Kill the PMO! Resurrect the department of simplicity
Jack S. Duggal, MBA, PMP
Managing Principal, Projectize Group LLC
What comes to mind when you think about the “PMO?” 78% of the respondents in our survey said more work, documentation, red-tape and bureaucracy. This perception of bureaucracy is a critical issue for PMOs and a number one reason for push-back and lack of buy-in and acceptance for many PMOs. Unclear, complicated processes are costly in terms of reduced compliance, rework and frustration. There is a rallying cry to simplify organizations and government in today's disruptive world and simplification is becoming a strategic imperative for speed and agility in many organizations. This paper will discuss how the PMO needs to kill the traditional perception of bureaucracy and reinvent itself as the Department of Simplicity. The paper will illustrate how the PMO can take a leadership role to identify opportunities to focus on simplicity and dedicate itself to identifying and reducing unnecessary overhead and complexity and increasing buy-in, support and PMO satisfaction and value.
On the one hand PMO has become a common organizational fixture in many organizations; on the other the success rate has not gone up. According to our survey-based PMO research 52% PMOs are not perceived as successful by key PMO stakeholders. These findings are echoed by recent reports from organizations like Forrester Group, Boston Consulting Group and a multi-year study by Hobbs & Aubrey, Project Management Office: A Quest for Understanding.
Lack of buy-in and acceptance continue to plague PMOs. 39% responded that the relevance or existence of their PMOs has been seriously questioned. Just 33% responded that the PMO has realized its full potential in contributing business value to the organization. One of the contributing reasons is the perception of bureaucracy and unnecessary complicatedness that creeps up on well-meaning PMOs like crabgrass and weeds. This paper will highlight the problem and discuss how the PMO needs to change the perception by reinventing itself as the Department of Simplicity and Optimizing for Simplicity.
The observations and insights discussed in this paper are based on working with a few thousand people from different industries around the world, in leading PMI SeminarsWorld® Next Generation PMO and Portfolio Management seminar, where these ideas have been discussed and debated from multiple perspectives. Additionally these are real-world challenges and ideas we are implementing in organizations around the world in our Next Generation PMO practice.
The Problem of PMO Perception and Reality
When you hear the term PMO, if you think of more work, documentation, processes and red-tape, you are not alone. In a survey by the Projectize Group 78% perceived their PMOs as bureaucratic. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language defines bureaucracy as “an administrative system in which the need or inclination to follow rigid or complex procedures impedes effective action.”
As Peter Drucker put it, “Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done.” Ironically many PMOs reflect a similar perception. One of the most common complaints about PMOs is that they tend to make things more complicated than necessary. It is not just a perception problem, it is also the reality. For example, many PMOs will require even simple projects to follow an excruciatingly detailed methodology or file a monthly report that takes longer than a month to produce! If you don't follow the PMO process your project plan is red-lined, you might get audited and you will have to provide additional documentation. The short-coming of the PMO is not in what they do, but what they over-do.
One of the PMO managers we worked with explained, “The problem is one of perception. Most of the processes do not take that long to do. Those that do are intended to provide information required to think through the project before committing resources or changing course.” Ironically his customers thought otherwise and a few months after, his organization killed and disbanded the PMO!
Kill the PMO
“When will the PMO stop us from conducting business...” was a comment overheard from a frustrated executive in a financial services organization. Often, PMOs are guilty of unclear, complicated processes that are costly in terms of time, rework, frustration and simply conducting business. These complicated processes are like creepers and weeds that can spread and strangle healthy plants and trees if not controlled in time.
You can take a proactive approach like an IT PMO, in which they conducted a bonfire of their old processes and methodology and invited stakeholders to the reinvented Department of Simplicity! The vision for starting and sustaining PMOs should be that they are the Department of Simplicity within the organization. There has been a rallying cry to simplify organizations and government in recent years, and simplicity is emerging as a growing corporate trend. This presents the PMO with a leadership opportunity to focus on simplicity and dedicate itself to identifying and reducing unnecessary overhead and complexity.
Why Simplicity is a Strategic Imperative in Today's Disruptive DANCE-World
Today's DANCE-world (Dynamic and Changing, Ambiguous and uncertain, Non-linear, Complex and Emergent and unpredictable) has caused increasing disruption in business and beyond. To survive in a disruptive world, speed and agility are key and simplicity is a strategic imperative. How do you create a start-up culture that gives you a competitive advantage and guard against bloat and bureaucracy that slows you down? As one executive in a global conglomerate remarked, “Our enemy is not the competition, it is unnecessary complexity in our processes.” You have to create a culture where you can work together and focus on initiatives and projects that matter the most, make jobs easier, simplify processes and enhance customer experience. Organizations like General Electric, ConAgra, Vanguard and others have embraced simplification as a strategic initiative.
We all face a cognitive overload of choices as we are bombarded with information and stimuli from multiple sources. The way to connect and grab attention from competing channels is to cut through the clutter with simplicity and elegance that can surprise and delight the PMO customers and stakeholders in an increasingly complicated world.
Simplicity can have an impact on revenue. Siegel + Gale, a strategic branding firm, has created a Global Brand Simplicity Index which has a portfolio of brands/companies that are perceived to offer a simpler experience. The study revealed interesting insights – 75% of consumers are more likely to recommend a brand if it offers a simpler experience. 100% of brands/companies in the simplicity portfolio have beaten the average global stock index since 2009.
Purpose and Paradox of the PMO: Optimizing for Efficiency versus Optimizing for Simplicity
The initiating purpose of a PMO is to bring about consistency and efficiency by implementing standards and processes. However overtime they proliferate and create unnecessary complicatedness in the organization. For example a new stage-gate process, while bringing discipline to development, was also bringing additional reviews and paper-work. One of the teams estimated that they were spending upwards of 70% of their time preparing for project reviews, attending review meetings or responding to review issues that left little time for actual project work.
Typically PMOs are geared towards optimizing for efficiency. As illustrated in Exhibit 1 it is important for the PMO to understand this distinction between Optimizing for Efficiency versus Optimizing for Simplicity.
Exhibit 1: Optimizing for Efficiency versus Optimizing for Simplicity
When you optimize for efficiency you think inside-out from the PMO's perspective, when you optimize for simplicity you will think outside-in from the end-user and customer perspective. Paradoxically efficiency focuses on adding or streamlining structure, process and rules and yields outputs. Simplicity aims to reduce or reinvent processes based on effectiveness and experience and results in greater satisfaction and better outcomes and results. Optimization aims for faster, cheaper and better, but the impact can be different based on whether it is from the organization's perspective or the customer's. For example, a healthcare PMO tried to optimize its portfolio process with three pipelines for project approvals which had resulted in faster project approvals and was better from the organization's perspective. However they did not think about the impact on the business customers of the PMO, as some of the same people had to participate in three different intake meetings and review additional documentation resulting in more time and frustrating experience.
Why Simplicity is Hard
Often some people get confused with simplicity and have a wrong notion about it. They think simplicity means not enough depth, too easy, or a simpleton - ignorant, foolish or silly - approach. Simplicity does not mean simplistic solutions, lack of functionality or limited information. Simplicity is hard; it is on the other side of complexity. An example frequently used to illustrate this comes from Mark Twain, who received this telegram from a publisher, NEED 2-PAGE SHORT STORY TWO DAYS. Twain replied: NO CAN DO 2 PAGES TWO DAYS. CAN DO 30 PAGES 2 DAYS. NEED 30 DAYS TO DO 2 PAGES.
Simple does not mean easy; simplicity is only achieved with a deep understanding of the underlying complexity. As Albert Einstein said, “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.” Think of all of the successful products and services that we all use and couldn't do without, like Google, for example. They look simple on the surface, but achieving that simplicity requires an immense amount of complexity.
PMO Principles of Simplicity
Simplicity is difficult to practice, the PMO can start by understanding and applying the following principles of simplicity as it adopts the simplicity mantra:
Minimalism - Less is more - Traditional approaches rely on the principle that to control better and establish sound governance you need heavy methods, processes and tools built on intricate rules. Simplicity is based on the opposite principle of minimalism and less is more; seeking out the essential and separating the value-adding activities from the non-value added minutia that sucks up time and energy. As Hans Hoffman, a legendary artist remarked, “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” The PMO needs to be on a relentless pursuit of less, but better.
Scalable –Methodology and governance structures should be scalable and adaptive based on criteria like project size, scope, complexity and business impact. 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 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.
Self-regulating – Like friendly speed indicator displays (SID) on roads that help in self-regulating our speed, PMO processes 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 pre-set limit, project management processes can be used to define the boundaries with pre-set triggers for escalation.
Self-eliminating - Good processes should have a built-in mechanism for changing or eliminating the process. 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 conduct periodic process reviews and decide when a process or practice is no longer useful or when it needs to be updated to make it useful again.
Desire lines - Desire paths can usually be found as shortcuts where constructed pathways take a circuitous route. Similarly PMOs need to sense and observe the existing desire paths of methods and processes and adapt and reinvent PMO processes along end-user, customer and stakeholder desire lines.
Rigor without rigidity – On the one hand, there is a need to establish rigor with a sound governance structure; on the other there is a demand for freedom and flexibility. This is indeed a primordial paradox between the need for discipline and freedom at the same time. This dilemma hounds the successful implementation of project management and PMO processes. An adaptive PMO strives to find the sweet-spot to strike the right balance of rigor without rigidity. The right balance depends upon a number of factors like your organizational culture, the nature of your business, scale and scope of your projects, and your organizational project management maturity.
For more detailed explanation of the above characteristics reference Rigor without Rigidity: How to Achieve Balance in the Next Generation PMO. (Proceedings of the EMEA PMI Congress, 2009, Amsterdam, Netherlands.)
In his book Ten Laws of Simplicity, John Maeda, a simplicity evangelist, design guru and former president of the Rhode Island School of Design outlines the following ten laws of simplicity that can be useful as you aim to simplify your PMO:
- REDUCE - The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction.
- ORGANIZE - Organization makes a system of many appear fewer.
- TIME - Savings in time feel like simplicity.
- LEARN - Knowledge makes everything simpler.
- DIFFERENCES - Simplicity and complexity need each other.
- CONTEXT - What lies in the periphery of simplicity is definitely not peripheral.
- EMOTION - More emotions are better than less.
- TRUST - In simplicity we trust.
- FAILURE - Some things can never be made simple.
- THE ONE - Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.
How to Build Your Own Department of Simplicity
To build your own Department of Simplicity you have to start by looking in the mirror and asking key questions to assess your PMO annoyance factor:
□ How many PMO processes do we have? Are they too many?
□ Are these processes cumbersome and annoying?
□ How many of the templates/reports are more than one page long?
□ How many of them have more than ten steps?
□ How many of them have more than three levels of approvals?
□ How much time is spent by project managers/team members on documentation?
□ How much time is spent on generating, disseminating, and reviewing reports?
□ What would the PMO's customers and key stakeholders love for us to eliminate or reduce?
□ What would those who matter most love for the PMO to stop doing?
□ What is it that the stakeholders struggle with if the PMO was killed and ceased to exist?
□ Is the PMO making its stakeholder's job easier?
As you ask these questions challenge the status quo bias – the tendency to continue doing something because we have always done it this way. For example in a financial services company, a project review process was outdated and cumbersome. Upon questioning the PMO team, nobody could identify the origin or the reasons for the process. They were just following the process blindly because it was already in place and nobody ever questioned it.
As you review and assess your PMO you can distinguish between value-adding and non-value adding activities based on the Japanese principles of Kaizen. Kaizen practitioner's focus on muri, mura and muda. Muri means overload, mura means inconsistency and muda is waste. In the pursuit for implementing simplicity overload, inconsistency and waste are critical factors to review.
In our work with PMOs around the world we practice the following steps in our effort to simplify PMOs:
- Inventory and review current processes and methods. Pick the top three processes and see how they could be streamlined, and find ways to eliminate redundancies and simplify them.
- Think about how you can cut, slim, trim, prune, combine and modularize existing methods and processes.
- Conduct a reverse pilot, which is the opposite of a pilot. In a pilot you test new initiatives; in a reverse pilot you test whether removing an activity will have any negative consequences. For example you can stop publishing a marginal report that takes a huge effort to produce. If nobody complains after you stop it that means the report was unnecessary.
- While implementing methodologies, begin with an absolutely minimum set of processes. See how you can create the least annoying and least intrusive processes. Substitute practices that match more closely with your organization. Carefully add practices that address specific organizational or project situations.
- Ensure your PMO's methodologies and tools are scalable – fewer steps for simple projects and more detailed steps for complex projects.
- A one-page-fit should be the rule of thumb for most PMO reporting and documentation requirements.
- Follow this principle: don't add until you subtract. Reduce the weight of heavy methods by subtracting non-value-adding steps, before introducing value-adding processes.
- The simplified processes should be explained and communicated clearly.
- Engaging your stakeholders early on in the co-creation of the processes or templates will increase their support and adoption of the process.
Good process should make things take less time and make people more efficient. An example of this is the United States Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995, 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.
PMOs can take a leadership role and establish a Simplicity Advisory Board (SAB). Philips Electronics has created an SAB made up of experts who help the company create simplified offerings such as instruction manuals that non-tech savvy consumers can understand. This is evident from Philips’ recent success with innovative home lighting products like the Hue lighting system with its packaging, intuitive design and cool factor. The PMO can engage a variety of stakeholders in the SAB to co-create and garner valuable feedback and advice.
Exhibit II is a sample grid that the PMO can create to list the process, proposed simplification, impact of the change and who the simplification would impact as it embarks upon the Department of Simplicity initiative. You can list all the PMO processes that have been identified as complicated, cumbersome or annoying as possible candidates for simplification.
The Uber PMO
Have you experienced Uber? It is a ride-sharing service that is toppling the taxi business in many cities around the world. It is simple; you start by downloading its app to your smartphone and tie it to a credit card. You then use the app to hail an Uber car, and you can see where the car is as it makes its way to you and how long it will take. You get in the car, enjoy the ride and get out when you reach your destination. The fare is automatically calculated – you exchange no money with the driver, not even a tip. It is a frictionless transaction. You even get to rate the driver and the quality of the experience and the driver gets to rate you as the passenger as well. Overall, it is a surprisingly pleasant and delightful experience from a service that we all have had mixed experiences with and do not look forward to. We can think of similar experiences with products and services like using the iPad for the first time, a visit to Disney, using websites like Google, Amazon or eBay and accomplishing what we want with few clicks in an elegant interface. We are surprised by simplicity and enjoy the experience. We not only want more of it, but we also want to share it with others.
When we experience a positive surprise, it compels us to do three things (Kaplan 2014):
- Want to experience more of it;
- Learn about how or why it works the way it does; and
- Share it, so we can take a small amount of credit for others own smiles of surprise.
Imagine how you could design your PMO with the Uber experience. As you simplify and make structure and processes easier from your end-users and customers perspective, you will surprise your stakeholders with the positive experience of dealing with the PMO. They will be compelled to share this experience with others and help you gain a solid following for the PMO.
PMO Delight Index (PDI) – Scoring the PMO Experience
How will we know if the PMO customers are having an Uber experience? It is important to measure and get feedback from a stakeholder perspective. The PMO can measure itself and gather valuable feedback from its customers and stakeholders by using a simple PMO Delight Index (PDI):
- Frictionless: Was it easy and frictionless to work with the PMO? 1 2 3 4 5
- Satisfaction: Did you enjoy the experience? 1 2 3 4 5
- Effectiveness: Did you achieve the desired results using the PMO process/tools? 1 2 3 4 5
- Promotion: How likely are you to share this experience with others? 1 2 3 4 5
- Feedback: What changes do we need to make for you to give a higher score? 1 2 3 4 5
There is a rallying cry to simplify organizations and government in today's disruptive DANCE-world and simplification is becoming a strategic imperative for speed and agility in many organizations. As the PMO continues to struggle and gain buy-in, acceptance, and demonstrate value, it needs to take a proactive leadership role to reinvent itself as the Department of Simplicity. Adaptive PMOs should make things take less time and make people more efficient. The PMOs reinvented manifesto should aim to minimize the paperwork and reporting burden and ensure the greatest possible benefit and maximize the utility of information created, collected and maintained; to remove obstacles for the project managers and the PMO's customers and design a clutter-free, clean and consistent PMO experience.
Simplicity is not easy. It does not mean simplistic solutions, lack of functionality or limited information. Simplicity is difficult to practice, but if the PMO adopts the simplicity principle in everything it does, it is sure to increase its potential for success and attract a more solid following.
To sustain and thrive, it is imperative for the PMO to constantly challenge itself and ask key questions like, “What would PMO stakeholders want eliminated or simplified?”, “How can we remove any obstacles for the project managers and other PMO customers and stakeholders?” Driving towards simplicity requires persistence and vigilance, a willingness to make tough choices, and an ability to see the world from your customer's perspective. To be effective, the PMO needs to be on the relentless pursuit of less, but better.
The Uber PMO can provide a memorable and delightful experience that stakeholders will want more of. The PMO Delight Index (PDI) can be used to measure the experience and get valuable feedback. Can you imagine that instead of raising your hand to kill the PMO, you are excited to strike the famous Staples easy button, “that was easy” as you deal with your PMO?
“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” (Antoine de Saint-Exupery, 1984)
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© 2014, Jack S. Duggal
Originally published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Phoenix, Arizona, USA