Why PMO Should Escape From the Bed of Procrustes

“The bed of Procrustes” represent situations where different lengths or sizes or properties are fitted to an arbitrary standard.

Read how a PMO went into a bed of Procrustes and escaped from it. This story is an extract of the book :  The High-Impact PMO, How Agile Project Management Offices Deliver Value in a Complex World.

15 Minutes Before the Bed of Procrustes

Grigory, a newly-hired PMO, feels happy on this sunny afternoon. He is still alone in the executive Committee room of the company he just joined a few weeks ago as its Strategic PMO. What kind of PMO? Grigory is not sure yet. Neither he nor the CEO who delegated his recruitment to his Quality EVP really knew how a Strategic PMO should function. However, the company was famous in its industry. And Grigory was hired to develop and lead two management processes: the strategic planning process and the strategic initiative portfolio management process.

Grigory feels his tension grow. His CEO asked him to prepare and lead this afternoon’s meeting of the Executive Committee. That is going to be his first meeting at this level in the company. They will spend their afternoon updating the company’s five-year strategic plan.

Grigory is rather confident he will create the right environment for the executives to update their strategy. He has met all of them in advance to get their expectations as well as some early information on their thoughts regarding what needs to be done to improve the company’s value proposition and its overall performance. He has prepared a review of key facts and a list of key decisions to make. This included a performance review of key dimensions of the current strategic plan and of the Strategic Initiative portfolio. Customer surveys also completed the data.

10 Minutes Before the Bed of Procrustes

The big wooden oval table shines. The chairs are aligned. The video projector is on and ready. The agenda he has prepared for the afternoon meeting already projects on the huge video screen on the wall. The executive team members will soon fill the room after their lunch in a private room while Grigory had a sandwich here in the meeting room.  He is mentally reviewing the most important issues the executive Committee members asked to discuss.

In the Bed of Procrustes

They enter the room. A few members come to Grigory and shake hands. However, the CEO stays apart whispering a few words in his boss’s right ear. His boss turns and tells Grigory bluntly that he has to leave the meeting room right away since they are going to debate confidential matters (“the bed of Procrustes”). Before leaving, Grigory has to give the file containing the slides he was going to use during the meeting.

5 Minutes Later

A defeated Grigory exits the room.

One Day Later.

Grigory and his boss shared their perception of the event. His boss found him too impatient and not yet experienced enough. Grigory explained how he had been disappointed not to participate in the meeting for the reason of confidentiality, since his job involved further work on the meeting outcomes.

This single event marked the end of the beginning of his trusting relationship with that CEO and with his boss. Grigory wanted to pursue his career with exciting jobs and great teams. But he had first to survive this initial false start. He thought that it was better to have a good boss in a bad company than a bad boss in a good company. Grigory found out that the false start was only a first of many subsequent facts that demonstrated how this company had poor managers.

Three Months Later

Grigory took over a great Strategic Initiative Portfolio manager job in a similar company. His new boss gave him the secret combination of his office safe the day of his arrival. Grigory first refused the honor. However, his boss told him then: “If I did not trust you, I would not have hired you. There is information in the safe you will need to do your job. Now, listen, the day I will not trust you anymore, I will fire you.”

A Few Years Later

Grigory and this gentleman became inseparable buddies. The lesson Grigory took is that an initial trust is an absolute prerequisite if you want to build a trust relationship. Building trust requires open conversations, overcoming stress and challenging environments, working through crisis and learning each other’s reactions. People build trust over time. Yet, take the chance to initiate this trust relationship early on. Trust relationships are key to success. Grigory forever sought to select missions driven by trusted project directors and sponsors who in return gave faith in him.

Lessons Learned: Discover the Bed of Procrustes.

Grigory found in this apparently unfortunate event great food for thought. He related it to the Greek mythology story of the Procrustes’ bed. Procrustes, “the stretcher”, was a rogue smith and bandit from Attica. He physically attacked people by stretching them or cutting off their legs, to force them to fit the size of an iron bed.

Procrustes operated in his stronghold on Mount Korydallos at Erineus, on the sacred road between Athens and Eleusis, two cities of ancient Greece. There he had a bed, in which he invited every passer-by to spend the night. He set to work on them with his smith’s hammer, to stretch them to fit. If the guest proved too tall, Procrustes would amputate the excess length; nobody ever fit the bed exactly.

It is interesting to note that Eleusis was the site of the Eleusinian mysteries, the most famous of the secret religious rites of ancient Greece. These Mysteries represented the myth of the abduction of Persephone from her mother Demeter by the king of the underworld Hades. The cycle had three phases, the “descent” (loss), the “search,” and the “ascent” of Persephone followed by the reunion with her mother.

The Decision: Escape from Procrustes

Grigory realized that his first CEO had in fact no precise idea of what a PMO could do for him and his company. He erroneously thought that a PMO was a sort of middle manager in charge of standards and back office activities. Therefore, he acted like Procrustes, cutting his legs by not allowing him to fulfill his duty in facilitating the meeting under the pretext that it would be confidential.

By doing this, the CEO was unwittingly contributing to a “descent” of Grigory on his way to Eleusis. That was a Procrustean situation, a state of affairs where different lengths or sizes or properties are fitted to an arbitrary standard. The standard at this first company for a PMO was only an administrative back office support for his boss.

The Future: Accountability, Autonomy, and Trust

Procrustes is a symbol of conformism and standardization. A norm is most of the time arbitrary. “Procrustean” qualifies situations where an arbitrary standard constraints different lengths, sizes, or properties. For this reason, its application to the living is generally harsh.

Grigory understood the mistake he made. His experience was a happy fault. As a result he decided that he would never ever work again with anyone close to Procrustes. He would escape especially project sponsors or project managers who would only consider a PMO as a back-office assistant. He would only work with those who would give him accountability, autonomy, and trust.

Finally, if you wonder what Procrustes became, here is the end of the story. Procrustes was captured by Theseus, travelling to Athens along the sacred way, who “fitted” Procrustes to his own bed.

To Your Continued Success!


High-Impact PMO

* the image on top of the article is from https://milocca.wordpress.com/2017/01/09/il-letto-di-procuste/

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