Implementing a project office for organizational change


by Randall L. Englund and Robert J. Graham, PMP

Take a lesson from the Quakers when implementing new practices in a hostile environment.

The successful movement to develop project offices will eventually lead to radical change in organization practices. As with any radical change process, those in the vanguard, namely, the people implementing the offices, will often feel like missionaries introducing new practices into a hostile environment. Early missionaries found it difficult to get other people to change their ways. Some of them suffered mightily from the wrath of the people they were trying to change. William Penn, the Quaker leader in Pennsylvania, found a better way.

Penn “treated the native inhabitants of Pennsylvania with respect and even love. … He learned their language and often visited them in their homes. As a Christian and a good Quaker, he hoped to convert the Native Americans to the Christian religion, but he respected their beliefs.” [Kieran Doherty, William Penn: Quaker Colonist, 1998, The Millbrook Press]. Legends tell us how other quiet, nonthreatening Quakers also found a more effective approach. While not always completely historically accurate, these stories convey truths about ways to mesh cultures.

Many American Indian tribes were nomadic, foraging for food as they moved from place to place. Given a compelling change in their environment with the influx of white settlers into their territories, they had to change from a nomadic society to a more settled agricultural society. Many missionaries used a heavy-handed, command-oriented approach, threatening, “You'd better change or you're going to the devil!” This proselytizing approach led to limited success. Many proud native peoples rebelled against the do-as-I-say approach of the missionaries and many missionaries were killed. The Quakers, however, set up farms near Indian territories and went about their business of growing crops. The Quaker farming methods produced bountiful harvests and the Quakers prospered. The buffalo—the mainstay of nomadic life—became scarce, and the Indians became hungry. When they saw well-tended Quaker fields and evidence of a rich harvest, they eventually came to ask, “How do you produce such bounty?” Educating the indigenous peoples to new agricultural ways was much easier once the benefits were clear.


Randall Englund, NPDP, is a senior consultant for the Strategic Management Group Inc. in San Francisco, Calif., USA. Robert Graham, PMP, of R.J. Graham & Associates in Mendocino, Calif. USA, is an independent project management consultant. They conspired to change the ways of upper managers through co-authoring Creating an Environment for Successful Projects: The Quest to Manage Project Management [1997, Jossey-Bass].

Given the changes that a project office will cause in an organization, it is essential that the approach to developing the office be aligned with organizational culture. Much of the work of the project office can be seen as missionary work—trying to convince people they will be better off if they change to new ways. The analogy of the Quaker approach to organizational change is a valuable reference point to consider. It is one end of a continuum about how to implement a project office. The other end is the old hierarchy, command and control, do-what-I-say approach.

This article describes a structured method to implementing an organization-wide project office, which is aimed at leading the change to a project-based organization. This structure was developed as a result of a practitioner's workshop sponsored by R.J. Graham & Associates and the Strategic Management Group on the topic of implementing a project office for organizational change. The workshop featured presentations by people who successfully implemented a project office. They shared issues of successful implementation and then helped others develop an implementation plan. The workshop was a follow-on to the book Creating an Environment for Successful Projects [Graham and Englund, 1997, Jossey-Bass], which describes the content and function of a project office but needed additional discussion about how to develop a complete plan for implementing one in an organization.

Members of the workshop adopted the following outline for developing their implementation plans.

Develop a Project Office Vision. What is it that this overall movement toward project offices is meant to achieve? Most organizations are changing (or will change) to become project-based, such that projects represent the majority of business activity. For many organizations this will represent a radical change in the way it is managed. The implementation of a (or several) project office(s) will be the vehicle for changing the management practices necessary to transform the organization. Thus the project office movement is the spearhead for the radical organizational change necessary in the next decade. It will totally change the way future organizations are managed.

Define an Implementation Approach. In many respects the project office has a mission similar to educating the indigenous people in the organization to a new way of thinking and having them change their old ways to better ways. History tells us that the approach taken will influence success so that the approach must match the culture of the organization. There was general agreement that:

img In some organizations the Quaker approach is the only way that will work. For example, in organizations with a heavy research component, those run more like universities, the command approach of forcing change or threatening doom would be scoffed at and it would fail.

img In other organizations run more along a military model, where members are accustomed to forced change, the Quaker approach would be perceived as weak, so a full-scale, top-down, CEO-directed change effort would be more successful.

img In either case it is obviously important to consider the organizational culture before forming an implementation plan.

img In all cases it is important to have a sponsor who is influential in the organization. For the command approach, a higher-level person is needed. For the Quaker approach, the level may not be as important as the sponsor's stature and breadth of influence.

img The Quaker approach takes time and patience, values notoriously absent in many organizations. A hybrid approach begins with the Quaker approach and moves toward the command model if necessary. Organization members can be triaged into one-third “true believers” in project management who can't wait to change, one-third “show me” skeptics who may change if they see the benefit, and one-third “die hard” grizzled veterans who have seen it all before and will resist to the bitter end. The hybrid approach starts with true believers who demonstrate, through small wins, the benefits of a project office. This approach helps develop credibility and offers something to show the show-me gang. When they are converted and you achieve critical mass of two-thirds of the organization, it may be necessary to apply a little top-down command to convince the die-hards. Most participants seemed to think this was the most realistic approach for organizations.

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Refine the Concept of a Project Office. What is a project office and where did it come from? Project management began as a counterculture movement. Early project managers worked outside the organization. In fact they were normally outside in a trailer at a construction site. It was the physical place where decisions were made regarding the project. The original project office referred to a place for the control of a specific project, what we would now call a project control office. As projects have moved inside the organization, the role of the project office has expanded. Bob Storeygard of 3M, one of the workshop presenters, described four possible levels given below. We feel that each level represents increasing levels of implementation difficulty.

Much of the work of the project office can be seen as missionary work—trying to convince people they will be better off if they change to new ways.

Level 1—Individual Project Office: Set up as the information center for one project, such as the Y2K project. This level causes the least upheaval in the organization; the benefits are local to one project and typically short lived in the organization.

Level 2—Program Office: For a set of projects in a division/area or discipline, such as installing an ERP system company-wide. This level causes more upheaval in the organization as it cuts across many projects. However, the benefits are still local, typically short lived, and usually forgotten once the problem is solved.

Level 3—Organizational Project Office: Sometimes called an organizational center of excellence, implements project management across the organization. This level causes much upheaval in the organization, as it affects operations across many departments. Resistance mounts as procedures favor projects and change the power balance in the organization. This encroaches on a department manager's turf regarding assignment of resources.

Level 4—Strategic Project Office, at senior manager level: This level causes the most upheaval when it affects allocation of organizational resources and strategy.

Most workshop participants were interested in developing an organizational project office, though one participant developed a plan that involved all four levels. Most participants agreed at this point that:

img You need to aim at a particular goal, say Level 3, but it may be best to start small, say Level 1, and document benefits of a project office for a few projects. This idea is in concert with the hybrid approach mentioned above.

img You need an organizational group, like a council or project management initiative, to give legitimacy in different divisions and to help cross organizational boundaries.

img A physical space is important. It helps the work and also provides group identification.

img You need to treat the implementation plan as a project.

Develop an Implementation Goal. Specify an important and measurable goal for the endeavor. For example, implement a Level 3 project office to cut cycle time 20 percent and produce 30 percent more new products while maintaining current headcount.

Determine the Value to the Organization. Determine why the organization should do this. Will it help implement strategy? Fight competition? Are similar companies doing this? How will life be better when this is done? State the value in business terms best understood by upper managers, such as the return on investment of the project office. For example, determine the increase in shareholder value that will result when the stated goal is reached. Calculate the benefits if you had reduced cycle time 20 percent in the past and how that would have increased value on the last five projects. Determine how many projects you will do per year and then estimate the future value of reducing cycle time. Also determine how much implementing the project office will cost. From these figures you can determine the project office return on investment, a figure near and dear to the heart (or head) of most upper managers.

Develop a Set of Metrics to Show Progress. Be careful here, as you get what you measure, which may not be what you want. For example, you determine that staff members should attend more stakeholder meetings in order to help reduce cycle time. However, if you then measure meeting attendance, people will attend plenty of meetings, but cycle time may not be reduced. Ensure that office members and all project managers are well versed in those actions that actually lead to shareholder value in your organization, and then measure those actions.

Determine Project Office Content. What will be in the office? This depends on the goal of the office. Typical functions include assessment of project environment; project selection and prioritization procedures; mentoring and coaching for project managers; developing and coaching upper management sponsors; a common set of project management tools, techniques and methodologies; consulting for ongoing projects; training and project manager development programs; and possibly the project managers themselves.

Develop an Implementation Plan. With answers to the above, determine how you are going to proceed, what to do first, second, and so on. Then put a detailed action plan together.

SHARING THESE FINDINGS and helping people put together a structured plan led one participant to say she accomplished in three days what would have taken her three months to do on her own. We expect to follow the progress of these and future workshop participants to discover what works and what does not. For future updates on implementation progress, visit the website at ■

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.

PM Network February 2001



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