Staying the PMO course






Linda Honour, project management office (PMO) lead, technology and operations unit, Allstate, Northbrook, Illinois, USA

To describe the scale and breadth of projects within Allstate’s technology and operations unit, Linda Honour uses one word: “huge.”

At Allstate, one of the largest insurance companies in North America, the technology and operations unit each year invests between US$350 million and US$450 million in 2,400 initiatives. Project budgets range from US$30,000 to US$30 million.

Yet despite its vast array of projects, the unit had no central office to oversee them—until three years ago, when the unit created a PMO and tapped Ms. Honour to lead it. With about 450 team members, the PMO aims to improve the efficiency, effectiveness and consistency of project delivery.

It has another goal as well, Ms. Honour says: “become a world-class PMO.”

How did you go about creating the PMO?

We spent the first six months developing a three-year plan. 2012 was the year of rationalization. Prior to the creation of the PMO, the unit’s project managers were decentralized across the unit. We pulled all the project managers into the PMO. And we came up with four key objectives: First, establish portfolio transparency and a single, independent view of project health. Second, get the right people with the right skills to do the right work. Third, develop common methodologies and tools. Fourth, optimize our cost structure.

“Our project managers were like journalists, documenting and responding to events as they occurred. We’re trying to shift that so they become owners—proactively changing the course of projects as needed.”

2013 was all about standardization across people, process and technology. We developed consistent job descriptions for our project managers that were anchored in industry standards. We created standard templates and processes. We simplified our technology. And we retrained everybody on our new processes.

This year has been all about optimization. Yes, we now have standard ways of doing things, but how can we better optimize our workforce?

You’re describing a massive change for the organization and its talent. Was there any resistance to it?

I wish I could tell you that all of the resistance is behind us, but it’s not. We had a lot of resistance from multiple constituents. We had some internal resistance from project managers because they had been pulled out of an old organization they supported and put into a new organization.

How have you addressed that resistance?

Unwavering support from our CIO, Suren Gupta, has been crucial for managing this change. Persistence was another thing: we stayed the course. But it isn’t over yet.

How do you communicate the benefits of the PMO to your team?

Within the PMO we have a number of communications vehicles. We have town hall meetings every other month. We do open-mic sessions, which are calls with the leadership team where our folks can ask questions on any topic. We produce a newsletter. I also do what we call coffee talks—ad hoc meetings with a cross section of the team just to answer their questions and concerns.

What did you find your project managers needed that the training sought to provide?

When we started, all the project managers lived in different delivery organizations, and each organization had its own way of doing things. We had to take all these disparate ways of doing things and land on “the way.” And we needed to retrain people on content and mechanics as well as some of the more entrepreneurial pieces, like how to better leverage judgment in stakeholder management.

In addition to training current team members, how do you ensure you recruit the right new talent?

Aside from process and tools, a great project manager needs skills like judgment, risk management, learning agility, stakeholder management—things that are more difficult to teach. We revamped all our hiring practices and focused on identifying people with these skills.

How do you identify those people?

We ask questions that get people to talk about circumstances where they had to apply judgment, for example. Or if they were put in a new situation, what did they do to come up to speed quickly?

And we’ve used a consistent set of interviewers, a core team that sees a lot of different people.

What benefits has the PMO realized for Allstate?

One of the biggest benefits has been transparency. When project managers reported in different delivery areas, there was no view of all the work the unit was doing. Now we can report to our CIO and chief business partners how many projects are in place every week. We can tell them the status of the portfolio, what percent of the portfolio is currently rated green, yellow and red. We can see where there might be major issues that need to be addressed. We also have introduced a health check, which is like a midcourse correction for big work. The bottom line: We’ve improved the efficiency and effectiveness of our delivery.

How do you measure that improvement?

We use traditional on-time, on-budget measures. On-time delivery has increased 11 percent and on-budget has improved by 15 percent compared to pre-PMO. In terms of resource efficiencies—how many hours a project manager manages—we’ve seen a 25 percent improvement there.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from implementing the PMO?

Well, it’s not for the faint of heart. Driving change in a large organization is always much harder than you think. It took a good 18, 24 months before we started seeing real signs of change. You’ve got to persevere and keep hoping things will pay off, because they do. PM


Small Talk

Best professional advice you’ve ever received?

Think big and act small. You need to keep the broader context in mind while acting quickly to reach long-term objectives.

The one skill every project manager should have?

Being able to forecast, and take action today.

Your dream travel destination?

St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. There are the most amazing vistas.

Favorite thing to do in your spare time?

I’m a big walker. It clears my mind.




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