From chaos to PSO

project oversight @ MIT


MIT's effort to improve on the success rate of their IT projects and develop a higher level of project management maturity started in 2003 and has proceeded to the present. This paper outlines the steps followed and the level of success achieved along the way with the development of a project management framework, supporting tools and processes, a PPM system and a Project Services Office.


Promoting project management and improving project management practices can be a challenge in any organization. It requires a change of process, a change in one's approach to work, and a change in attitude. This type of “adaptive change” is an iterative, non-linear effort that requires considerable leadership and time in the best of circumstances (Carroll, 2008). Adding an environment where change is not embraced can compound the effort and leadership requirements needed to succeed.

Understanding the Landscape

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

It's All About the Culture

All organizations are unique—they are distinct from their peers in the products and services they produce and in the way they conduct their business—and all who work within these organizations are convinced of those differences. Having worked at 11 different companies across four separate sectors, I can tell you that MIT is more unique than most I've seen. We are a quirky bunch that embraces following a different path. As one Sr. VP of MIT puts it, “we revel in our idiosyncrasies.”

These differences are not just around engineering prowess or technical capabilities. They focus more on how we approach our work and the day-to-day activities of getting things done. While we are no strangers to collaboration, we live to solve problems on our own. When provided with the opportunity, we will almost always build a complex system out of custom modules rather than buy one off-the-shelf.

Another important distinction is common to other non-profit organizations. Because we have no stockholders to report to, it is difficult to get the Institute aligned behind initiatives. Departments and research labs are given the latitude to operate as they wish with very few restrictions. The down side of this is that it is very difficult to enforce standards or consistently apply best practice. This operational independence also moves each department toward its own silo, interacting with other departments only when necessary. MIT's central IT organization, Information Services and Technology (IS&T), is no exception and is itself divided into four service areas that operate independently.

The State of Project Management

In 2003, IS&T got a new vice president—Dr. Jerrold Grochow, formerly of AMS—and one of his first activities was to do an organizational scan. The scan revealed, among other things, a lack of project management maturity throughout the organization.

To dig further, forums were conducted to discuss project management and the findings revealed that there was no common understanding of project management. The definition of a project and the responsibilities of the project manager varied widely. Any processes that had been developed had not been formalized nor widely accepted, leaving those with responsibility over a packet of work completely on their own.

From a delivery standpoint, software releases were often delayed or failed to include the planned features because no formal change policy existed to control scope. Upgrades to infrastructure took longer than planned due to a lack of proper resource planning. IS&T's customers were very dissatisfied with our ability to provide services and keep the Institute informed.

To address these needs, Dr. Grochow launched a program to provide some guidance and establish some standards around project management. He also added “excellence in project management” to the list of IS&T's strategic goals. This blanket of support was a crucial step to promoting the importance of project management throughout IS&T.

Setting a Direction

Defining the Destination

With approval to proceed in hand, four IS&T staff members with an interest in project management sat down in 2005 to determine how to go about improving project management practices. Knowing that a formal Project Management Office was out of the question, the group defined a list of services that could be owned and promoted out of IS&T's Client Relationship Management Office. The services (see Exhibit 1) focused on giving individual project managers some guidance and tools to help them towards success and also to provide greater visibility of project work being done throughout the organization.

Exhibit 1

Exhibit 1

  • Portfolio Reporting was targeted to be a quarterly review of the current projects across IS&T.
  • Management of selected projects was included to help provide a showcase for success when standard project management practices were applied.
  • PM Framework & Tools included a collection of checklists and templates that a project manager could use to develop a scope document, capture and manage project risks and issues, develop a simple communication plan, etc.
  • Mentoring and Training was targeting to be on-on-one assistance for self-selecting project managers along with a small-group class on the basics of project management.
  • Project Reviews and Lessons Learned Facilitation was, again, targeted to assist the project manager in preparing for these review activities.

Developing a Project Management Framework and Tools

Because of MIT's cultural tendency to embrace what it ours, a new framework was developed with the hope that an MIT-specific approach to project management would help promote adoption. The resulting framework (see Exhibit 2) is derived from a number of different project management approaches and bears resemblance to the Project Management Institute's A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge Process Groups and Project Boundaries (PMI, 2004, pp. 42–43). Individual processes were included on the model to serve as a reminder to staff of the general steps to follow throughout the project.

To support the new framework, a Project Management Toolkit was also developed (see Exhibit 3). This toolkit was a Microsoft Excel workbook with separate worksheets for checklists and sample templates that project managers could use to help define and manage their project.

Both the framework and toolkit were promoted to IS&T and MIT through project management coaching / mentoring sessions, formal project management classes and through the Project Management Methodology website. The adoption rate at MIT has been very slow and inconsistent but both have been widely used by other organizations around the world.

Exhibit 2

Exhibit 2

Exhibit 3

Exhibit 3

Finding Order in Chaos

The Portfolio

With some standards established, the next endeavour was to find out what work was actually being done throughout IS&T. In addition to recognized projects, it was important to also capture information on support and operational work. Collecting this information proved to be a bit of a challenge since each separate service area managed its own work independently and had a different approach to record keeping. Through an iterative collection-presentation approach, most of the information was compiled and quarterly reviews at the executive level were started in September of 2005.

Eighteen months later, an effort to uncover and track dependencies and handoffs between the four service areas of IS&T was launched with resounding success. With membership from each service area and central administration, project priorities, resource constraints, and technology overlaps were identified and tracked monthly under the auspices of the newly formed but unchartered, .75 FTE Project Services Office.

The New PSO

As was mentioned earlier, with MIT's lack of standards and decentralized approach, the creation of a formal Program Management Office with centrally managed project managers and the ability to influence all projects would not have enough support to remain viable. As an alternative, two staff members were asked to spend some time each month to coordinate the services that are outlined in Exhibit 1. This project services model was deemed to be less meddlesome to IS&T's leadership team and, to ensure that the threat level was kept to a minimum; the office was never formally chartered or recognized. The absence of this approval had an enormous impact on the group's ability to influence change.

Nonetheless, when the PSO team submitted a proposal to implement a Project and Portfolio Management System for IS&T's projects, the Vice President and several directors granted approval and a formal project was launched in April 2007.


In an effort to secure as much input and potential buy-in as possible, the PPM selection and implementation project team included members from across all of the operation and service areas of IS&T. Requirements were collected, vendors were reviewed and an approach to “try before you buy”—a pilot—was decided upon. At the same time, the state of project management was reviewed once more to collect current information on project management activities (status reports, portfolio reports, resource planning, etc.) that had been adopted since the last review in 2003. This information was organized into groups and sequenced by order of complexity into “Levels of Adoption” (see Exhibit 4).

Exhibit 4

Exhibit 4

This document served three important goals throughout the pilot and subsequent implementation of eProject (now Daptiv):

  1. Success criteria for our pilot evaluation
  2. Marketing material for the implementation (with the addition of the Replaces column to promote the statement that no new work was required by IS&T staff to use this system)
  3. Provide reference-able targets during the implementation

The pilot ran from August – October 2007 and the decision to move forward with a phased rollout was handed down and commenced, in November 2007. The target for all service areas was Level 3 (Project Status Detail) by March 2008. Again, due to MIT's culture of operational independence, each service area was given the option of how to incorporate this system within their own area. This led to delays and resistance on the part of management and staff and the implementation project was not closed out until September 2008. On the plus side, one service area determined that it was critical to their operating goals to know the cost to run their section of IS&T. The director requested that resource planning, resource allocations, and time tracking be pushed out to all staff within her area.

Even though the formal implementation project is considered complete, the now one-person PSO has continued to work through pockets of project management resistance and adoption of both formal project management and the PPM system has slowly increased. This is helped along by a monthly executive project review and a quarterly executive project review of priority projects.

Where to Next?

The Future of the PSO

With good, although slow, progress made toward the original goal, the next logical step was to plan for the next iteration. During an off-site planning meeting of the Client Relationship Management team and the Project Services Office held in October 2008, a model for the PSO of the future (see Exhibit 5) was developed with the hopes of continuing to expand the project management maturity level and project success rate within IS&T.

Exhibit 5

Exhibit 5

As the financial markets started to falter, it made good sense to augment the strategic planning and performance measurement areas to help realize possible cost savings. Although research organizations and industry literature cite the project office as having good visibility into the IT landscape and, therefore, the strategic importance of projects and the ability to optimize spending (Gartner, 2009, p. 2; Levinson, 2009), IS&T's Cost Savings Working Group could not justify the up-front costs for staff and process improvements.

A further blow to the PSO's existence was the announce of the announcement that IS&T's VP and chief sponsor for the PSO would be stepping into a new role as CTO, leaving the VP's seat open until a replacement can be hired. While there is a great deal of opportunity to continue working towards a mature project management environment, only time will tell if the new VP will support the effort.


Carroll, John S. (2008, December). Organizational change. Managerial Psychology, Sloan School of Management, Cambridge, MA.

Levinson, Meridith. (2008, November). Why project and portfolio management matter more at recession time. CIO [Electronic Version] Retrieved on June 12, 2009 from

Olding, Elise. (2009). How to address CFO concerns in the BPM business case. Stanford, CT: Gartner, Inc.

Project Management Institute. (2004). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

© 2009, Darlene Fladager
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida



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