a project perhaps (if you go for the bananas, you get hosed).

The organisation encourages everyone to use The Process (and beats them up if they don’t). However after a while, people change and no-one remembers what the Sensible Reasons for implementing The Process were, and all you have left is a secondary, cultural reason – because “we have always done it that way” (if we don’t use The Process, we get beaten up).

This situation has the following possible outcomes, each with their pros and cons:

  • The organisation carries on using The Process because “we have always done it that way”.
    • Pro – It may still be perfectly sensible to use The Process because the original Reasons for implementing it still apply (the person with the hose is still there, or the bananas were always poisonous). However,
    • Con – It may no longer be sensible to use The Process because the Reasons for creating it have disappeared (the hose person has gone). Using The Process may be at best inefficient, or at worst,dangerous (ignoring the handy supply of bananas may lead to starvation).
  • Someone new to the organisation cannot understand why The Process is being used, and implements The New Process, which they think is far more sensible.
    • Pro – It may be perfectly sensible to implement The New Process if the Reason for The Original Process is no longer applicable (the hose person has gone), or The New Process by pure luck addresses the original Reason. However…
    • Con – If the Reason still applies and The New Process doesn’t address it, then the organisation is in for trouble (we’re all going to get hosed!)

So, it seems to me that there is nothing wrong with having a process embedded into organisational culture so it becomes “the way we do things round here”, provided that the people that use the process know why that process exists, and the process is reviewed periodically to ensure that it is still appropriate.

Under this approach, the monkeys in the story would know that they must not touch the bananas or they will all get hosed. They would periodically review the approach to ascertain whether the Reason for The Process is still applicable (the hose person is still there), and to change the approach if the circumstances have changed.

By now, you are probably wondering how this applies to Project Management.

Whilst it may or may not be appropriate for an organisation to codify the management of an entire project as a process (there are many popular books and courses on the market that have done that already), I think there is a case for an organisation to document and manage any special ways they have developedof doing certain project stages (Start-up, Initiation, Execution, Closure, etc.) and often-repeated aspects of project management (e.g. Risk Management, Procurement, etc.) as processes, with a documented purpose, objective, and review schedule.

That way, someone (the PMO?) is responsible for looking after, say, the risk management process, and is periodically reviewing it with a view to improving it in the light of Lessons Learned by the organisation.

An approach I have used in a Portfolio Office role to embed lessons learned with some degree of success is to pre-populate the organisational Risk Register template with issues that have cropped up in previous projects, scored initially with a medium to high probability – this prompts the Project Manager to actively assess that risk in relation to their own project, and reduce the risk likelihood or impact if it is felt that it is either not relevant, or that the risk has been mitigated.

This approach makes it easy for the Project Manager to draw on previous organisational lessons (making it very clear why they might want to do things in the recommended way), and also puts the control and responsibility in the hands of the Project Manager, who can use their own (and the team’s) experience to judge whether a particular pre-loaded risk is relevant for the project in hand.

How does your project organisation ensure that people know why they do things, and that the organisational project management approach (or process, or methodology) stays up to date and relevant? Let me know in the comments.

How to make sure that Lessons Learned stay that way

I often wonder just how much project management organisations really learn from project successes and mistakes. I think we could all definitely learn better than we currently do.

How to make sure lessons learned stay that way

I will start by saying that we should not wait until the end of the project to learn lessons (both good and bad) – these will be happening all the way throughout the project and should be logged as they happen. Completion of a Stage (including the final one at the end of the project) present a convenient time to review lessons and take action (including communicating the lessons to the wider project community), but waiting until the end of the project to even identify the lessons represents a missed opportunity for continuous improvement. Having said that, the end of the project is where projects usually consider lessons learned (if they do this at all), in the form of a post-implementation review.

In my portfolio management office (PfMO) experience I have seen post-implementation reviews come up with the same lessons again and again (e.g. build contingency into plans; take more time and care to gather requirements; don’t Go Live without full sign off / back-out plans / user training, etc.), but I have seen even more examples where post-implementation reviews weren’t carried out at all because: the project was too small / too simple; the project finished too long ago / hasn’t finished yet; I don’t have the time; the project team is now working on something else / has all left the company; nothing happens with Lessons Learned anyway; I don’t think it’s worth the effort (delete as applicable!).

I think the PMO can help with Lessons Learned, and that the problems lie not only with identifying the lessons, but also with what to do with the lessons that have been identified to embed the learning into the organisation’s experience and memory. Here are some ways that the PMO can help, to make sure the Lessons are not only learned but also acted on:

  1. The PMO can add the lessons to the corporate PM methodology.
    Done well, robust PM processes and methodologies form part of an organisation’s corporate memory, and are built making intelligent use of the lessons the organisation has learned from previous projects. They are aimed at preventing the repetition of past mistakes without unnecessarily impeding delivery. But the more you add to the methodology, the more rigid and prescriptive it becomes, and the more likely it is to either be cheerfully ignored or blindly implemented in full (and you can bet it will be ignored on the big risky projects and implemented in full on the little simple ones!). The PMO should also avoid becoming the methodology police.
  2. The PMO could collect the lessons identified in a Big Database
    …but to be useful this relies on someone (PMs? the PMO?) reviewing new projects against all the lessons in the database, and identifying relevant points to note.
  3. The PMO could add the lessons to a checklist
    …but that relies on people (PMs)using the checklist and giving some serious consideration to what the items on the checklist represent (rather than just paying lip service and ticking the box). And there will always be the temptation for PMs to come up with a good reason why a checklist item doesn’t apply to the current project…
  4. The PMO can run Lessons Learned sessions
    where the PM of a completed project presents their Lessons to the rest of the Project Management community (but this relies on an open and honest communications culture, and/or bribing the attendees with cakes), or…
  5. The PMO could pre-load the Risk Register template
    with the risk of repeating mistakes made on previous projects – the mitigation for which would be to review the Lessons Learned Big Database for things to consider (and the PMO could add value by offering this as a service).

I think the last two approaches are the best, because one encourages the development of a learning community (this is the subject of a separate post) and the other places responsibility for reviewing past lessons (or not) with Project Managers, but supports them with a PMO service.

So that’s my approach to making project lessons “stickier”, learned through experience. What do you think? How do you ensure lessons from past projects are not just identified and logged, but learned and applied to new projects? Let me know in the comments.

If you would like to have the benefits of an approach like this but prefer not to have to worry about this sort of techy stuff, why not talk to us about taking care of it all for you on your next big project or programme?

Watch out for watermelons in project reports

How do watermelons get into project reports? and why should you watch out for them?

Watch out for watermelons

“Watermelon reporting” describes the phenomenon where things appear to be green on the outside (i.e. the project’s status reports say it is green, with no issues), but if you delve a little deeper and look inside, it’s actually red right through (i.e. there are serious issues). I can’t take the credit for coining this expression but I can’t remember where I heard it either [14Jul 16 update – I’ve found a 2011 article on DZone, so it would seem that the credit for coining the phrase is due to Marc Löffler].

So what are the factors that might lead a PM to report a project as green when it’s really red?

  • It’s embarrassing for a PM to admit that “their” project is not going as well as it could/should be;
  • It increases the risk that the project will be cancelled (and we all know what happens to a PM whose projects get cancelled…);
  • The problem really should have been reported (perhaps as amber) some time ago, and to report it as red now would expose that it wasn’t reported amber before;
  • There’s still an opportunity to turn it around before the next report is due and then no-one will need to know it was ever red, will they?
  • “We don’t have red projects in this organisation” (oh yes you do!)

Looking at these reasons, you can see that most of them come from the assumption that red is a Bad Thing, and that this is the PM’s Fault – i.e. the organisation has a “blame” culture. Unfortunately, concealing red status inside a green status report is seldom a good idea, for the following reasons:

  • The sooner a problem is identified, the cheaper it is to rectify;
  • The sooner the PM escalates problems to the Sponsor, the more likely it is that the Sponsor will hear about it from the PM (rather than from another senior stakeholder with an axe to grind, for example!);
  • The sooner the Sponsor hears about the problem, the more time they have to perhaps mobilise resources to help, pave the way for a resolution, or manage the message;
  • The consequences of the concealment being discovered get worse the longer the concealment persists (and this is more a case ofwhen rather than if, a bit like when children lie to their parents)
  • If the project really is red enough to be cancelled, then doing this would be in the interests of the organisation, and no PM will win friends by keeping a bad project going longer than it should be.

Of course the PM should not be flagging every little issue and running to the sponsor every half hour (they are paid to sort most things out) but they should be flagging the project as red when any of the constraints (i.e. budget, schedule, quality, benefits) are seriously threatened, and feeling no shame in doing so.

Red should not be seen as an indicator that there is (or should be!) blood on the corporate carpet; instead red should be seen as the colour of the distress flare that the PM is effectively launching to alert stakeholders to the fact that there is trouble, and some tough decisions may need to be taken.

As a PMO, wherever I see watermelon reporting, I encourage the PM to be brave and honest enough to ask for help. Have you seen watermelon reporting? Do your project managers “keep calm and report it as green“? If so, how have you dealt with it? Let me know in the comments.

If you would like to have the benefits of an approach like this but prefer not to have to worry about this sort of stuff, why not talk to us about taking care of it all for you on your next big project or programme?

How PMOs improve project governance

One of the benefits of having a Project Management Office (PMO) is that good governance reduces the risks of project delivery and increases its predictability. I will explain how this works in practice using as a case study a Portfolio PMO that I managed.

How PMOs improve Project Governance

The organisation ran a fairly large number of relatively short term projects to set up software systems for new distribution clients. These Client Onboarding projects were run by project managers, but without reference to a documented methodology or a central co-ordinating body. The timescales were often unrealistically tight, and projects would often either miss the due date, or would overspend on additional resources in order to meet the due date.

The tight timescales were usually imposed as a result of sales representatives making ambitious promises to clients without reference to the organisation’s capacity to deliver. Overspend to achieve the deadlines was authorised by the same sales representatives that set the deadlines, but the money to fund the overspend did not come from the Sales budget, and no assessment was made of the effect of the increased effort on the other projects under way.

We were tasked with turning this situation around.

We made the following changes:

  • We set up a “pipeline” list of all the projects likely to be started in the near future, and put in place an approval mechanism so that no new projects (including client onboarding) would be started without the approval of a Portfolio Board.
  • We developed a monitoring approach to enable the Portfolio Management Office (PfMO) to detect situations where a project Change Request may be required. A discussion between the PM and the PfMO would be prompted by the triggering of either of two indicators:
    • Finances: Actuals to Date and Estimates At Completion (EAC) were monitored against approved Budgets At Completion (BAC), with indicators to show when EAC exceeded BAC by more than a tolerance amount (expressed in both absolute and relative terms).
    • Schedule:Key project milestones were monitored, with indicators to show if these were forecast to be late against the baselined dates.
  • We measured changes from baseline on both a cumulative and incremental basis, to prevent large changes being concealed as a series of small changes.
  • We escalated the authorisation of Project Change Requests to an organisational level dependent on the size of the change (in terms of costs, time, and business value)
  • We devised templates to support PMs in requesting changes and determining the approval level required, and monitored numbers of approved and rejected changes (to identify “noisy” projects).

As a result, project changes were reviewed and approved at an appropriate organisational level, the highest of which included a full review of the change impact on the rest of the portfolio. In the space of a year, this (along with other initiatives) moved the Client project portfolio from a situation in which all Client projects missed either time or budget constraints (and around 15% missed both!) to a situation in which just 20% of Client projects missed time or budget constraints, and none missed both.

Even if you are cynical and take the view that implementing such a Change Request process merely sanctions the breaking of initial Time and Cost constraints, then at the very least it ensures this is done with eyes open and in the full knowledge of the impact on the project portfolio as a whole.

This approach effectively reduces the execution risk to the portfolio, and enables the Portfolio Board to consciously decide where to focus the organisation’s limited resources.