More PMOs than many believe deliver exceptional value. Yet, they support projects, programs and portfolios in a VUCA* world. Studying their real-life stories taught me three secrets that made them successful. Here is my most recent version of these three secrets.
*VUCA: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous
Secret #1 – High-Impact PMOs Ceaselessly Develop Their Capabilities
Project management requires to develop capabilities in the traditional technical, business and strategy, and leadership domains.
Complex project management requires complementing these capabilities with new skills in three areas:
Complexity sciences reinforce the comprehension of system dynamics, nonlinearities, uncertainties, network analysis among other domains.
The figure below shows for example that an equibrium exists between order and non-order with an optimum in sustainability.
Multi-modal strategies help to design project approaches that take into account real world behaviors.
They consider the need for different levels of squareness and roundness during the project lifecycle. They help for example to understand what a black swan is and what serendipity can do for you.
The figure below illustrates how you should hedge your strategic initiative portfolio. The light blue A group of initiatives contains those promising the biggest, lower-risk, and most regular benefits (the blue surface) that make the portfolio perform. The dark blue B part contains risky initiatives that could deliver very large benefits compensating for potentially deceptive benefits in the A group. B initiatives must outperform A initiatives in case these initiatives underperform.
Human dynamics develops the understanding of individuals, teams, and social groups behaviors.
They study their history, their culture, their geopolitical situation, and their interactions. You will apply human dynamics to project fatigue in your organization, to posture-adjusted interactions, and to the gains and reluctance that your stakeholders have regarding your initiatives.
Here is an example. It is important to understand and accept cultural differences if you want to develop trust between project stakeholders. The figure below visualizes a few country profiles against six cultural dimensions: interdependence, status, risk adversity, indirectness, relationships, and time horizon. It is inspired by Richard D. Lewis’ When cultures collide, leading across culture, and the internet site Aperian Global founded by Ted Dale and Ernest Gundling
Complex projects primary purpose is to serve a population.
These projects have a great many of stakeholders that are strongly intertwined. A myriad of interactions links them all in an impossible to precisely understand network. They form a complex adaptive system. New behaviors emerge that are impossible to predict. Most evolutions are non linear.
Yet the High-Impact PMO establishes a map of all these stakeholders. It constantly analyses their network and looks for important connexions and interactions, influencers, allies and opponents.
The figure below shows an example of a social dynamics map. This map evaluates the degree of synergy and of antagonism of key stakeholders.
The “Golden Triangle” contains key supporters who at the same time are challenging the project.
The red domain has the strongest opponents who do not show any synergy.
Each sector requires a specific stakeholder management plan.
The PMO understands that interactions are what makes the whole system behave. Working on the quality of these interactions becomes a key activity.
All sorts of techniques are available, from techniques designed for the individuals, to those available to teams and to large groups of people.
By doing so, the PMO considers stakeholders as “customers”, and its focus becomes customer-centric.
Secret #3 – High-Impact PMOs Are Result-Oriented
Traditional PMOs focus their activities on processes, methods and tools, monitoring and reporting. High-Impact PMOs focus on delivering value and impact to their stakeholders.
Stakeholders (from team members to customers) are in a recursive loop. They expect and contribute at the same time to personal gains and to organizational benefits.
As individuals they look for personal gains (more wealth, new friends, a better health…) (hence the famous WIIFM What’s In It For Me question).
As members of a specific community, they want collective benefits (a favorable work environment, a market growth…).
The High-Impact PMO focuses its work on maximizing both these personal gains and the benefits for the communities.
They consider that money is a secondary result they get when and if the population adopts the program goal. Not vice-versa.
A Strategy Map Visualizes a Typical Application Of the Secret #3
PMOs can develop program strategy maps and balanced scorecards placing the “customer” dimension on top, as the target of the value creation process, while the “finance” or “resource” dimension is at the bottom as an enabler.
This is what the figure below shows as the example of an aerospace / avionics project aiming at providing an excellent turn-over time to airlines. Note that there is a specific “people” dimension since people are different from mere “resources”.
Yet, it understands from complexity sciences and game theory that it is useless to search for a global satisfaction of all. The goal becomes a trial and error journey towards optimizing the impacts of the project.
A Simple Reporting Format Focuses On the Results Expected At the End
For example, as shown on the following figure, these PMOs focus on a forward-looking view of progress and impact (or benefits) of the components of their project. They add a WIN or What’s Important Now [to do] (black if the solution is in your hands, red if you need help from others).
Such PMOs detect roadblocks, send alerts about milestones, benefits, and risks. They also prepare tough decision-making when needed.
Their support goes beyond getting the promised project output. These PMOs expand their support to the project sponsorship in order to make sure the project outcomes (benefits) are achieved. Above all, they strive to generate an impact.
Whatever your role, your spans of control, or your current impact, you always have the opportunity to develop your competencies, your customer-centricity and result-orientation.
By following these secrets, you will sooner or later become a high-impact PMO.
What does it mean that you generate high impacts as a PMO? Let us review what an impact is and how PMOs can be high-impact.
The noun “impact” has indeed two meanings:
An impact is the action of one object coming forcibly into contact with another.
An impact is also a marked effect or influence on someone or something.
Many PMOs basically focus on tracking and reporting on project progress.
Some organize, run, and develop project, program, and portfolio management systems, processes, methods, tools, and teams.
Others have even much larger scopes of responsibility. They play more strategic roles. Among those are the Enterprise PMO or the Strategic Initiative Officer (SIO).
Yet, a few PMOs only deserve the term “high-impact”.
Those High-Impact PMOs are able to create sudden, powerful, and positive effects on their environment. What do they have in common ?
High-Impact PMOs come into contact
First, High-Impact PMOs “come into contact”.
These PMOs are not hidden behind a computer screen. They provide more than a “back office” support.
They organize and animate encounters with a variety of stakeholders. So, they listen to the expectations, needs, or constraints of all.
They learn and practice all sorts of Human Dynamics. And they love to apply them to an ever-growing network of allies that they build over time.
This PMO will for example realize and regularly update a network analysis of the stakeholders’ community.
It will identify the nodes, the relationships, and their characteristics. It will then work on these relationships and their effect on the community’s behavior seen as a complex adaptive system.
This is for example the case in most governmental projects that concern numerous groups of people, especially with a weak majority and more or less intransigent minorities. This is also the case in all major projects that engage people from diverse functions, industries, and nationalities.
They Play a Strategic Role
Then, High-Impact PMOs play a strategic role.
They facilitate actively and responsively the successful implementation of strategic initiatives over time.
Because they meet high-level executives, they understand their vision and their strategic goals. They thus become able to make sure that the endeavors they enable are strongly aligned with these goals.
To play this role, they develop a strategic thinking in everything they do.
The PMO will for example focus primarily on company mission-critical projects and investments.
It will challenge their alignment with strategic goals, their interdependencies, and even challenge the strategic goals when unclear or not coherent.
A typical case where this two-way challenge happens can be found in major transversal supply chain projects within a fast-moving business model.
They enable powerful effects
Finally, High-Impact PMOs enable rapid, powerful, and lasting effects.
These PMOs continuously observe their environment. They develop and maintain a series of options that hedge their project or portfolio against unfavorable unexpected events.
Conversely, they expose them to the occurrence of favorable opportunities that they seize without delay.
This requires from these PMOs unusual knowledge in strategy and change management as well as in all sorts of sciences like complexity or behavioral sciences.
Such a PMO will create for example an initial shock.
He will detect early on systemic biases in the initial cost estimates of a major program. He will immediately recommend, if necessary, that the level of investment or the duration of the program be significantly readjusted (increased), even if this generates enemies around him.
The Differences Between a PMO And a High-Impact PMO
As a conclusion, the three characteristics below are the differentiators that make certain PMOs carry the label of “high-impact” PMOs.
The classical way of creating an Enterprise PMO is most often described as top-down. “5 tips to create a PMO” is another way, the bottom-up way.
This approach works best in the most advanced organizations that demonstrate a high level of trust, empowerment, and autonomy among their employees.
Why would you indeed bother senior executives with a project of setting up a PMO?
Start instead with a community of skin-in-the-game players in the field of portfolio, program, and project management. Identify together your pain points, select solutions, and implement them one after the other.
The reward is soon a visible higher performance in the way the company is realizing its projects and getting benefits from them.
Here are 5 key steps to help you set up a PMO bottom-up:
1-Establish a powerful and appealing cause for a PMO.
A cause is the first asset you should develop. This intangible asset will counterbalance the tangible assets the organization has (legitimate authority, money, resources…)
This cause must be appealing. It should present positive elements for each and everyone, not only for a minority.
These positive outcomes are both personal gains for the individuals adopting the cause (reduce project fatigue, increase career development…), and organizational benefits for the organization as a whole (superior project benefits realization, stronger strategic alignment, reduced project costs and duration…).
Output of this step: a short and powerful phrase telling what you want to do and why.
Examples: “Make project management a win-win game” or “No more nasty surprises in projects, only good ones”.
2-Build a community of diverse project stakeholders volunteering to devote time and experience to this cause.
Start with a core team of volunteers, experts, influencers willing to devote a portion of their energy to work for the cause.
The community should comprise individuals from a variety of levels (senior leaders, middle managers…), functions (manufacturing, information systems, product development…), roles (sponsors, portfolio managers, project managers, product owners, release train engineers…).
Output of this step: a core team of engaged players and an agenda of working sessions.
Example of core team: 12 members including an executive sponsor, business leaders, a portfolio manager, a few program and project managers, PMOs, specialists in various domains.
Example of agenda: ½ day together every month, workload between each meeting to be adjusted every month.
3-Identify the pain points met by the stakeholders of the organization’s portfolios, programs and projects.
The cause must answer real problems or needs met by people and the organization.
You will have during some time only one asset, which is the power of this cause aiming at answering these problems and needs. The organization has control on all other assets, from the command and control to the infrastructure and the management of money.
These pain points detail how you intend to respond to your cause.
Output of this step: a list of pain points identified by key stakeholders and a SWOT focused on the vital few internal strengths, weaknesses, and external threats and opportunities.
Examples: opportunity offered by new technology (IA), threat from new entrants in business, weakness in complex program management, strength of the strategic initiative portfolio.
4-Establish an action plan designed to eliminate the pain points
Identify improvement actions based on the SWOT. Rank the actions by highest impact and accessibility. Start with action #1. When finished, take action #2…
Impact defines something that creates sudden, powerful, and positive effects on the environment.
Accessibility must start with actions that the core team has the capability to realize on its own (including its close network).
Outputs of this step: visible improvements in the domain of project management.
Examples: coherence in the methods and tools used across the organization, project fatigue eliminated in overloaded areas, new critical training modules available (starting with training for sponsors).
5-Remain low-profile and trust that success will come over time through your results and your network
Realizing things is your priority. Not communication. Nor lobbying for immediate executive sponsorship.
Onboard necessary people to develop solutions and to adopt these solutions in their job. Develop your network and a community of allies.
Create a knowledge base with great methods, tools, and tips. Keep live a logbook of your progress with what works and what does not work (what does not work is often more useful than what works).
Above all, “you need to be a real “servant leader” and at the same time you are a salesman for the PMO”.
Output of this step: survival and development of the initiative, then organizational benefits, then personal gains.
The community starts like a community of practice and a “virtual PMO“. It quickly becomes a Center of Excellence.
And by the right choice of its members, it soon includes “de facto” PM and PMO roles in charge of part or all of the organization’s portfolio, program, and project management activity.
This approach creates improvements and results that leaders can see. They understand that a PMO is more a value-adding function than a cost center. They see their team as autonomous, empowered and accountable.
Executives recognize the initiative and its results. They support it and give it a legitimacy.
Do you agree?
To your continued success
 I take the expression from Nassim N. Taleb’s book Skin in the Game.
 Martin Gray, Director Professional Development, PMI France recommends rightly the servant leader and the salesman role. Why not read Dan Pink’s book To Sell is Human.
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.
Figure 1 PMOs play all sorts of roles in an organization.
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.
Differentiate the PM Office and the PM Officer.
Clarify what your organization calls a PM Officewith a family (PMO) and clades (branches) like Project MO, Program MO, Portfolio MO, Strategic Initiative MO, Transformation MO, PM 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
CEOs realize the necessity of ensuring that their leadership teams approve the right projects, aligned with their strategic goals, and that these projects deliver the expected business benefits. The responsibility for meeting these challenges rests with a Project Management Office. However, these same CEOs often hesitate to invest in a Project Management Office. Yet, there is a very effective solution. This solution is a community of decentralized part-time project management experts creating and running a virtual Enterprise PMO.
A Virtual Enterprise PMO
First, a Virtual Enterprise PMO is a Project Management Office. In particular it makes sure that the right projects, programs, and portfolios are being approved, that they are aligned with strategic goals, and that they deliver their expected business benefits.
Second, it is an Enterprise PMO because its scope is the entire organization. It “influences” project management practices from bottom to top all over the organization. It also interacts with the outside of the organization. Therefore it breaks the barriers between the different schools of thoughts in this matter of project management.
Third, it is virtual because it is not a formal full-time organization of individuals but rather a community of decentralized project management practioners dedicating some of their time to this Enterprise PMO.Altogether, they share a common purpose which is to make the organization succeed through its projects.
Aligning the projects with the strategic goals
The Enterprise PMO serves as a critical link between executive vision and the work of the enterprise.
Excellent strategy execution drives the corporate value creation. In “Eight shifts that will take your strategy into high gear“, McKinsey’s Chris Bradley explains that the traditional linear five-year plans are poor fit with a dynamic VUCA world. The best way is a set of regular strategy conversations that discuss a live list of strategic issues, a roster of big moves, and a pipeline of strategic initiatives for executing these moves.
Here the Virtual Enterprise PMO plays its most important role. It provides a forward looking visibility on the progress and impact of the existing initiatives. It focuses on actions to solve the issues. And it leads the choice-making exercise that updates the strategic initiative portfolio that the strategic journey requires.
Delivering the expected benefits
An Enterprise PMO supports the projects, programs, and portfolios that the organizations requires. It provides a variety of standard organizational methodologies for planning, executing, staffing, prioritizing, and learning from all the projects that comprise the organization.
These methodologies give organizational life a coherence that is key to sustainable success. The Enterprise PMO may also directly supply staff and all sorts of resources if necessary.
The members of a virtual Enterprise PMO have several characteristics.
First, they commit to offer time and energy to the shared purpose of the Enterprise PMO while playing their primary job.
Second, they demonstrate a clear stakeholder and result-orientation.
Third, their expertise is in a variety of domains, from R&D to Information Systems, from business to manufacturing.
As a result, their scope of influence within and outside the organization is very large.
Capitalizing on the the virtual
Above all, an Enterprise PMO takes advantage from being virtual.
Take the example of a traditional Enterprise PMO composed of a few project management experts working as an entity. Now imagine a PMO with many more part-time experts distributed in as many places in the organization working as a virtual team with its specific governance process and its shared agenda. For the same effort, its influence is much larger, both locally and at the corporate level.
Now imagine a PMO with many more part-time experts distributed in as many places in the organization working as a virtual team with its specific governance process and its shared agenda. For the same effort, its influence is much larger, both locally and at the corporate level.
“It suffices for an intransigent minority with significant skin in the game to reach a small level in the population for the entire population to submit to their preferences.”
A typical example of such a virtual Enterprise PMO comprise sponsors, project leaders and PMOs. It covers most domains from the organization, from research to sales, from industry to information systems. Each of its members understands a variety of situations, from Scrum to Strategic Initiative Portfolio management.
They are open to a variety of hard and soft capabilities. But they are intransigent in their correct application across the organization. And they have also their skin in the game since they continue to act locally as sponsors, project managers or PMOs. Their is no bureaucraty in such a model.
A performance accelerator for CEOs.
A virtual Enterprise PMO is a real performance accelerator in the domain of project management.
With this in mind, a small initial team of PMOs could decide to join their forces and bridge a few vital performance gaps. As a result, they generate rapidly significant and visible changes. Local project management improves. Transversal projects benefit from shared company-wide yet diverse methologies. Portfolios reflect better the strategy.
All in all, higher and faster project benefits are on the table. And finally, the executive committee can only give its full support to this virtual Enterprise PMO.
PMOs should stay “ahead of the wave”. Only then can they provide the support one expects from them to make a strategy and its vital initiatives and projects a success.
I remember the time I took a PMO role in a great marketing team. I came with methods and tools that succeeded in information systems. Yet they simply did not work there. This marketing function was very advanced and effective. People cooperated closely with innovation teams and many others, especially customers all over the world. They all prepared the future. And they needed a very specific support from me, a support I was not prepared at this time to give. My mission ended rapidly…
I became later the PMO of a variety of large and complex transformation programs. I learned there that complex systems develop more through the interactions between their components than through these mere components. I also detected that living systems cannot be reduced to underlying laws of traditional “scientific” project management. Complex systems generate novel and coherent structures, emerging patterns and properties, during self-organizing processes. They are an exciting playground for innovative PMOs.
Therefore, I decided to spend the rest of my life to study and learn how to stay “ahead of the wave” and to support more effectively strategy, portfolio, and program execution.
A strategy prepares an organization to move successfully into a sustainable future. It requires advanced portfolio and project leadership. An effective PMO contributes to this leadership by staying “ahead of the wave”.
My message today: You stay “ahead of the wave” when you complement the fundamentals of the capability (technical, business and strategy, leadership) triangle with studying, learning, and exploring three domains: complexity sciences, innovative strategies, and human dynamics.
Complexity Sciences open new perspectives to project practioners. They explore nonlinearities, acceleration in dissipative systems, or unpredictability. They explore emergence, phase transitions, and avalanches. They compare system resilience and efficiency, order and lack of order. Yet these are only a few domains that challenge complex projects.
Innovative Strategies challenge direct routes and develop more roundabout approaches. They introduce multimodal strategies with a mix of high-risk low-probability events and low-risk high-probability events. Power laws, fat tails, and optionality are their domain of predilection. They compare intertemporal approaches with temporal ones.
Human Dynamics go well beyond traditional leadership. Human Dynamics deal with extended social sciences, both hard (like social network analysis for example) and soft (like cultural understanding for example). What are the social structures, cultures, languages, behaviors, influence networks concerned by a project? What is the Procrustean bias? Why buddy systems are so powerful? How do synergies and antagonisms play a role? Do you need an enemy to succeed?
Yes, my message today is: project practioners, and especially PMOs, stay “ahead of the wave”.
40 years of project management practice in complex environments have taught me three secrets. When absent, benefits were not forthcoming. When present, they enabled success. Here are these three secrets for value-driven PMOs and everyone in charge of complex projects, programs and portfolios.
Projects’ purpose is to serve people by solving a problem or answering a need. Project stakeholders expect the project to contribute both to gains for themselves (education, wealth, well-being…) and to benefits for their organization (development, sustainability…).
Therefore, the High-Impact PMO seeks to maximize both. By doing so, the PMO is customer or stakeholder-centric.
Considering a variety of stakeholders / customers makes any project both exciting and complex. It is exciting by the stakes. It is complex by the interactions within the ecosystem that the project must change. There, PMOs particularly facilitate connections between people and groups. They know that the performance of a complex system is built upon relationships and not only on individual capabilities.
So, this is the power of the stakekholder-centric purpose that is the primary capital of a project. And this secret requires a very special capability from the PMO. The PMO must indeed understand the human dynamics that shape the whole ecosystem concerned by the project.
Secret #2 – Focus on Benefits
Too many PMOs focus their activities on processes, methods and tools. They primarily deliver back-office activities.
Yet successful projects are like running a Formula 1 race. PMOs may play a strategic role. They do not only make sure the best car will be available for the race. They also work on the pilot development, the race strategy, and many other key success factor required, including the spectators’ happiness.
Their main focus is on enabling the race to deliver value to the race stakeholders, including the public, the Formula 1 team, and its sponsors.
This requires a completely different posture from the PMOs. Instead of reporting on compliance to standards and pre-established plans (that are never followed in a complex world, and should not be), these PMOs constantly maintain a forward-looking view of the expected value. They see their environment as a complex adaptive system. And they facilitate the emergence over time of the best solutions providing the highest benefits.
PMOs also detect roadblocks and send alerts about milestones, benefits, and risks, preparing tough decision-making when needed. As a result, they expand their support to the project sponsorship by making sure that the project outcomes and benefits are realized.
Secret #3 – Learn Out-of-the-Box Capabilities
Project management requires project practioners to develop the traditional technical, business and strategy, and leadership skills.
Yet if these skills were sufficient, the project success rate would be much higher. Successful project management requires complementing these basic skills with new capabilities adapted to our current environment and anticipating its very fast evolution.
Complexity sciences reinforce the comprehension of systems dynamics.
PMOs explore nonlinearities, uncertainties, network analysis to cite a few domains. They also learn that power laws are the rule (and not bell curves). They know that the whole may be at the same time more and less than the sum of its components. Complex systems generate avalanches (reorganizations) with a size that is inversely proportional to their frequency. To survive, these systems need to maximize their exchanges of information and energy with their outside world. Speed is an imperative.
Multi-modal strategies help High-Impact PMOs to design project approaches that consider real world behaviors and the need for different levels of squareness and roundness during the project lifecycle.
The direct routes based on goals, ways, and means, do not work well in complex environments. Indirect routes succeed better, that favor the understanding of a situation, that evaluate its potential, and that take advantage of the ripeness of the situation to get to the goal.
PMOs develop bi-modal strategies that are maximally safe plus maximally speculative strategies. They manage a portfolio of projects by “taking both a defensive attitude and an excessively aggressive one at the same time, by protecting assets from all sources of uncertainty while allocating a small portion for high-risk strategies”. They also master the art of securing a strategy with options.
Human dynamics contributes to understand the individuals, teams, and social groups through the study of their history, their culture, their geopolitical situation, their behaviors and their interactions. Human dynamics go well beyond the domain of mere leadership.
Human Dynamics recognize that knowledge of a social environment will always be limited. They do not expect to understand the behavior of the whole by knowing the behaviors of the individuals. They know that the rule of a minority may be more effective than the rule of the majority. And they look for emerging behaviors or tipping points in their environment seen as a complex adaptive system.
A Long Yet Rewarding Journey
Every project management practioner, and especially every PMO, has already some sort of knowledge of these three secrets.
However, it is only after a long, constant, and patient learning path that mastery starts to develop enough to make projects better succeed in complex environments. This is the exciting adventure I wish you.
Executives as well as all project portfolio sponsors need to make critical decisions. They need indeed real-time forward-looking visibility on their strategic initiative or project portfolio status. Yet, consistency across their organization in reporting this status is important.
So, here is the example of a progress report form that I like most.
Who uses this report? Primarily the executive committee members, the portfolio sponsor, the portfolio manager, each portfolio component accountable.
A PMO (here a Portfolio Management Officer) makes the portfolio component leaders update, report, and explain their component status. They have also the opportunity to ask for help (a key decision, additional resources, a scope change…) when they need this help.
The figure below shows such a report.
Each line tells:
An explicit strategic initiative title
The name of an accountable
A forward-looking traffic light reporting on progress expected at completion
A forward-looking traffic light reporting on impact expected at completion
A phrase telling What it is Important to do Now (the “WIN”) to guaranty that the expectations will be met.
Here is a great example of a project title: “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” pronounced by President Kennedy on May 25, 1961.
The Traffic Lights and Their Meaning
For each traffic light, the initiative accountable (with the advice of the PMO) evaluates two performances:
The Year-to-Date performance (are we on target now?) Yes-No
The Reforecast performance (will we be on target at the end of the project?) Yes-No
The answers to these questions drive the choice of the traffic light color.
Green means that we meet or we will meet the target, and that we have solid reasons justifying our level of confidence.
Yellow means that we have not met yet or will not meet the target, but that it will be met, and we have no need for special management attention.
Red means that progress or impact does not satisfy plan and requires special attention from management on difficulties to solve. The project team needs help.
The PMO supports the data / color updates by the project accountable. It makes sure to detect and fight a famous bias. This bias is the watermellon effect: the outside is green while the hidden inside is red. The PMO also works with the portfolio steering committee and the executive team to make sure that it is OK to present a “red” traffic light. It is OK because “red” does not mean “you are faulty”, but “I need help to succeed”.
The Most Important Information For Discussion Is the WIN*
WIN* means here: What it is Important to do Now.
This is a forward-looking statement established by each portfolio component owner. It tells what it needs to make the component successful and the benefits expected attained. Comments are mandatory for each yellow or red traffic lights.
If the initiative accountable writes it in black, there is no special need nor decision expected from the executive committee.
If the initiative accountable writes it in red, there is a need for help from the executive committee. It requires a decision and an action.
Managing projects in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) world is not an easy task. Imagine delivering their outputs and their benefits much better than ever. By exploring the latest findings in complexity sciences, human dynamics, and advanced strategies, you can improve significantly your way and your excitement to manage projects, especially in the most complex environments.
Here are 12 books (including 2 in French) that enlightened my life as a project manager and as a PMO.
These 4 Books Helped Me Discover Exciting Findings in Complexity Sciences:
In The End of Certainty, Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine tackles some of the difficult questions that bedevil physicists trying to provide an explanation for the world we observe. How is it, for instance, that basic principles of quantum mechanics–which lack any differentiation between forward and backward directions in time–can explain a world with an “arrow of time” headed unambiguously forward? And how do we escape classical physics’ assertion that the world is deterministic?
In At Home in the Universe, Kauffman weaves together the excitement of intellectual discovery and a fertile mix of insights to give the general reader a fascinating look at this new science, the discovery of the order that lies deep within the most complex of systems, and at the forces for order that lie at the edge of chaos.
In How Nature Works: the science of self-organized criticality, Per Bak explains self-organized criticality, the spontaneous development of systems to a critical state. This theory describes how many seemingly desperate aspects of the world, from stock market crashes to mass extinctions, avalanches to solar flares, all share a set of simple, easily described properties.
In The Thermodynamics of Evolution, An essay of thermo-bio-sociology, François Roddier shows that, under different aspects, one is able to find the same underlying processes as much in physics as in biology or sociology. The central idea of this book is that evolution has progressively shifted from being genetic to being cultural (informational) and that the metabolism of an economy is governed by thermodynamics, just as the physiological aspects of human metabolism.
I Studied Some Important Aspects of Human Dynamics With These 4 Books:
In Network Science, Albert-László Barabási spans a wide range of topics from physics to computer science, engineering, economics and the social sciences. He introduces network science to an interdisciplinary audience. From the origins of the six degrees of separation to explaining why networks are robust to random failures, the author explores how viruses like Ebola and H1N1 spread, and why it is that our friends have more friends than we do.
In The Charisma Myth, Olivia Fox Cabane breaks charisma down into its components. Becoming more charismatic doesn’t mean transforming your fundamental personality. It’s about adopting a series of specific practices that fit in with the personality you already have.
In When Cultures Collide, Richard Lewis provides a guide to working and communicating across cultures, and explains how your culture and language affect the ways in which you think and respond. You can gain competitive advantage from having strategies to deal with the cultural differences you will encounter in any international business setting.
In L’élan sociodynamique, J.C. Fauvet present the strengths and weaknesses of four major types of organizations: mechanistic, individualistic, tribal, and self-organizing. He describes ideas, methods, and practices designed to transform work, mixing together stress, pleasure, and performance.
These 3 “Strategy” Books Never Leave My Desk
In The Black Swan, Taleb showed us that highly improbable and unpredictable events underlie almost everything about our world.
In Antifragile, Taleb stands uncertainty on its head, making it desirable, even necessary, and proposes that things be built in an antifragile manner. The antifragile is beyond the resilient or robust. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better and better.
In A Treatise on Efficacy, François Jullien shows how Western and Chinese strategies work in several domains (the battlefield, for example) and analyzes two resulting acts of war.
And Finally, If You Want to Learn Real Life Stories of Project Stakeholders Navigating a VUCA World, Read This Book :
“This book will be an invaluable resource to both seasoned and new entrants into the PM field, offering practical insight into situations that appear on a program/ project manager’s radar as you navigate your career. By stratifying the domains of an effective PMO, the insight can assist with strategic focus and effective goal setting, especially where PMOs are not taken seriously. There’s a number of useful tools which can assist in honing your skills; give you access to enhanced levers & move you up a notch in this complex space.”