Rigor without rigidity: how to achieve balance in the next generation PMO

Introduction

Whether you are trying to bring up your child in a disciplined environment, or you are trying to implement the discipline of project management practices, you go through a similar struggle. To bring about the discipline you need the rigor of standards and processes, however the rigor can turn into rigidity that can restrict judgment and stifle creativity. On the one hand a major Project Management Organization (PMO) role is to establish rigor with a sound governance structure, on the other there is a demand for freedom and flexibility.

While the PMO has become an increasingly common practice in organizations, according to a number of recent PMO surveys, the success rate has not necessarily gone up. PMOs continue to struggle. As the PMO tries to achieve increased compliance it is perceived as rigid and bureaucratic. How do you strike a balance between rigor and flexibility? While there is so much emphasis on developing and establishing standards and processes, there is very little thought on creating a responsive PMO that focuses on changing culture and behaviors. How do you increase voluntary compliance? How do you create a PMO culture in which everybody wants to participate, because they want to, not because they are forced to? How do you achieve the balance and find the sweet-spot between rigidity and responsiveness?

Based on seven years of survey-based research and experience in designing and implementing PMOs in various organizations this paper will address the above questions and provide practical insights from PMO implementations around the world. Although the focus of this paper is on implementing the PMO, in our experience the ideas from this paper also apply to implementing project management methods and practices in general.

The Primal Paradox

Typically the idea of project management methodologies and PMOs conjures up images of bureaucracy and loads of unnecessary paperwork. In a recent survey conducted by the Projectize Group, 72% of PMO stakeholders perceived their PMOs to be bureaucratic. (Projectize Group, 2000-2008) Indeed project management methodologies and PMO practices are often guilty of inflicting too much process, like requiring your project managers to complete two weeks of project documentation on a one week project. It is akin to installing an elaborate security system on a cookie-jar with a detailed process for removing cookies to prevent your child from eating too much sugar.

On the one hand there is a need to establish rigor with a sound governance structure of methods and processes, on the other there is a demand for freedom and flexibility. This is indeed a primal paradox between the need for discipline and freedom at the same time. This dilemma hounds the successful implementation of project management and PMO processes. It surfaces the underlying friction and challenges long-questioned beliefs about control and the role of management.

The traditional notion of control and mandated compliance can be an illusion, you may think you are gaining control but what you are getting is paperwork and bureaucracy while project managers and team members seek ways to undermine the processes. They may fill out the forms and templates to the letter to get the PMO off their backs, but not necessarily with the right spirit.

In our survey the PMOs that reported a high degree of compliance to the project management methodology (80% and above compliance) did not necessarily correlate to project success or stakeholder satisfaction.

Rigidity can be defined by a heavy emphasis on formal structures and control, standard methods and processes, top-down governance with dictated authority, responsibility and decision making. You are expected to follow precisely defined rules and procedures rather than to use personal judgment. In contrast responsiveness means the project management practices or the PMO is responsive to the stakeholder and business needs. It emphasizes flexibility, adaptable and customized processes, and self-regulating governance with shared authority, responsibility and decision making. A responsive PMO is tuned to the shifting business environment and can respond to changing priorities. For example you may have worked hard to come up with a consistent project selection criteria model, but a responsive PMO would be open to adjusting and fine-tuning the model rather than stubbornly proposing a one size fits all approach.

The following table (Exhibit 1) highlights the distinctions between the two. You can check either one of the characteristics and add the number of your checks at the bottom to get a score that will highlight whether you lean more towards rigidity or responsiveness.

Rigidity vs. Responsiveness

Exhibit 1: Rigidity vs. Responsiveness

Next you can plot these contrasts on Rigidity vs. Responsiveness grid as illustrated in Exhibit 2.

Rigidity vs. Responsiveness grid

Exhibit 2 - Rigidity vs. Responsiveness grid

How do you achieve the balance?

The need for rigor and freedom are opposing forces that cause friction between the PMO and its stakeholders. The question is how do you find the sweet-spot where you can achieve the right balance of rigor without the rigidity? You have to seek the balance between the extremes of rigidity and responsiveness to varying degrees as illustrated in the Exhibit 3 below.

Balance between rigidity and responsivness

Exhibit 3 – Balance between rigidity and responsivness

The very purpose of implementing project management and PMOs is to achieve discipline. Either extreme, rigid processes or flexibility with no standards, is not desirable. It is imperative to optimize the balance between two forces inherently at cross purpose.

As Peter Drucker said, “most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done.” The opportunity is to find the balance which makes the PMO responsive to the needs of the stakeholders so it is easier for them to manage projects. For example the PMO has to target the right mix of rules versus guidelines, instead of strictly defined “Ten Commandments,” the PMO may require “Four Commandments and Six Suggestions.”

Applying & Choosing Your Sweet-spot on the Grid

In applying the Rigidity/Responsiveness grid the first step is to identify which quadrant of the grid your PMO lies on. The next step is to identify the standards, structures, processes and rules that are required and necessary and have no leeway for flexibility. Each of the remaining processes should be adjusted towards the responsiveness grid. The appropriate location on the grid may depend upon a number of factors, including:

Business – The nature and criticality of business dictates the level of rigidity required. For example, a hospital or a nuclear power plant might have a more urgent need to establish standard policies and procedures than a consulting company.

Content – The content and relevant importance of processes, policies and procedures determines which side of the grid they may lean towards. For example, security and privacy processes or project budget governance should be more rigid than configuration management.

Scope – The extent of rigor should be determined by the scope of the project. It is a good idea to define project classification criteria that helps to classify projects into simple; medium and complex categories. For example a simple project may need very limited process steps versus a complex project that may require more elaborate methodology steps.

Culture - More methodology implementations flounder from failing to adequately account for an organization’s cultural factors than for any other reason. A culture’s level of receptivity to change can make or break any effort to make improvements or achieve compliance. For example, it is easier to implement a project management methodology in a control-oriented culture versus a cultivation-oriented innovation culture where people abhor standards and processes.

Maturity – The receptiveness to processes depends on the overall organizational maturity of project management practices. Maturity will be based on the availability, quality, training and support of the methods and processes that are provided. The great the maturity chances the better understanding and greater appreciation of the real intent of the processes and the greater the effort towards balance and voluntary compliance will be.

It should also be noted that over time the sweet-spot may shift to varying degrees on the grid. This is why it is important to sense and adjust accordingly.

Mapping Types of PMO on the Rigidity/Responsiveness Grid

In our experience we generally come across four types of PMO models based on their purpose and organizational approach:

  • Centralized—the traditional top-down hierarchical PMO usually associated with applying a high degree of control.
  • Informational—provides managers with information about the status and progress of each projects, alerts managers to problems and potential problems.
  • Consultative—provides support to project teams through consultation, coaching, training, and mentoring.
  • Community—a collaborative, often decentralized approach that facilitates the willing cooperation of project participants.

Heavy emphasis on centralized governance promotes a ‘control tower’ model where decisions and practices are controlled from the top-down. If the primary purpose is information and reporting, the PMO is like an ‘information bureau’ which monitors progress and reports passively on activity. A support oriented PMO providing training, coaching, mentoring and tools and templates is more of a ‘consulting and supporting’ PMO model. Focus on communications and relationship management is more of a ‘community’ based collaborative PMO model.

The different types of PMO models can be mapped on the Rigidity/Responsiveness grid as illustrated in Exhibit 4.

Mapping PMO Model on the Rigidity/Responsiveness Grid

Exhibit 4– Mapping PMO Model on the Rigidity/Responsiveness Grid

Case Study Example

Recently we worked with a PMO team from a U.S. multinational company. Team members expressed how excited they were a year ago, when management had finally approved an enterprise PMO to work with the local and regional PMOs to establish global standards and procedures. The global PMO team worked hard in rolling out a project management methodology and standard templates with detailed procedures and mandated requirements. However, after a few months of completing their rollout, they were frustrated and could not understand why they were getting resistance and limited compliance.

Elsewhere, we have been working with the enterprise PMO team of a global financial services company in the rollout of a worldwide project management training program. This involves a long process of weekly global conference calls, pilots and feedback sessions from the various regional PMOs. The initial roll-out has been successful and regional PMOs have been eager to adapt and embrace the project management training program.

Why were the outcomes for the two roll-outs so different?

The answer has much to do with the different approaches taken by the respective teams. The team in my second example made sure that all the regional and local PMO representatives were involved in the roll-out. They familiarized themselves with the local cultural, organizational and procedural idiosyncrasies. They were responsive to local needs and maintained a careful balance between the need for standards and flexibility.

Vision

A vision of a PMO that I have written about in my previous writings is the idea of the PMO as a sandbox. Everybody wants to come and play in this sandbox, not because they are forced to but because they want to. Of course it is easier said than done; the question is what should this sandbox look like and how do we define the boundaries to achieve the right balance? An example is to think of the idea of Freedom with Fences, an informal motto that has been made popular at Harley-Davidson. It enables employees to understand both the limits and the latitude they have to make improvements in their work processes. Project managers and teams are like artists who treat each situation as unique and use personal judgment and creativity rather than relying on rote processes for every situation.

Typically PMOs spend a lot of time building fences of rules, restrictions, forms, mandated processes and methods as defense and control mechanisms, albeit with good intentions to achieve standardization and consistency. But these fences have the tendency to go overboard and suffocate people and stifle judgment and creativity. Sandboxes, by comparison, provide the platform for artistic freedom that can spark creativity and innovation. As William Knight, a former CEO of 3M Corporation once said, “If you put fences around people, you get sheep.”

How to build good fences?

oft used cliché is that managing people or stakeholders is like herding sheep, the challenge is how do you corral the sheep in such a way that you steer them in the direction you want them to go effortlessly. The answer lies in how you till the field to your advantage by focusing on cultivating a conducive environment and tilting it to your advantage so people comply because they want to and not because they are forced to. While implementing project management practices the fences of processes and methods should be developed and raised collaboratively as much as possible. They should be permeable and flexible with built-in mechanisms for feedback. And of course they should provide enough freedom for personal judgment, creativity and innovation.

We will focus on three ideas that provide a good foundation for building good fences – utilizing fair process and procedural justice; identifying and amplifying positive deviance; and cultivating communities of practice.

Utilizing Fair Process and Procedural Justice

The idea of fair process and procedural justice is based on the work of two social scientists, John W. Thibaut and Laurence Walker, who combined their interest in the psychology of justice with the study of fair process. Focusing their attention on legal settings, they sought to understand what makes people trust a legal system so that they will comply with laws without being coerced into doing so. Their research established that people care about as much about the fairness of the process through which an outcome is produced as they do about the outcome itself. This idea was further researched and developed as a management concept by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne. They discovered that people will commit to a manager’s decision – even one they disagree with - if they believe that the process the manager used to make the decision was fair. Fair process is based on three mutually reinforcing principles: engagement, explanation, and expectation clarity. Engagement means engaging stakeholders in the development of processes that affect them by asking them for their input. Explanation means that everybody understands why final decisions are made as they are. An explanation of the thinking and the context of the underlying decisions make people confident that their opinions have been considered. Expectation clarity requires that once a decision is made, managers state clearly the new rules of the game. Fair process should not be confused for decision by consensus. Fair process does not set out to achieve harmony or to win support through compromises that accommodate everybody’s opinions or interests.

The PMO has to seek procedural fairness by encouraging participative decision-making. Two-way communication helps dispel perceptual inequity. PMs who provide input into the decision-making process are more likely to support and implement procedures. Conversely, estrangement from the decision-making process can induce powerful resistance to change.

Identifying and Amplifying Positive Deviance

Traditionally deviance is referred to as intentional negative behavior. In the last few years behavior scientists have been studying deviant behavior that is positive in various societies and cultures and also extending some of the findings to organizations. Behavioral Scientists Gretchen Spreitzer and Scott Sonenshein define organizational positive deviance as “intentional behavior that departs from the norms of a referent group in honorable ways.” Positive Deviance (PD) is an approach to personal, organizational and cultural change based on the idea that every team, community or group of people performing a similar function has certain individuals (the "Positive Deviants") whose special attitudes, practices/ strategies/ behaviors enable them to function more effectively than others with the exact same resources and conditions. Because Positive Deviants derive their extraordinary capabilities from the identical environmental conditions as those around them but are not constrained by conventional wisdoms, Positive Deviants’ standards for attitudes, thinking and behavior are readily accepted as the foundation for profound organizational and cultural change.

Positive deviance is based on three criteria – voluntary behavior; significant departure from the norms of the referent group; and honorable intentions. While implementing new processes and methods PMOs look at introducing best practices from the outside. These practices have a hard time in gaining acceptance and adoption and are often rejected because these are foreign practices and perceived as yet another irrelevant trend of the day. Instead PMOs need to understand the power of PD and identify positive deviants from within the organization who are delivering successful projects by using and applying methods or tools that are not the norm in the organization. The PMOs role becomes to identify the positive deviants and amplify and support their practices and spread the positive practices from within. The resistant PMs and team are more open and prone to identify with practices that are promoted from within by positive deviants, especially if these deviants are successful and respected within the organization than coming from the outside. Instead of an outside-in approach, the PMO can promote an inside-out approach with the help of positive deviants.

Cultivating Communities of Practice

The idea of fair process and positive deviance needs a rich environment and appropriate culture to be successful. Communities of Practice (CoP) provide a fertile setting for these ideas to sprout and spread. Over the last ten years we have been working with a number of organizations to implement project management practices or build PMOs using a community PMO model based on cultivating communities of practice (see Building the Next Generation PMO, PMI Conference, Nashville, 2001).

A CoP is a group of people bound by common interest who are engaged in real work over a significant period of time. During that time these groups build things, solve problems, and learn and invent new ways of doing things. Etienne Wenger, a pioneer of CoP, defines it as groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly. Not every group represents a CoP. We all know of groups in the workplace and in the world at large that constitute communities but you would not label them CoP. Wenger identifies three characteristics that turn a group into a CoP: 1) a domain of interest, 2) active engagement as a community, and 3) active practitioners. CoPs are also different than special interest groups, in the sense that besides interest, CoPs focus on the practice aspect, where practitioners do actual work based on action plans, milestones and deliverables.

A community is defined by a shared field of interest or expertise, a domain. All participants in the CoP are involved in a certain area of interest and are distinguished by a shared competence in that area or at least an intention to gain competence in that area. They become a community in the course of pursuing that interest, which leads them to participate in joint activities, share information, and help each other. This is what is meant by active engagement in the community. In the process they build relationships that further their efforts in the field. It is these relationships and the associated interactions that make the group a CoP. The members are active practitioners in the field of interest. They share a common body of knowledge, resources, experience, language (jargon) that enables them to learn from and contribute to the community. Thus cultivating a collaborative culture and a sandbox which is responsive, but with the appropriate amount of rigor and discipline.

Attributes of Successful Fences

Satisfying

Imagine after the initial roll-out of your project management methodology you not only achieve 100% compliance but there is also consistent demand for more process. PMO stakeholders are voting for more methods and templates on an ongoing basis. Of course, this sounds too good to be true - a dream scenario for a PMO! Could this scenario be plausible? We can learn something from the Swiss. The Swiss regulate themselves by voting more than any other country. They vote throughout the year on all kinds of issues and create new laws. For examples the Swiss have laws in certain cantons where you cannot flush the toilet after 10 PM, or you can’t mow your lawn or shake your carpets on Sunday. The Swiss have even voted to increase their own taxes. The question is why the Swiss seem to like and create more laws. The answer lies in the way the country works. Things just seem to work efficiently in Switzerland. The Swiss believe that laws and rules help them achieve the efficiency and benefit them. The laws satisfy their desire for organization, efficiency and discipline.

Any new process has to address and satisfy a specific problem or point of pain that benefits the stakeholder. If the burden of the process is less than the benefit it provides, people impacted by them are in favor of them. A good process will be seen as desirable if it is helpful and satisfying to those who need it.

Self-regulating

Recently I was running late for a meeting and as I started to speed-up my foot immediately hit the break, not because I saw a police-man hiding behind the bushes, but because I encountered a speed indicator display (SID). SID is a portable device, capable of measuring and recording vehicle speeds. It displays the motorist’s speed, with a view to encouraging them to drive within the speed limit. SID is essentially the friendly side of speed enforcement, non-threatening but never the less effective. Speeds have shown to be reduced during SID’s visits and early monitoring of accidents, shows pleasing results.

Similarly the PM processes need to be self-regulating and non-threatening. For example the PMO can provide project information and self-regulating feedback that helps and supports project managers rather than threatening status-reports. Just as the SID is designed to slow traffic to a preset limit, PM processes can be used to define the boundaries with pre-set triggers for escalation.

Scalable

One of the common complaints from project managers is that it takes them more time to complete the project documentation than the project itself. Even though it was a simple project they had to apply the all the steps to comply with the PMO methodology. To strive for global consistency and standards a one size fits all mentality sounds good, but is not practical. Projects and programs by definition are unique with different characteristics requiring diverse approaches. Scalable processes and methods can be designed to address the unique aspects of projects. A simple project may need very limited process steps versus a complex project that may require more elaborate methodology steps.

Simplicity

 “Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done,” quoted Peter Drucker. This unfortunately is echoed often about PMO practices. The PMO should be the department of simplicity. Good process should make things take less time and make people more efficient. Like the United States Paperwork Reduction act which aims to minimize the paperwork burden and ensure the greatest possible public benefit and maximize the utility of information created, collected and maintained, the PMO should consider a similar manifesto to simplify processes and methods.

To simplify think how you can cut, slim, trim, combine, chunk and modularize processes. Think how you can make the implementation least annoying and least intrusive. Begin with an absolutely minimum set of processes. Substitute practices that match more closely with your organization. Very carefully add practices that address specific organizational or project situations.

Self-eliminating

We can all identify processes in our organizations that have survived way beyond their desired purpose. There are processes which are in practice and institutionalized simply because they have been done for a long time and nobody has questioned them. Good processes should have a built-in mechanism for changing or eliminating the process. Part of the PMO governance should be a method to decide when a process or practice is no longer useful or when it needs to be updated to make it useful again.

Result of Rigidity vs. Responsive Approach

In our experience in implementing project management practices and PMOs we observe a clear contrast in the behavioral affects of the two opposing approaches of forced compliance in rigid environments versus voluntary compliance and commitment in responsive environments. Exhibit 5 is a summary of the observations.

Summary of Observations

Exhibit 5 Summary of Observations

Summary

Over the years, PMOs have gained ground as management and governance vehicles, but PMOs continue to face implementation and adoption challenges as they are perceived as bureaucratic and rigid. An important purpose of the PMO is to bring about global consistency through formal structures and standard processes. However this can sometimes go overboard and there is a need to balance the rigidity with responsiveness and flexibility.

The need for standards on the one hand and flexibility on the other is paradoxical and may seem at odds with each other. But it is not. The standards provide a foundation and outline the boundaries within which there is room for flexibility and artistic expression.

While formal structures and standard processes are important; the question is how do you get the rigor without the rigidity? The challenge is to find the “sweet spot” that balances both and provides the right amount of freedom within appropriate fences. Three approaches—utilizing fair process and procedural justice; identifying and amplifying positive deviance; and cultivating communities of practice—provide a good foundation for building good fences.

Also while designing and implementing processes we need to shift from a purely process implementation focus to a behavioral adoption focus by thinking about the attributes of good processes - satisfying, self-regulating, scalable, simplicity and self-eliminating.

It should be emphasized that we do not advocate that a free-for-all open beach party where everybody comes together and sings Kumbaya, without any responsibility or accountability for good process and methods. Rather our lessons from multiple project management and PMO implementations teach us that the right amount of boundaries, process, and methods are necessary organizationally. It is important to set the boundaries but guarantee freedom within them. The fences should be permeable and flexible with built-in mechanisms for feedback. The PMO should cultivate a culture where it is OK to bend, but not break the rules. And provide enough freedom for personal judgment, creativity and innovation.

Duggal, J.S. (2001). Building the Next Generation Project Management Office. Proceedings of the PMI Conference, Nashville, TN

Duggal, J.S. (2006). The Secret of a Successful PMO. Proceedings of the North America PMI Congress, Seattle, Washington.

Duggal, J.S. (2007), "The project, program or portfolio office," in Gower Handbook of Project Management, 4th edn, R. Turner, ed., Gower Publishing, Aldershot, UK.

Duggal, J.S. (2009 April 10),, “Are You a Project Artist,” Next Level Up column. PMI Community Post newsletter.

Hobbs, B. & Aubry, M., 2005. A Realistic Portrait of PMOs. Proceedings of the North America PMI Congress, Toronto, Canada.

Imperato, G. (1997 June/July) Harley Shifts Gears, Fast Company Magazine.(9) Retrieved from http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/09/harley.html

Projectize Group, LLC, USA. (2000-2008). Project/Program Management Office (PMO) Survey.

Kim, W.C. & Mauborgne, R. (1997 Jul/Aug,). Fair Process: Managing in the Knowledge Economy. Harvard Business Review. 75 (4) 65-75

Understanding the Impact of Positive Deviance in Work Organizations. University of Michigan, Ross School of Business, Ann Arbor, MI Retrieved from http://www.bus.umich.edu/facultyresearch/research/research-8-04/understanding_040704.htm

Seidman, W. & McCauley, M.. (2003,January) Harvesting the experts secret sauce to close the performance gap. Performance Improvement Journal.

Wenger, E.. (1998), Communities of Practice, Learning, Meaning and Identity. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2008, Jack S. Duggal - jduggal@projectize.com
Originally published as a part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Denver, Colorado
Updated for 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Amsterdam, Netherlands

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