PMOs are like insects...

written by Stuart Easton

exec sponsorship insectsPMOs are like insects...

"Okay, Stuart, you've lost it this time...!"

But wait - hear me out. 

Between certain species of ants and aphids, something magical happens. They cooperate to help each other thrive - they have a symbiotic relationship. The aphids "mine" plants for sugar which they "feed" to the ants. The ants, for their part, protect the aphids from predators, even destroying Ladybird (Ladybug if you don't speak the Queen's English) eggs to prevent those predators from being born. 

PMOs and Executives are just like that though I'm not saying which is which. 


In a similar way, the PMO delivers strategic change to the organization, allowing the Execs to reach their strategic goals. Executives, for their part, deliver funding, sponsorship, resources and decision-making authority to ensure project success.

Except they don't.

Project Failure and Executive Sponsorship

72% of PMOs are called into question by execs.

Clearly "the Execs" are not getting what they need from the relationship with the PMO. If they were, you would never see statistics like that. So what's going wrong? Simply put, Execs don't see enough value coming from the PMO organization - this blog goes into more detail of the numbers.

"See" is the important word. There's certainly value there, but it seems that either the value is not being communicated clearly or is not the "value" that the Execs were looking for.

Looking at the relationship the other way around, many PMOs (and PMs) feel rather sore when Execs complain about project failure. Why? 

Lack of exec sponsorship is one of the most common causes of project failure.

PMs and PMO leaders feel like the Execs are not doing their jobs. They are not living up to their part of the symbiotic arrangement by failing to support projects and by failing to provide adequate resource (or adequate focus at the portfolio level)

Who are these mythical "Executives"?

I'm writing this blog for PMO leaders, and I have also created an infographic that PMO leaders can use to educate "Executives". 

But who are these "Executives"?

You may not have noticed, but I've deliberately capitalizing the word Executive to indicate that this is a person of significance. It's someone who has influence over your project. They may have control over resources and budgets. They might be the "customer" for your project. They typically have decision-making power.

There are two aspects of life as an Exec that PMO leaders need to really think about, though. 

  • Execs are busy
  • Execs are accountable

Busy Execs don't have a lot of time to learn new tricks. You can make a difference by being clear about what you need and, crucially, making it crystal clear what's in it for them.  Make the information bite-sized, make it strategic (not down in the weeds of detail) and be consistent. 

Don't expect busy Execs to change overnight.

The second aspect of life as an Exec is, in some ways, far more interesting because it gives the PMO leverage.

Strategy, Accountability and the Portfolio

 Executives are accountable for delivering business results. This is a really important lever when negotiating for resources.

At the portfolio level, however, many organizations don't really link projects to the strategic goals and drivers of their Executive stakeholders. This is often down to the fact that the Execs don't all share the same strategic goals. Each Exec has a different view of what they need and that, my poor PMO leaders, is the heart of the problem.

This is where pet projects begin. It's why horse-trading happens (I'll support your project if you support mine). 

There is a way to get over this and it's to use Analytic Hierarchy Process (AHP) for project prioritization. AHP has been shown to be one of only two suitable methods of doing project prioritization and project selection. I won't go into detail here - I've written on this before.

Prioritization is where Exec sponsorship starts. 

Most PMO leaders assume that if their leadership team picked a portfolio, then that portfolio must be strategically aligned - not so! We often find 10-30% non-aligned projects in portfolios that were selected by putting Execs in a room and letting them get on with it. In one case, 30% of the portfolio was obsolete even though 80% of projects were tagged as Top Prioritiy!

So, AHP sorts this. It gets Execs on the same page about what "strategic" means and then helps them pick a strategic portfolio. This is the foundation on which Exec sponsorship is built. Remember, those Execs are accountable for hitting strategic goals. Here's the simple truth; if your projects are not strategically important to your Execs, they won't pay attention to them.

Conversely, if they are strategically aligned, they are far more likely to have "skin in the game".

What does this mean for the PMO? Well, first it means you need to have a strong project prioritization and selection process in place. If it's not based on AHP or DEA (the other one of the two "suitable" processes), then it ain't "best practice". 

YOU are the one who will need to drive this. Remember those Execs are busy. They don't have time to think about this, so it's up to you to educate them and to explain what's in it for them; more successful projects and more strategic goals hit.

Next, it means that you should put business benefits at the heart of the project selection process. This can be tough because not all benefits can be quantified financially. In fact, this is one of the main benefits of AHP - it starts with business benefits and keeps them front-and-center, but you can do this even before you put in place and AHP-based prioritization tool.

By keeping the focus on explicit benefits from each project, the Exec will know exactly what's in it for her and will remain engaged. And it works. 

According to Mark Langley (in the 2016 Telegraph Project Management Report), writing as President of the PMI, organizations that do this, that manage benefits well, waste 67% less.

Which brings us on to the next issue.

Joint ownership of benefits

 While it's the Execs who "own" the benefits, the PM also has to own it. After all, the PM will be responsible for driving a project that delivers the benefit. If they don't understand, communicate and drive that benefit at every step in the project, they are unlikely to be successful.

According to Langley, only 38% of PMs are accountable for identifying business benefits. In fact, there's a real hole here because 6 out of every 10 organizations doesn't have a senior Exec that owns these benefits and alignment to strategy either.

So who does do it?

Often, the answer is nobody!

So, this is where the PMO can step in again. One of the check-list items before a project is kicked off should be a joint statement of the expected benefits of a project and how they expect to realize those benefits, any major value-creating milestones along the way and a governance schedule to check those milestones are being met.

This won't guarantee success, but it will ensure that every project has, at least, a solid foundation.

In-project focus on benefits

 Okay, so now we have projects that are aligned to strategy. Each project has a clear statement of what the expected benefits are and of how those benefits will be realized. Let the project begin!

But wait!

Now's the time to make sure that every team member understands what the benefits are and how they can affect the achievement of those benefits. This is where you can identify risks to delivering those benefits and think about how to mitigate those risks.

In short, put the business benefits at the heart of project execution.

Take 10 minutes to create an infographic (there are some great, free / cheap tools out there like Visme and Venngage) and share it with the whole team. Make sure everyone has a copy displayed prominently and challenge them to refer to it every time they make decisions. 

Seriously, this can make a massive impact.

If your business benefit is faster call-handling, then putting some thought into how to make screens easier to navigate (talk to some CSRs before designing the screens, for example) seems sensible. Shaving seconds off every call can really add up to millions of Dollars saved and this is unlikely to happen if your developers are just "ticking functionality boxes".  

So, like the ants and aphids, the interactions between Execs and the PMO/PMs are complex and mutually beneficial. If they're not working well together, then both could starve.


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