The High Impact PMO



How do complexity sciences, indirect strategies and human dynamics advance project management at new levels of performance ?



Roundabout

Only an Indirect Approach Works in a Complex World

An indirect approach helps project practioners navigate complexity with more chance of success than direct approaches that too often fail to cope with uncertain and volatile environments.

[This article is inspired by the book: “The High-Impact PMO, How Can Agile PMO Deliver Value in a Complex World” I have published in October and that is available on Amazon]

 

The Direct Approach – Goals, Ways, Means

 

In the direct approach, one designs an ideal desired model. The engineer designs a product, the change agent defines a new business model, and the economist sets a growth target. This model becomes the goal to achieve. Those who set this goal launch a project. Their will make them decide on and commit to a particular course of action to impose their model to the existing reality. They define a direct approach based on goals, ways, and means.

Mencius, or Mengzi (372 – 289 BC), one of the most famous Confucian philosophers, warns us about direct approaches. VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity) is a characteristic of life. Most circumstances are unpredictable. Therefore developing upstream a detailed project roadmap forecasting both the outputs and the outcomes of a project can only be sooner or later fatally flawed.

 

indirect approach

They, who assist their corn to grow long, pull out their corn.

What they do is not only of no benefit to the nature, but it also injures it.

Mencius[1]

 

Typical examples of direct approaches abound. Among them, the Empire State Building is one of the most famous.

 

direct approach

The Empire State Building project delivered a successful output and a late outcome

Its sponsors, General Motors executive John J. Raskob and former New York Governor Al Smith, set two objectives. The building had to be taller than their competitor Chrysler’s building. And it had to be finished before May 1, 1931. The building (the project “output”) was not only completed on time and under budget, but it was the tallest building in the world when it was officially opened on May 1, 1931. Contractors Starrett Brothers and Eken used an assembly line process to erect the new skyscraper in a brisk 410 days, finishing ahead of schedule. The lower than planned wages and material costs due to the Great Depression decreased the final budget.  Yet less than 25 percent of the building’s retail space was occupied upon its opening in 1931, earning it the nickname the “Empty State Building.” The owner bankruptcy has been avoided thanks to the enormous success of the building’s belvedere. The Empire State Building only became profitable in 1950 (the “outcome”).

The question remains to know whether what is successful on a technical point of view is also true on a social or economical point of view. The application of well defined methods and of processes is becoming less effective when you get higher in the hierarchy of things or when you become more strategic. In those situations, you face more living and social forces than physical or mechanistic phenomena. We can only draw uneasy comfort from this: as the world becomes more complex, traditional theories explain less. On a grand scale, the increasing complexity of foreign affairs cuts against the comfortable assumptions of classical approaches. Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google said that:

we can tell you with 100 percent certainty that if you have a business plan, it is wrong. MBA-style business plans, no matter how well conceived and thought out are always flawed in some important way. Faithfully following that plan will result in what entrepreneur Eric Ries calls achieving failure… It is fine to have a plan, but understand that it will change as you progress and discover new things…

 

The Indirect Approach – Situations, Potentials, Circumstances

 

A solution for navigating in complexity is the indirect approach. There one sees the environment as a continuously evolving process that should not be blocked by our action but that should be facilitated towards the direction we desire. Instead of defining a model, an indirect approach focuses your attention on the course of things in order to make you take advantage of their evolution. Your role consists to help the situation evolve favorably.

Mencius explains that you have three key dimensions to consider. The first one is the situation in which you are positioned. The second one is the potential this situation offers you. And the third one is made of the circumstances that make the potential become ripe.

Your success relies primarily on the potential. Evaluating a situation (and therefore developing business intelligence) becomes more important than planning what needs to be done. Sensing the potential requires also more talent than tools and techniques. This is the domain of experienced project management practitioners. Instead of willing to impose a model and a plan to the world, they let them be carried by the course of things and by the circumstances they come across.

Being patient and waiting the opportune time is a key success factor. If the situation is not favorable, the wise sits back. He waits until the situation becomes favorable. He yields to time.

Letting the process go, and at the same time, not letting it go without acting is the difficult but rewarding way of an indirect approach. You must facilitate the transformation by cultivating the conditions of smooth and favorable growth. It means both facilitating the process and eliminting the roadblocks and the constraints.

 

The Three Princes of Serendip

Real life stories bring many great examples of indirect approaches that succeeded. However, one of my preferred stories is the following. In the Far East, a long time ago, there was a King named Giaffer. He had three sons whose education he entrusted to the best tutors. Once he found that they were excellent in virtue, sciences, and wisdom, he invited one after the other to accept to reign at his place as the King. But each one refused at his turn with modesty the crown. Thus the King sent them to find the magic formula of the death of the dragons.

Follow a long series of fortuitous events that they successfully used to show their wisdom, compassion, and support to others.

A first encounter brings them a part of the formula they were seeking. A second encounter makes them describe with incredible precisions a camel a merchant had lost. The camel, they say, is lame, blind in one eye, missing a tooth, carrying a pregnant woman, and bearing honey on one side and butter on the other. The Persian King Bahram sentenced them first to death, before pardoning them and inviting them to stay with him a few days once the camel was retrieved. This invitation makes them aware that the King’s Vizier planned to soon poison him. While the King decides to cut off the Vizier’s head, the three princes recommend that the Vizier be rather exiled in a country where his proper son had already been exiled. In recognition, the Vizier gives them another important piece of information concerning the magic formula they seek. The story ends well. The princes understand that they did not learn more with the formula than what they already knew. Instead, tears of compassion they shed for poor villagers they met killed the dragons forever. The story ends with the King Bahram thanking them for the splendor and serenity they brought to his kingdom and their return home to succeed their father.

This story of three princes who are regularly making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things that they were not in quest of is an ancient Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip attributed to the Sufi poet Amir Khusrow (1253-1325). The princes live successive events that are fortuitous. They show each time a wonderful capacity to take profit of the events for the good of others. This capacity called serendipity is also an indirect approach.

 

A Few Key Takeways

 

If project outputs and outcomes are only tangible and material, the direct approach may be the most effective one. However, more intangible and social environments render the direct approach very uncertain and unpredictable and make indirect approaches preferable. So here are a few selected characteristics of each approach.

  • While a direct approach emphasizes the ends (and therefore the ways and the means to get to these ends), the indirect approach focuses on a potential (and therefore on a situation and the circumstances that will make the potential become favorable at a certain time).
  • A direct approach favors short term results and may be atemporal (it is independent of or unaffected by time). Conversely, an indirect approach is rather intertemporal (it covers different period of time) and it seeks to secure further advantages.
  • In the direct approach, you impose your action and by imposition of your will and rhythm you do not respect the spontaneous process of development and transformation you want for your environment. You do not let the effect mature. In the indirect approach, you stay aside of the playfield and you assist without action to the spontaneous development of the things. However, as Mencius explains:

It does not mean one must be without action.

It means that one must weed, hoe, and water the corn.

We must wait until it is ripe.

 

indirect approach

 

Philippe Husser

www.philippehusser.com

 

[1] Mencius II, A, 2.

Burger

Become an Agile High Impact PMO in a Complex World

This article reviews how you can become an agile high impact PMO in a complex world. It is the new version of an article I wrote July, 24 on LinkedIn and that got some success. It takes now into account the numerous comments I have received from LinkedIn members since then. It is part of a book: “The High-Impact PMO, How Can Agile PMO Deliver Value in a Complex World” I have published in October 2017, revised in August 2018 and that is available on Amazon.

High-Impact PMO

The Black Label Burger Bottom Bun

Did you ever ask yourself why burgers had a bun as a foundation?

There is an excellent reason revealed by two friends, Johann and Blandine. That was a sunny and cool autumn day in New York. Both were enjoying a lunch together at Minetta Tavern where they ate Black Label Burgers. Both Blandine and Johann were working at a well-known Aerospace business where Blandine served as Director of a Transformation Program and her good friend Johann was a Business Unit Project Management Officer (PMO). They inquisitively pondered the question of the burger’s foundation and compared the burger and its bun to a project and its PMO.

They found that the bottom bun, like a PMO, was the most important part required to eat the burger properly or in the case of PMO, to manage a project successfully. They shared the conviction that PMOs were the indispensable foundation of any complex project, program, or portfolio and without them; a high quality experience would be lost.

Some projects taste better than others. Some PMOs deliver a higher impact than others. Yet, they imagined what the burger would be without the indispensable component compared to what a project would be without a PMO. The picture on top of this article visualizes what Blandine and Johann had in mind. On top are stakeholders like sponsors, customers, or product owners. In-between are project teams, project managers, and all sorts of contributing stakeholders. The bottom bun is the PMO.

The PMO Challenge

If the PMO is such a critical element of any project, program, or portfolio’s success, why are they so often considered small players and low value added actors?

Several recent surveys found that PMOs were often considered “paper tigers” because of their apparent lack of recognized contribution to a project success, other than being administrative assistants to the project leader. Their fundamental and indispensable influence on project outputs (products, services, and any other result like The Great Wall of China or a book published) and outcomes (benefits and value provided to the sponsor and all other beneficiaries, like the reinforcement of a strategic position or great sales of a published book) is too often ignored.

Nevertheless, like in the case of Black Label Burgers, complex projects or portfolios of projects have a greater chance of being successful when their mix of components is supported by a PMO capable of navigating complexity. A great PMO is the number one key success factor of any large and complex endeavor.

PMOs and Complexity

Blandine and Johann had a conviction that originated in their long career in project management and in their deep understanding of the challenges project managers and PMOs face every day.

This conviction is that the primary challenge in project management comes from the characteristics of complexity all projects, programs, and portfolios show. Complexity has many sources. Among these sources are three fundamental characteristics that make an endeavor complex:

· The high number of variables involved. Just think of the number of stakeholders, within and outside an organization, that are working on a large project.

· The nonlinearity of the interactions between these variables. Have you ever accelerated by two a project by putting twice as many team members?

· The irreversibility of phenomena within complex systems. When a project roadmap has been implemented in an organization and then stopped because of its failure to achieve the intended results, can the organization really go back to its initial state before the project launch?

Blandine and Johann know intuitively that the role of a PMO needs to be elevated and developed to navigate this complexity. The search for agility in project management is a favorable move. However, this is still largely insufficient to confront the complexity of our world, complexity that requires a real openness to the immense variety of this world.

PMOs capable of putting in place innovative processes, tools, and competencies adapted to our Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (VUCA) environment not only allow projects, programs, and portfolios to better deliver promised benefits, but also are recognized as High-Impact PMOs by peers, managers, and generally speaking all stakeholders.

The High-Impact PMO

Project, program, and portfolio management capabilities are often structured around three domains: the domain of Technical knowledge in project management, the domain of Leadership, and the domain of Strategic and Business management. These domains are what everyone needs to master in order to have a chance to manage successful projects.

However, these traditional capabilities obviously do not suffice to make every project successful in a VUCA environment.

The book The High-Impact PMO, How Agile Project Management Offices Deliver Value in a Complex World proposes to explore innovative practices that can be grouped in three domains of knowledge, which I believe should be taught in the project management world.

These three domains are the following:

· The domain of Complexity Sciences.

· The domain of Indirect Strategies.

· The domain of Human Dynamics.

Complexity Sciences complement what you already practice in the Technical project management domain. Indirect Strategies complement what you already practice in the Strategic and Business management domain. Human Dynamics complement what you already practice in the Leadership domain.

Once studied and learned, these domains make you much more comfortable in navigating complexity. They offer you two benefits. As a first benefit, you become more than ever able to deliver an impact in your projects, programs, and portfolios. As a second benefit, you also become more than ever recognized as an indispensable buddy to any large complex project team. In the end, you will especially love to be a PMO, a High-Impact PMO, and a recognized value-adding PMO.

Philippe Husser

October 12, 2017

 

Comments and new inputs are welcomed on Linkedin or on my site at www.philippehusser.com

Complexity dragon

3 Domains Project Management Practitioners Must Learn to Confront the Complexity Dragon

Project practioners and especially project management offices (PMO) can explore and practice complexity sciences, indirect strategies, and human dynamics to deliver more successful projects, programs, and portfolios.

Do you know that that there are several tens of millions of Project Managers in the world? If the number of PMOs seems difficult to apprehend, there is no doubt that it represents a large percentage of the previous number.

On the impact side, are you aware that most surveys find fewer than a third of all projects being successfully completed (whatever means success for project)? Now, can you imagine a world where PMOs would contribute to, say, double the number of successful projects?

The fundamental foe to fight in any project, program, and portfolio is complexity.

Complexity is the dragon that, like the Phoenix, always rises from its ashes.

However, there are solutions PMOs may decide to explore and adopt if they want to better navigate complexity, and, at the end, make their projects more successful.

Let me share with you what I have experienced as a tinkerer for more than 40 years in complex project management.

Project, program, and portfolio practitioners and especially the PMOs can find actionable insights by exploring, learning, and putting in practice

  • complexity sciences,
  • indirect strategies,
  • and human dynamics.

When they do, they soon become “high-impact PMOs.”

Complexity Sciences

Complexity Sciences show project management techniques that are adapted to organizations seen as dissipative and complex adaptive systems.

These sciences explore typical questions. What is the difference between simple, complicated, and complex? What is a dissipative system? How to deal with nonlinear behaviors? Is a complex system predictable? How important are initial conditions when propelling a change in a social organization? What are phase transitions or avalanches? What is the difference between fragility and antifragility, between resilience and efficiency? How do social networks function? How do you create favorable conditions for achieving tipping points?

Indirect Strategies

Indirect Strategies consist in studying and developing roundabout approaches that are adapted to a complex world where direct strategies fail most of the time.

Here also they explore typical questions. Should multimodal approaches study and practice both the Chinese indirectness (situation, potential, opportunity) and the Western directness (goals, ways, means)? What if project approaches were intertemporal rather than temporal? Is it worth losing first to earn more lately? What means pulling back before re-engaging? How to connect a portfolio with a strategy? And how to describe a strategy in one page? What role should have and should not have measures? How to use a five-ring framework to define and monitor your approach?

Human Dynamics

Human Dynamics deal with extended social sciences, both hard (like social network analysis for example) and soft (like cultural understanding for example). They come from our very diverse and complex world.

Human Dynamics go well beyond traditional leadership. They also explore many topics. Why and how to really position people as your number one focus? What are the social structures, cultures, languages, behaviors, influence networks concerned by a project? Can we detect and overcome the Procrustean bias? Why buddy systems are they so powerful? What impact have cognitive biases, synergies and antagonisms, on our decision-making processes? How to capitalize on all human and technological means available today to progress in this domain? Why learn and understand different cultures? How to make an impact when dealing with people or an audience?

Explore and Learn

By studying these three domains and by putting what they learn into practice, project management practioners and especially PMOs get a real chance to better navigate within complex environments and to deliver higher results in what they do.

To your continued success

Philippe

High-Impact PMO