Appoint Picasso to transform your PMO

Mohamed Khalifa Hassan

Director, LIFELONG, Kuwait

Muhammad A. B. Ilyas


Most project management gurus have insisted that success of project management office (PMO) implementations depend on people, processes, and tools. The three factors are also termed as pillars of PMOs. Lately, many practitioners have expressed their apprehensions on the contribution of these factors to success of PMOs. They point out that adoption of organizational project management brings about major changes in organizations and hence change management must be included as a key pillar of PMOs. While effective use of change management practices has helped improve the success rate of PMO implementations, many stakeholders still complain against increased bureaucracy, which is a typical outcome of many implementations. They point out that PMOs lead to increase in task numbers and insist on more frequent updates; both of which lead to diverting attention of program and project management teams.

Traditionally, project management consultants tend to develop complex processes and tools. In this paper, the authors propose a PMO model, which is based on simplicity. The authors have taken cues from Picasso's approach, which envisages that “less is better”. The great New York Times writer Brian X. Chen emphasizes that “Apple designers strive for simplicity just as Picasso eliminated details to create a great work of art.” Using examples of Apple Inc., which teaches philosophy of Spanish master Pablo Picasso to its designers, the authors will explain the relevance of simplicity to PMOs.

The paper will explain how to embrace simplicity and eliminate unwanted details. The authors believe that using the approach will provide great value to organizations that want to pursue organizational project management and implement PMOs. Using the approach will allow PMOs to not only sustain themselves on a long term basis, it will also allow them to provide real value to their stakeholders. The paper also describes practical steps, which can transform complexity into simplicity while providing optimum governance controls.

Common Challenges in Implementing PMOs

Here are some shocking statistics about PMO implementations:

  • 50% of project management offices close within 3 years (Association for Project Management).
  • Since 2008, the correlated PMO implementation failure rate is over 50% (Gartner Project Manager 2014).
  • Only a third of all projects were successfully completed on time and on budget over the past year (Standish Group's CHAOS report).
  • 68% of stakeholders perceive their PMOs to be bureaucratic (2013 Gartner PPM Summit).
  • Only 40% of projects met schedule, budget, and quality goals (IBM Change Management Survey of 1500 execs).

One of the overriding issues fuelling these poor statistics is the fact that in many organizations, there is a wide gap between what the PMO does and what the business expects. Gartner points out, backed by many other industry statistics, that there is little appreciation of PMO and project management teams in a vast majority of organizations. An amazing 68% of stakeholders perceive their PMOs to be bureaucratic and only 40% of projects meet their goals when it comes to schedule, budget, and quality. This negative perception is the biggest challenge for PMOs.

It must be realized that implementing a PMO is a major change for any organization because it has many interfaces with different stakeholders. When these interfaces are complicated, stakeholders start campaigning against the PMO, which makes their implementation and operation even more challenging. People, processes, tools, and change management all are very important for PMOs but the biggest challenge is how to make them simple and enable them to provide real value which makes a positive contribution to organizational objectives.

Simplicity as an Art to Implement and Sustain PMOs

Several renowned thinkers and organizations have defined simplicity as follows:

  • “Simplicity is the art of maximizing the amount of work not done” – Agile Manifesto
  • “If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself” – Albert Einstein
  • “Simplicity boils down to two steps: Identify the essential. Eliminate the rest” – Leo Babauta
  • “Simplicity is the key to brilliance” – Bruce Lee
  • “Simplicity is a competitive advantage” – Hubspot Company Values

Through experience on different PMO implementations, it has been observed that it is easy to develop sophisticated processes. Most consultants and PMO managers are able to draft comprehensive methodologies. Project managers who tend to be methodology evangelists manage to follow sophisticated processes themselves and always manage to keep their paperwork immaculate. However, a majority of project management team members struggle with these sophisticated processes and find them very difficult to follow. They not only question their utility but also try to find ways to circumvent them whenever possible.

Pablo Picasso's Approach of Simplicity

Picasso was in a park when a woman approached him and asked him to draw a portrait of her. Picasso agreed and quickly sketched her. She was pleased with the likeness and asked how much she owed him. Picasso replied $5,000. The woman screamed, but it took you only five minutes. “No, Madam, it took me all my life,” replied Picasso.

Picasso's approach, developed in the 20th century, is still used in the most advanced organizations of the 21st century to design their products or services. Apple employees have to learn Picasso's approach in design. Since PMOs also provide products and services like PPPM methodologies, and tools and training courses, the same approach can be used for fostering simplicity.

To explain the approach let us look at the famous bull painting created in late 1945. It reveals how a great artist turned an idea into a masterpiece. Starting the series with realistic drawings, Picasso started with a genuine image of a bull. He continued to scrutinize it, stripping it of details to simplify it. The painting remains to be a valuable lesson for designers everywhere.


Exhibit 1: Picasso's approach.

In Plate No. 1, Picasso started with a clear, realistic image of a bull. Similarly, when a project management methodology and process work flow is created, PMO managers should come up with a clear idea of what the methodology will be and how it will be supported. Off the shelf PPPM methodologies, PM software, and other training program from different respected vendors can be explored for this purpose.

In Plate No. 2, Picasso beefed up the bull adding much more detail. In the same vein, PMO managers should collect as many ideas as possible that could go into processes and governance workflow.

In Plate No. 3, Picasso began to strip the bull. We can see the first lines that begin to dissect the bull into its component parts such as the rump, the flank, and the chuck. Likewise, once all ideas for a PMO implementation are decided, PMO managers should prioritize them and organize them to focus more on the processes with high value.

In Plates No. 4 to 8, Picasso progressively simplified the bull, making it smaller and more compact. In the same way, PMO managers should endeavour to simplify their methodology and remove any unnecessary processes to reduce the non-value adding effort. If some projects are complex, then special processes should be kept only for those projects and should not be applied to all projects across the board.

In Plates No. 9 to 11, Picasso continued to remove lines and details until he “captured the absolute essence of the creature in as concise an image as possible.” Of course, not every detail can be removed from the processes but PMO managers must strive to just have enough processes. As Albert Einstein said, “Make everything as simple as possible but not simpler”.

Making the Difference – Applying Picasso's Approach

Common sense says that adding more results is getting more; however, this is not true with creativity. Adding more money, people, effort, and material results in loss of creativity, which is enhanced through working with limited resources. The key question is how to move from complexity to simplicity without compromising governance and best practices.

Here is a case study of a PMO implementation, which started from a very complex set of processes and transformed into a set of simple and robust processes. In 2014, the authors were tasked by a government agency to enhance their PMO and manage it for one year. The PMO was responsible to oversee projects worth US$ 120 million every year. The PMO consisted of 12 project and program managers, who reported directly to the PMO Manager. An additional five project managers reported to different functional managers. Most of the projects undertaken by the PMO were classified as challenged.

The approach, influenced by Picasso, used to transform the PMO is being described in the following sections.

Updating the Outdated Goals

Defining the PMO goals was the first step and this ensured that all the efforts undertaken were aligned with the business objectives. Simple and clear goals were obtained from the PMO sponsor and these helped in defining the boundaries of the PMO. Efforts were undertaken to ascertain how the achievement of goals would be verified and what success would look like.


An assessment of the existing PMO processes and procedures allowed the team to identify the flaws, bottlenecks, and conflicts. Redundancies in processes were identified so they could be eliminated without sacrificing the value of the processes.

As an example, it was observed that the PMO was preparing different reports for different stakeholders, some of who wanted them at timeframes different than others. In another case, it was observed that the governance process took considerable time and effort to classify the projects as either being proposed new or having prior budgetary approval. The project charter template was also found to contain many fields, which were repeated in later documents. It was also observed that some training courses had redundancy of topics.

Developing New Processes

Lessons learned from previous projects were consulted to retire processes that had lost their value. New processes were created ensuring that these contained no unessential steps or paperwork. Special emphasis was laid on reducing hardcopy paperwork.

The PMO team undertook various simulations to ensure that new processes were able to achieve their goals without any reduction in quality. Dashboards provided by project management information systems were also redesigned.


The methodology consisting of simplified processes was tested through various simulations before being applied on real projects. Comparisons with the older methodology were made to ensure that simpler processes would not lead to any flaws.


The new PMO system was communicated to all stakeholders to ensure that everyone is aware of the changes. Feedback was also obtained from program and project managers, which was instrumental in deciding if the processes were simple and effective or required any revisions. Resistance to change was reduced as all stakeholders appreciated the short cuts and reduction in effort compared to the older processes.

Outcomes of Picasso's Approach

By applying the Picasso approach, the following outcomes were demonstrated successfully:

  • Reduction in the number of processes (30 processes were reduced to 20),
  • Process efficiency was achieved by reducing waiting time, and
  • Processes became simpler with fewer steps.

As an example, the Approve Projects process previously required seven steps, but was reduced to three steps. Gather Requirements process had 30 steps, which was reduced to 12. The process used to typically take 20 days, but was reduced to five days for most projects.

Additional Catalysts for Simplicity

In the following sections, some approaches, which were also employed and found to be catalysts for simplicity, are being described.

Using Agile Approach to Implement Effective PMOs

Agile, as an effective approach, depends on delivering the prioritized value in a simple and incremental way. It was observed that simplicity coupled with agile approach resulted in more flexible processes and enabled the PMO to satisfy the immediate needs of stakeholders who highly appreciated its ability to start providing value in a very short time.

Developing the back log based on the organization requirements, organizing the requirements into epics and stories, deciding about sprint times, having sprint planning sessions, retrospective sessions and daily meetings enabled us to enhance the acceptance of simpler processes.

Visual Assistants

It was discovered that all stakeholders wanted simple tools to visualize the process effectiveness as well as the progress of the project. For processes, sticky notes and whiteboards were used to review each step and look for opportunities to further enhance process effectiveness and efficiency. Once any changes were agreed upon, MS Vision was used to document the updated process and solicit inputs from other stakeholders.

For project progress, the Kanban Board burndown chart and other visual tools were used. Using such simple tools had a very high impact on team collaboration and visualization and this made the PMO more efficient.


A typical PMO has a big challenge manifested by the load that it may add to project management processes while providing less real value. Simplicity is an art to make the process simpler and increase the value.

In this paper, the authors have shared their experience of following the Picasso approach to simplify the processes and workflow resulting in delivery of real value. Different stakeholders recognized the resulting methodology as a key component of success. By applying the approach the number of processes was reduced, unnecessary steps in individual processes were eliminated and the time taken by processes was shortened. The positive experience leads to the suggestion that PMO managers and team members should always endeavor to simplify processes, make them less complex and strive to provide maximum value.

To achieve simplicity, agile approach along with the Picasso approach is useful in implementing PMOs. There might be some standard functions and requirements from the PMO, yet their weights, importance, and urgency levels are different for each PMO. These depend on each PMO's own mission so it is better to prioritize the requirements based on business needs using agile approach and start delivering value as soon as we can. Also, change management is easier when we use the agile approach to simplify a PMO since it will give real value as soon as possible. It will also be more adaptable to changes based on the new requirements and challenges.

© 2015, Mohamed Khalifa Hassan, Muhammad A. B. Ilyas
Originally published as part of 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida, USA



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