Hail to the chief




There's a big gap between the executive suite and project managers—and that's where chief project officers can help.

One of the lesser-known additions to the alphabet soup of executive titles is gaining traction. The CPO, or chief project officer, is becoming a common fixture amidst the respected ranks of CEO, COO, CIO and the like.

“Not long ago, no one had ever heard of a chief project officer,” says Chris Vandersluis, CEO of HMS Software, a project management software provider, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

“But it's becoming more and more common in large organizations as the value of managing projects becomes more mainstream,” says Mr. Vandersluis, who also teaches advanced project management at McGill University in Montreal.

Part of the credit goes to the wildly chaotic business landscape.

“The need to adapt to changing requirements—and a world that is always moving faster—is increasing,” says Alexandra Deutsch, CPO at Out There Media, a mobile phone advertising company headquartered in Vienna, Austria.

With a shifting array of options like offshoring and cloud computing, companies want to know what will work. And CPOs are there to help.

“The more diverse business options become, the more critical it becomes for someone to bring it all together and help executives understand what needs to be decided in order to remain aligned with strategy,” says Dave Glowacki, vice president of product engineering at LexisNexis Risk Solutions, a division of the research database provider, Boca Raton, Florida, USA. Although he doesn't have the CPO title, Mr. Glowacki's responsibilities include strategic alignment, and the program management office reports to him.

For the CPO, it's not only about delivering projects on time and on budget. Companies want someone who can optimize project delivery in times of scarce resources and ensure the transparent prioritization of projects, Ms. Deutsch says.


With a CPO in the executive suite, project management often receives an elevated status at an organization. That won't automatically guarantee buy-in for projects—but aligning with the CPO can be a smart career move for project managers.

And it shouldn't be too hard to get his or her attention.

“The big thing project managers have is information,” says Dave Glowacki, LexisNexis Risk Solutions, Boca Raton, Florida, USA. “They have all this macro and micro information that the CPO needs and that really nobody else has. Provide information that helps the CPO's ability to pick out and see the key issues.”

To forge a relationship with CPOs, project managers have to be able to articulate how their projects align with strategy.

They must learn to adapt to different business priorities within the organization's hierarchy, says Cláudio Kindlé, Clip Engenharia, Belo Horizonte, Brazil. “Project managers face the challenge of knowing how to travel from the details needed by the operational levels to the macro vision required by the CPOs and CEOs day-to-day,” he says.

And those project professionals who can deliver are moving into the once-elusive upper echelons of management.


Although companies increasingly recognize the need for CPOs, some have an exaggerated vision of their mission—to put it mildly.

“Companies expect the naming of a chief project officer to ensure that all projects will now be completed on time and on budget,” Mr. Vandersluis says.

Obviously, it's not that easy.

“The real effect of having a project officer at the top level of the company is to surface the challenges that project managers have experienced for time immemorial, and to help negotiate barriers to getting projects selected and then completed effectively,” he explains.

Being a part of the executive suite does give CPOs the power to make meaningful changes in their organizations.

“A CPO can be instrumental in introducing project selection thinking and methods for senior executives to choose projects that have a better chance of delivering business value to the organization,” Mr. Vandersluis says.

Part of that can be helping to implement project management guidelines and methodologies that foster business success, though their importance will vary based on an organization's needs.

Training processes rank high for Cláudio Kindlé, CPO at Clip Engenharia, a civil construction firm in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

“In the industry where I work—civil construction—there is a lack of workers qualified with management skills,” he says. “Training procedures drive more results than all of the others. The most important quality for an effective CPO concerns being a teacher of teachers.”

The process entails spreading knowledge about project management as well as related subjects, such as business, management and technology. “Project management is multidisciplinary work,” Mr. Kindlé says.


CPOs often make powerful ambassadors for raising the visibility of the organization's project management culture to the very top levels of management.

“In some organizations, project management has not had to weave itself into the corporate structure,” says Mr. Vandersluis. “But the existence of a CPO brings project management into the mainstream business thinking.”

imgTIP CPOs can ease the tension that often exists in a matrix organization. The organizational structure and the project or work structure can find themselves at odds. At a software company, for instance, a project manager must go through a laundry list of departments, including design, programming, quality assurance, documentation and marketing.

“Matrix organizations are inherently at conflict,” says Chris Vandersluis, HMS Software, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, “and it is the most popular organizational structure for companies in a wide range of industries. A CPO can help balance the pull from both sides of that matrix.”

For example, a CPO should negotiate resource conflicts and create processes so the resource side of the matrix knows how to prioritize what the project side of the matrix requires, and vice versa. “The CPO can establish and foster lines of communication between parts of the organization, such as department managers and project managers, who might otherwise not have any direct contact,” he adds.

To play that guiding role, though, CPOs require more than conventional project management know-how and tools. They also need a macro view of the business.

“You don't have to be an expert in every business vertical,” Mr. Glowacki says. But you do need the expertise to understand how resources interplay, for example. “A lot of my role is about setting the table for senior executives so they can make the decisions to ensure that we're effectively executing on the strategy,” he says.

CPOs should help their fellow upper managers comprehend what the most relevant project management issues are—without a lot of technical jargon.

“The biggest mistake I see people make is that the information passed up to senior executives is way too complicated,” Mr. Glowacki says.

It's an understandable misstep because project management thrives on attention to detail. But that minutia isn't necessary at the executive level. CPOs must focus on distilling key take-aways for an executive audience.

“LexisNexis Risk Solutions will deliver probably 300 to 400 projects in a year,” Mr. Glowacki says. “And literally, for all the business verticals, I'll give them enough information on four pages of paper.”

This report offers a visual portfolio view that reveals the projects' progress, followed by a summary of the key points.

A CPO must also know when to raise concerns about a project and—just as importantly—when to take a wait-and-see approach.

“There may be situations when something's gone red, and you're meeting with the owner of that business to talk about it and you both decide, ‘We've got a good handle on it—there's no need to share that. And if it doesn't turn around in a week or two, then we'll share it,’” Mr. Glowacki says.


Some CPOs are also in charge of the project management office (PMO). Dave Glowacki runs the PMO at LexisNexis Risk Solutions, Boca Raton, Florida, USA. While he doesn't have the official CPO title, he performs many of the same responsibilities, including helping senior executives tie strategy to the project portfolio.

“We looked at our PMO and said, ‘If there were four things we wanted everyone we work with to take away from the PMO, what would those things be?’” he says. The decided on the following:

  • img  Partner. Team up with technical management on one side, and the product management and business unit on the other. “This is opposed to a ‘throw it over the wall’ kind of approach or even a subordinate type of relationship,” Mr. Glowacki says.
  • img  Focus. Provide clearly defined goals for the organization through controlling scope creep, driving the priority setting, and choosing the number and type of projects requested across the organization in alignment with its strategy.
  • img  Urgency. Drive the organization and the various deliverables aggressively. For LexisNexis, time to market is critical.
  • img  Deliver. Follow through on what the PMO has committed to.

His team has taken to calling these strategic elements “PFUD.”

“PFUD is the essence of what we strive to achieve in the PMO. How we operate and evolve is centered around these four descriptors,” Mr. Glowacki says.

“I'm not crazy about the term,” he adds, laughing, “but it's definitely memorable.”

In fact, those who work for the PMO wear that credo on their sleeves—literally. They have polo shirts with PFUD embroidered on the arm.

That helps drive home the point for the rest of the company.

“The message is clear,” Mr. Glowacki says. “This is what we're about, and if we don't do these four things, then we're not doing our job.”

It's all part of keeping things simple at the top.

“A lot of things get vetted below,” he explains, “and that's how you want it. You only want the critical stuff coming up to the executive level.”

To truly be in tune with business strategy and the executive mindset, Mr. Glowacki cautions project professionals not to look at process in a silo.

“I find that escalation occurs when you look at problems individually and you say, ‘We're going to fix this by adding a process.’ Then the next problem comes up, and you fix that one by adding a process,” he says.

Troubleshooting in this manner can lead to process overload. “Before you know it, there's so much process that you may be perceived as just slowing everything down,” Mr. Glowacki says. “You lose value.”

Executed correctly, though, the role of a CPO takes project management to the next level, bridging the gap between the executive suite and project teams.

Make room at the conference table. The CPO is here is stay. PM




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