A Successfull PMO Learns From Hummingbirds

Creating and running a Project Management Office (PMO) that consistently delivers value in our VUCA world (i.e. Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) is a challenge. Of course, many different schools of thought address this challenge. But they all do this with varying levels of success. But imagine now that you operate a PMO that is lean, agile, state-of-the-art, and that delivers a measurable contribution to your organization’s success.
You may find that this PMO shares several characteristics with hummingbirds.

I have already published several articles on the hummingbird on The Project Group blog, and on LinkedIn. All have been well received. So, it is my pleasure today to republish a slightly modified article.

The hummingbird is indeed the very symbol of what a lean, agile, and effective PMO is.

Here is a selection of 10 of these characteristics that a PMO may explore, study and learn.

But before getting to them, watch this beautiful video from National Geographic.

1-Hummingbirds Belong to a Variety of Species

Hummingbirds are small and agile birds from the Americas. They constitute the family Trochilidae. Hummingbirds fall into nine main clades, the Topazes, Hermits, Mangoes, Brilliants, Coquettes, Patagona, Mountain Gems, Bees, and Emeralds. They count between 325 and 340 species.

So are PMOs. PMOs can belong to several branches or clades (usually 3-7), from Project or Program Management Office to Portfolio Management Office.

It can be an Enterprise Project Management Office or a Center of Excellence in Project Management.
It may even be a Strategic Initiative Management Office.
Yet, it may also be the individual running the Office: the PM Officer.

These branches count a large variety of situations defined by the domains, the level, the scope of control or the experience and capabilities they show. One size does not fit all. Surely, this diversity contributes to agility.

PMO World

Figure 1
PMOs play all sorts of roles in an organization.

Identifying and counting all PMO individuals in the world is an impossible task. Just an example. Google gives 47,500,000 results for a search with “PMO” as a keyword.

One difference though between hummingbirds and PMOs is that PMOs are everywhere in the world and not only in the Americas. LinkedIn finds 260,000 PMOs in the US, and hundreds of thousands outside the Americas.


TIPS

  • Differentiate the PM Office and the PM Officer.
  • Clarify what your organization calls a PM Officewith a family (PMO) and clades (branches) like Project MOProgram MOPortfolio MOStrategic Initiative MOTransformation MOPM Center of Excellence.
  • Consider the huge variety of individuals serving as a PM Officer; clarify their mission, their capabilities, and their personal development needs.

2-Hummingbirds Are Among the Smallest of Birds

They are among the smallest of birds, most species measuring 7.5–13 cm (3–5 in) in length. Female hummingbirds tend to be larger, requiring more energy, with longer beaks that allow for more effective reach into crevices of tall flowers for nectar. Thus, females are better at foraging, acquiring flower nectar, and supporting the energy demands of their larger body size.

Agile PMOs are generally very small too. Can you imagine a heavy PMO being agile like a hummingbird?

A large PM Office willing to be agile may imitate a flock of birds or small PM Offices and Officers. Figure 3 depicts an example. The most effective PMOs I have seen are made of only very few people.

network agents

Figure 2
PMOs can be a decentralized community of lean local PM Offices and Officers.

In a very large worldwide initiative, only two people made the PMO. However, these two individuals built and animated a community of tens of decentralized lean PMOs. Each of them was well embedded in their local organization and highly dedicated, motivated, and professional.


TIPS

  • Create agility in your organization by preferring a swarm of small, distributed and diverse PMOs to a large monolithic PMO.
  • Make these PMOs build connections, form an organization-wide community of practice, and share their diversity.

3-Hummingbirds Love Flowering Plants They Cross-Pollinate

Hummingbirds love nectar-bearing flowering plants. They depend on flower nectar to fuel their high metabolisms and hovering flight. Many plants pollinated by hummingbirds produce flowers in shades of red, orange, and bright pink.

PMOs love great, diverse, and ambitious projects. There is nothing worse than a dull project for which the PMO has neither challenge to overcome nor great purpose to contribute.

Most PMOs are temporary. Once their assignment concludes with the end of a project, they move to another endeavor. A PMO going from an exciting project to another one cross-pollinates these projects.

complexity uncertainty grid

Figure 3
Agile PMOs benefit from the crosspollination of many approaches

At the same time, they study and learn a variety of project management approaches, from lean start-up to mega-project management or strategic initiative portfolio management. Their mindset is constantly open to the most adapted solutions.

They even master the hybridization of several different approaches during a same project. For example, they introduce lean start-up approaches upstream, agile approaches later, and waterfall approaches as soon as most uncertainties disappear.


TIPS

  • Make sure your PMO can understand and apply a variety of bodies of knowledge.

4-Hummingbirds Fly with Breathtaking Agility

The hummingbird has several adaptations that allow it to fly with breathtaking agility and precision. Of all the known species of birds, the hummingbird is perhaps one of the most iconic because of its unique ability to hover. They hover in mid-air at rapid wing-flapping rates, which vary from around 12 beats per second in the largest species, to more than 80 in some of the smallest. Therefore, they can fly straight, in reverse, upwards, downwards, and even upside down.

An agile PMO is also capable of flying straight, in reverse, upwards, downwards, and even upside down. Such a PMO can hover and support complex projects with a remarkable agility allowing it to navigate the most VUCA environments (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous).

They interact with stakeholders in every direction, vertically (up and down), laterally (with different functions, geographies, roles). They, like the Russian Sukhoi Pugachev’s Cobra maneuver, avoid opponent maneuvers and missiles.

Agile PMOs also study and learn the laws of physics. For example, they learn that a controlling system must be nimbler than the system it pretends to control. The management system they implement must meet this obligation.

They especially learn the laws of thermodynamics. For example, they learn that organizations are complex adaptive systems. As such, organizations dissipate their energy and information with a constantly increasing the speed.

So, they support their projects, programs or portfolios with a most open mindset and the largest possible exchanges of information from and to their outside world.


TIPS

  • Implement a management system that makes you faster than the system you need to control, and exchange information from and to the outside world as fast as possible.

5-Hummingbirds Hover for Very Long Periods of Time

Hummingbirds have also the ability to simply hover for very long periods of time. During flight, oxygen consumption per gram of muscle tissue in a hummingbird is about 10 times higher than that measured in elite human athletes. Hummingbirds are rare among vertebrates in their ability to rapidly make use of ingested sugars to fuel energetically expensive hovering flight.

Some projects last for a very long period (sometimes more than 10 years). Some meetings are very long too (several days). So, it is important that PMOs demonstrate the ability to “hover” for very long periods of time.

Agile PMOs can anticipate the project fatigue created by the change impact on themselves as well as on their stakeholders. For example, they pick up the ability to reorganize the project portfolio to reduce this fatigue.

project fatigue pmo

Figure 4
Agile PMOs identify, manage, and resist project fatigue

Or they recognize this fatigue and propose to adapt the project management style. And they increase the comprehension for all stakeholders of what happens. This makes people feel more comfortable with the project.


TIPS

  • Your first goal as a PMO is to survive. This is the only way you can bring a project to success.
  • Apply the same rule to your stakeholders and to your team members.

6-Hummingbirds Acquire Vocalizations through Imitation

Consisting of chirps, squeaks, whistles and buzzes, hummingbird songs originate from at least seven specialized nuclei in the forebrain. A genetic expression study has shown that these nuclei enable vocal learning (ability to acquire vocalizations through imitation), a rare trait known to occur in only two other groups of birds (parrots and songbirds) and a few groups of mammals (including humans, whales, dolphins and bats).

PMOs also imitate other professionals. They learn the human dynamics of their project stakeholders. These human dynamics comprise a variety of domains. Among them, you find the knowledge of languages, history, cultures, human behaviors, cognitive biases.

These PMOs use tools, soft or hard, that help them adjust their work to the particularities of the context.

Here are a few practical examples from top-notch PM Officers. They:

  • Practice several foreign languages.
  • Adapt their interaction style to the cultural traits of their stakeholders.
  • Build relationships first where important.
  • Focus on actions and results where and when appropriate.
  • Use linguistic analysis to catch hidden characteristics of the initiatives, reports, or communication.

TIPS

  • A “hummingbird” PMO learns its stakeholders’ style and adjusts its attitude as required to make the interrelationship fruitful.

7-Hummingbirds Have A High Spatial Resolution in Lateral and Frontal Visual Fields

During evolution, hummingbirds have adapted to the navigational needs of visual processing while in rapid flight or hovering by development of an exceptionally dense array of retinal neurons allowing for increased spatial resolution in the lateral and frontal visual fields. The enlargement of the brain region responsible for visual processing indicates enhanced ability for perception and processing of fast-moving visual stimuli, which hummingbirds encounter during rapid forward flight, insect foraging, competitive interactions, and high-speed courtship. Hummingbirds can even see wavelengths into the near-ultraviolet.

The more complex a project, the more VUCA an environment, the more information is important for a PMO.

Here is a practical example. A global-500 company wanted to focus its teams on customer-centricity. Figure 6 shows the mission-critical capabilities over the entire organization required to deliver successfully such a transformation. The PMO that built this graph, called Marimekko, was able to identify key gaps in some vital customer-facing functions as well as over-capabilities in less critical functions.

Figure 5
Agile PMOs see things from above

Complex systems are also highly sensitive to initial conditions. This phenomenon bears the name of “butterfly effect”. Early information gathered upstream is vital. Early business intelligence is key to avoiding big mistakes later.

Yet, there is a limit to the amount of available information. Therefore, complex systems are also unpredictable to targets. This requires both getting the most precise understanding of how a system behaves and developing innovative strategies, for example based on options. The perception (reasoned or intuitive) of a PMO is also a key success factor. Finally, agile PMOs have “single versions of the truth” available 24×7.


TIPS

  • Getting access to information is vital. A PMO accessing a large pertinent amount of data gains a real competitive advantage.

8-Hummingbirds Keep Their Head Positions Stable in Turbulences

During turbulent airflow conditions created experimentally in a wind tunnel, hummingbirds exhibit stable head positions and orientation when they hover at a feeder. In natural settings full of highly complex background motion, hummingbirds can hover precisely in place by rapid coordination of vision with body position.

The agile PMO demonstrates the same vital capability to maintain the head above water. Turbulences strike the project. Uncertainty and instability shake the course of the project. Conversations with colleagues, during meetings, or with executives can be difficult. However, the agile PMO stays confident, calm, focused on the mission.


TIPS

  • No amount of data will ever guarantee the predictability of results. Therefore, the PMO must study and learn flexible and adaptive strategies.

9-Hummingbirds Can Enter Hibernation-Like States

To conserve energy when food is scarce, and at night when not foraging, hummingbirds can go into torpor, a state like hibernation, slowing metabolic rate to 1/15th of its normal rate.

PMOs may go through periods of desert. Projects may be missing, slow moving, or waiting for key decisions. They may work on an initiative that is stopped, temporarily or not.

Imagine that you support a construction project in a beautiful Italian town. Imagine also that when workers begin to dig the foundations, they find bones from ancient Rome. No doubt that the project will be stopped, and archeologists will take precedence over construction work.

It is time for the PMO to hibernate. The expert PMO understands time preference and knows to be patient now and impatient later.


TIPS

  • Do not fear loneliness, silence, or desert. These are all opportunities for resourcing, learning, introspecting, waiting for maturity, and at the end for preparing a better future.

10-Hummingbirds Have a Lifespan of 3 to 5 Years

Many hummingbirds die during their first year of life, especially in the vulnerable period between hatching and fledging, those that survive may occasionally live a decade or more. Among the better-known North American species, the average lifespan is probably 3 to 5 years.

This does not seem too different from PMOs’ lifespans.

First, let us differentiate between the lifespan of a PM Office and the lifespan of a PM Officer. PM Offices are mostly temporary when they support a project or a program. Conversely, they are built to last a long time (or to be permanent) when they deal with an organizational strategy, a portfolio of projects and programs, or a center of excellence.

PM Officers have a different attitude regarding time.

Some PMOs “die” very early. This is frequently the case when their hiring process is neglecting key characteristics, like their level of capabilities on each of the three dimensions of the Talent Triangle (technical, business, and leadership). But most of short lifespans happen when project leaders and PM Officers do not rapidly perform as a close-knit buddy system.

Other PM Officers last a few years. They start and finish with the project. But a key difference compared to hummingbirds is that PMOs have the privilege to find new lives every time one is gone.

Many PMOs have an increasingly exciting career they can manage with agility. They have opportunities to support ever-larger domains and endeavors (think of the PMOs in mega-projects or consider Enterprise PMOs). They master more and more state-of-the-art approaches to project management.


TIPS

  • Separate the lifespan of a PMO as an organization and the lifespan of a PMO as an individual. Adjust the former to the organizational needs and the latter to your personal development needs.

Conclusion – What Successful PMOs Can Learn from Hummingbirds

The hummingbird is a symbol of several key characteristics an agile PMO should demonstrate. A PMO is dedicated to a mission. Its characteristics only serve to fulfill this mission successfully.

If you had only three characteristics to focus on, these three would make it:

  • Be lean, distributed, and work as a community
  • Develop a very large visual field within and outside your domain
  • Become stable in turbulences with advanced strategies

Of course, each PM Officer has his or her own preferences, based on who they are and in relation to the context in which they operate. What would be yours? Let me know by leaving a comment below.

To your continued success

Philippe Husser

High-Impact PMO

Thank you also to TPG The Project Group and Bettina von Staden who published recently my article on their blog.

5 thoughts on “A Successfull PMO Learns From Hummingbirds”

  1. What an interesting perspective on the best of PMO practice. I love the nuances of the different types and purposes of PMOs.
    I also appreciate the perspective of the PMO embracing diversity in all forms but in particular cultural and professional practices. This diversity is reflected at the end when Philippe points out that each of us is interested in different aspects of this broader PMO practice.
    The need capacity agility balanced with intense focus (hovering) is the hallmark of a great PMO (and a great PM).

    • Thank you Ruth for your interesting comment. I especially agree with the “and a great PM”. It is my experience that a key success factor is the buddy system that PM, PMO, and Sponsor form together.

      Here I guess stops the comparison with hummingbirds since I am not sure that these wonderful birds would also form buddy systems!

  2. Very apt comparison of PMO to the Hummingbird. I speak from an informed position as a seasoned Project Manager

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