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Shall We Dance? A Tale of Executives and PMOs

“It takes two to tango.” Ronald Reagan said this of the contentious relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union in the final stages of the Cold War. Unfortunately, this also applies to executives and project management offices. At times, it seems they are destined to face off against each other, but this should not be the case. In reality, when PMOs are properly implemented, executives can rely on them to enchance their chances for success, and vice versa.

Why do executives fail? The No. 1 reason is bad execution of initiatives — not getting things done, and not delivering on commitments. In other words, they do not meet project requirements as effectively as they should. This type of failure reflects poorly on the executive, and a consistent inability to properly oversee a project can result in termination.

Successful projects result in successful products and services, and they create them according to a predefined schedule. They ensure that executive commitments are met. If they are not, they become a negative factor when determining the value of an executive to a company. Clearly, an office designed to streamline project efficiency can offer many advantages to the executive.

Projects also require executives. The scope of projects and the judgments made about their success have expanded over recent years to the point where a project’s success is almost always beyond the sole control of those running it. Project success is highly dependent on the availability of resources typically not under the direct control of the project manager.

Similarly, project managers do not have direct control over the networks and systems that their projects must fit into. Really, project managers don’t have direct control over much of anything upon which project success depends. The days of the small, relatively simple, stand-alone project are mostly over.

These dependencies, which are essential for the success of the project, are less often in the domain of the project manager and more often in the domain of the executive. The project manager must establish a PMO that is run with a direct two-way supportive relationship with the executive.

Out of Sync

The following tale will show the effects of a positive co-dependent relationship between executives and their project management offices. The story is associated with responsibilities that co-author Michael O’Brochta had when he worked as an employee of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He spent decades managing hundreds of projects, managing project managers, and leading efforts to advance project management within the organization. The story begins with a strategic need and an executive who recognized this need and made a commitment to take action.”I don’t understand it; I have staffed my new organization with hundreds of highly skilled project managers. Yet even after our first year in business, we can’t seem to deliver enough projects on time or to the satisfaction of our customers.” Those were the words O’Brochta first heard when the director of the organization asked for help. He went on to describe the gap between his vision for his organization and the current reality: “I’m confident that running this organization as project-based is the way to go, but I never thought it would be this hard,” said the director. “I periodically review project schedules and find them to be ever-changing. No one is happy about a moving target — not me, and least of all, not the customer. Quite frankly, I do not see why anyone would come to my organization if they had a decent alternative.”

The project-based organization described here was formed to advance the mission of the CIA. The best engineers, the best information technology professionals, and the best project managers were combined into a single organization focused on delivering new and better intelligence analysis systems and capabilities. One of those systems, named “Fluent,” was described a decade ago in a Reuters article titled “CIA Using Data Mining Technology to Find Nuggets.” This was cutting-edge technology focused on critical CIA mission needs at the time.

Finally, the director got to the point of the conversation: “Will you come and help?”

During the following year, O’Brochta built and ran a strategic-level project management office. Although the published knowledge associated with successful project management offices was rather limited at the time, enough was known for him to select a couple of starting points.

Back in Step

O’Brochta started with one initiative focused on the project managers and one initiative focused on the executives. For the project managers, he led the building of a standardized project life-cycle methodology complete with milestones and documentation tailored specifically for the nature of their work.

For the executives, he led the building of a standardized governance system complete with reviews, decision-making criteria, and change=management strategies tailored specifically for their work.

Previously, the role and actions of the executives and the project managers were out of sync. Project managers were doing their best to draw upon their extensive backgrounds to create and follow project plans, but no two were the same. Likewise, executives were doing their best to support the project managers with resources and decisions, but inconsistency and unpredictability were common.

O’Brochta routinely met with executives and others in the management chain to ensure that decisions about the PMO’s focus matched its needs; he did the same with project managers and the various PMOs.

Both the executives and project managers learned that each group performed equally important, but different, roles. The executive’s role included supplying a standardized project life-cycle methodology for the project managers to use and holding them accountable for using it. The project managers’ role included tailoring the provided life-cycle methodology and putting it into practice.

The executives established and followed a routine for project reviews and associated decisions. The project managers prepared for each of the project reviews with the information needed to support the scheduled decision-making.

Predictability and consistency became the norm. Effort that had been directed toward “figuring out what to do” was now directed toward more productive activities associated with running the projects and meeting mission needs.

The project management office was able to prove its value due to the success of the new initiatives. More followed, all designed to highlight the relationship of the executives within the organization and their PMO. These programs included training for both of these key players.

In short, they demonstrated the maturation of project management within the company and strengthened ties between two important members of the organization. As it turned out, the relationship between the PMO and the executives turned out to be quite the project itself.

And the Benefits?

A 2007 PMI-sponsored report titled “The Multi-Project PMO: A Global Analysis of the Current State of Practice,” states that PMOs are frequently closed or restructured with only about half of them surviving for two years. This statistic can most likely be attributed to the fact that either failing PMOs are not flexible enough to keep up with the needs of the company, or they do not communicate their contributions well.

The performance of successful PMOs matched to the needs of the organization. Key performance indicators were established and achieved — and not just any key performance indicators, but ones that were relevant and meaningful to the executives with whom the PMO had a codependent relationship. Like two parties in any relationship, PMOs and executives will need to work together to keep things running smoothly.

Michael O'Brochta, PMP, is president of Zozer. He has more than 30 years of experience in project management. An experienced line manager, author, lecturer, trainer and consultant, he holds a master's degree in project management and a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering. As senior project manager in the CIA, he lead the maturing of the project management practices agency-wide.

Curt Finch (pictured) is CEO of Journyx, a provider of Web-based time tracking, project accounting and resource management software designed to guide customers to per-person, per-project profitability. As a software programmer fixing bugs for IBM in the early '90s, Finch found that tracking the time it took to fix each bug revealed the per-bug profitability. created the world's first Web-based timesheet application and the foundation for the current Journyx product offerings in 1997.

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