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PMOs: Number 1 Complaint

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Jul 8, 2017 10:38:00 AM

egg and spoon race.png


The Biggest Problem for PMOs

As part of my work, I speak with many PMO leaders and the most common complaint I hear is, “We have too many projects!”

Of course, sometimes people say, “I don’t have enough resources!” but that’s the same thing, really.

And the reason they complain isn’t because of the workload, but because everyone knows that if you over-fill the portfolio you get fewer “successful” projects.

But here’s what’s bugging me. If everyone knows this is a problem, and it’s probably the single biggest contributor to project failure, why is it such a problem?

And can we fix it?

The egg-and-spoon race

Every parent in the UK has, at some point, been called on to run in the “Parents’ Egg and Spoon Race”.  Now, if you don’t know what an egg-and-spoon race is, check out this video (bit of British humour).

It is, obviously, a race. With an egg. And a spoon.

But it has much to teach PMs and PMOs. And executives.

The challenge is to balance an egg on a spoon and then navigate the course as quickly as possible, and the age-old dilemma is whether you should go quickly or slowly. The faster you go, the more likely you are to drop the egg. The slower you go… well, you might not drop the egg, but you ain’t gonna win the race and if there’s one thing Parents’ Egg-and-spoon races are really about, it’s winning!

What’s this got to do with having too many projects? Well, if you have too many projects, your team will end up being inefficient. They’ll be inefficient because they will end up time-slicing which slows you down and because they’ll make mistakes (dropping the egg, so-to-speak) which will really slow you down.

And if you have too few projects (which almost never happens), you’ll end up “gold plating” everything – delivering projects that are beyond the required scope and anything beyond what’s needed is, you could argue, waste. (Note: in this webinar, Mike Hannan argues that this happens all the time at the project level because of the way we manage risk).

So there’s a happy medium where you can maximize “value delivery” to the organization. You’re not trying to do much that you “drop your eggs”, but you’re working efficiently.

If everyone gets this, why is it that you always end up with too many projects?

Why do you have too many projects?

Every company has a project prioritization process. Sometimes it’s pretty informal, other times it’s very formal. But formal doesn’t equal effective.

You can have a very formal process, one that involves lots of Powerpoint slides, spreadsheets or even your PPM system’s prioritization module, one that involves the whole executive team in off-site meetings but that process can still get it badly wrong.

There are several reasons for this.

Poor project prioritization process

I’ve said this before, and I make no apology for repeating myself. Not all prioritization tools are equal.

Let’s assume you, at least, have some scoring mechanism for projects (if you don’t then you’re leaving the whole process open to politics and you’ll get what you deserve, I’m afraid). Most PMO leaders I ask have a scoring mechanism that is homegrown or, at best, based on a PPM tool’s methods which, themselves, have little validity or depth.

A good scoring process has two dimensions; it is there to improve the quality of the decision and to improve buy-in to the decision (which translates into executive sponsorship) Both of these dimensions are important.

There are tools out there that have been rigorously designed (and tested over decades of academic research) with these two goals in mind. One process is called the analytic hierarchy process (AHP). We like it so much, we put it at the heart of our prioritization software.

AHP works for project prioritization because it is based on a powerful technique to get your stakeholders to agree on what “value means” up-front. This definition is captured in a set of criteria that are used to “measure” each project and to rank them based on value (or even value-for-money if you want extra points!)

This is not trivial. If you do this badly (or not at all), you end up with execs sitting around a table who have no confidence in the data they are being presented. And it is this lack of confidence that underpins the failure to pick a “right-sized” portfolio.

It goes something like this;

  • I have no confidence in the ranking of projects, so I’ll just push for those that benefit me
  • Oh, everyone’s joined in! They are all jamming in their own projects… but….
  • I can’t shoot down their projects in case they start shooting down mine….
  • So… looks like we’ll just have to jam them all in and hope for the best!


When you use something like AHP, this effect is massively reduced because the process was designed (and validated, remember) to both improve decision effectiveness and that all-important buy-in.

So when you get the project rankings, they generally have support from the stakeholders which means you can simply pick projects in “rank order” (I’m simplifying slightly for brevity) until you get to capacity. You can then list out the next few projects as a “stretch goal” and off you go!

To get an idea of what this looks like, you can watch this 15 minute webinar.

It’s not just about prioritization

Okay, so having a weak prioritization process is The Big One when it comes to selecting too many projects, but there are other reasons you end up with too many projects. Here are a few;

  • Weak project estimation: If your estimation is weak, you will, most likely, underestimate more than you overestimate. This is a natural human bias (and you’re probably under pressure from the person requesting the project). This means that even if you pick projects that look like they’d fit, you’re still toast! Estimation tools, like those found in products like Mortfoio can really help.
  • Weak scope management: So we put together a project request, the project got approved and off we go! But now the scope starts to expand. Suddenly, you have too few resources and you’re toast! Again! By keeping a really tight focus on the business goals of the project and asking “is this really required?” time and time again, you can greatly reduce this effect.
  • Bottom up planning: This is rather a subtle one. Most PPM tools require you to do your resource planning from the bottom up. You pick projects, resource them and, eventually, this lets you see whether or not you have enough resource. This is slow and means that it’s very hard to give execs real-time feedback about the “real” capacity consumed by a particular portfolio. There are tools that address this (Mortfolio and MeisterPlan spring to mind) by approaching the problem the other way around – top down planning. I’ve seen this be very effective.

Stop complaining, take ownership

I would be really happy if I never heard a PMO leader complain about having too many projects, but that’s not going to happen until, as an industry, PMOs realize that they have to take ownership of the prioritization process.

Not of the decision. No, that should sit with “the business”.

The PMO (or EPMO or someone of a similar nature) should, in my view, take ownership of the process of collecting project ideas, documenting them, filtering them and then presenting them to the executives in a way that makes it easy for them to make a well-informed decision.

This is not really any different to what a PMO does all the time. Part of the role of PMO, after all, typically involves finding and disseminating best-practice throughout the team and that should apply to the prioritization process just as much as the project implementation process.

We have a fun infographic to help start the conversation, but until PMO leaders take this issue on and help the organization get better at this critical skill, they will feel like they are precariously running flat out in that egg-and-spoon race…

And will probably end up with egg on their face!



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