Three secrets of value-driven PMOs learn and practice

Projects, programs, and portfolios that deliver their promised benefits are rare in a VUCA world. Yet they are key to strategic success. Those which have a value-driven PMO show a higher rate of success. Studying real-life stories of PMOs who delivered great value to complex projects, programs, and portfolios in a VUCA world taught me three secrets that enabled their success. I explored, learned and applied myself these secrets. They work! Every PMO practicing these three secrets become High-Impact PMOs. Not only do they clearly contribute to providing the expected project benefits to their customers, but they also get themselves all sorts of personal gains, from recognition to career advancement.

These three secrets are:

  1. Become customer-centric
  2. Focus on results
  3. Develop your capabilities

So, I am happy to share them today with the project management community.

Secret #1 – High-Impact PMOs Develop a Premium Customer Orientation

Projects first purpose is to serve people. These people are the project stakeholders. The fact is that all expect the project to contribute both to personal gains and to organizational benefits. Therefore, the High-Impact PMO focuses his or her work on maximizing both. By doing so, the PMO considers the project stakeholders as “customers”, and his or her focus becomes customer-centric.

The High-Impact PMO convinces his or her project leaders and sponsors to redefine the project goals in terms of customer benefits, and not in terms of money.

Money is only one outcome among many others. It is a reward that the people return to the project when and if they adopt the program goal. Not vice-versa. At a more strategic level, money is a sort of catalyst in a chain reaction. When a strategic initiative portfolio delivers its promises, the organization strategy succeeds, and cash arrives from all sorts of providers, including, but not limited to, the final customers.

If you work with program strategy maps and balanced scorecards, position the “stakeholders (including final users and customers)” dimension on top, as the target of a value creation “process” driven by “people”, and supported by the “finance” or “resource” dimension at the bottom as an enabler. Resources are materials, information, or money. People are not resources, they are people.

Considering a variety of stakeholders/customers make any project both very exciting and complex. Exciting for it aims at improving people’s life. Complex for dealing with people requires to explore and develop new competencies as we will see in the third secret.


Secret #2 – High-Impact PMOs Are Result-Oriented

Traditional PMOs focus their activities on processes, methods, and tools, as well as back-office activities. Yet successful projects are like running a Formula 1 race or the French Le Mans 24 Hours race. Their High-Impact PMOs play a more strategic role. They do not only provide a car, but they also organize the pilot development, the race strategy, and any other key success factor required. They focus first on enabling the project to deliver value to the project 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 with standards and pre-established plans (that are never followed in a complex world, and should not be), they constantly maintain a forward-looking view of the expected value. They facilitate the emergence of the best solutions within their organization seen as a complex system.

They particularly facilitate connections between people and groups. Indeed, the performance of a complex system is built upon relationships and not only on individual capabilities. Thus, they maintain strong and frequent relationships both within their project and with the outside world.

They detect roadblocks, they send alerts about milestones, benefits, and risks, and they prepare tough decision-making when needed. They do not limit their support to get the promised project output, but they expand their support to the project sponsor to make sure the project outcomes (benefits) are achieved.

They finally share the entire project system goals and objectives. They have their skin in the game. They receive the same reward or less than everyone else based on the project results.

Secret #3 – High-Impact PMOs Ceaselessly Develop Their Capabilities

Project management requires project practitioners to develop the traditional techniques, 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.

High-Impact PMOs face three domains that challenge their capabilities.  They are the domains of complexity sciences, of multi-modal strategies, and of human dynamics.

Complexity sciences reinforce their comprehension of system dynamics, nonlinearities, uncertainties, network analysis to cite a few domains. They 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 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.

They develop bi-modal strategies that are is 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 contribute to understanding 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 but Rewarding Journey

Every project management practitioners 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.

Author: Philippe Husser