Command And Control: Why PMOs Are Not Always The Right Environment For A Centralized Approach

Ensuring that a project management office (PMO) functions properly can be daunting. Many opt for a command and control approach, but the results are not always as anticipated, …

Dan Onions, Founder and CEO of DASH, says "a PMO that treats projects as a transaction through a gated process will be ineffective, because it does not have a proper grip onthe wider purpose of the project or what is really happening on the ground."

Ensuring that a project management office (PMO) functions properly can be daunting. Many opt for a command and control approach, but the results are not always as anticipated, as pointed out in a recent post by Colin Ellis in CIO Magazine.

Dan Onions, Founder and CEO of DASH, a project management app and methodology provider, explained that when organizations want to introduce control, the instinct is normally to add process, but there is a limit to the effectiveness of process in controlling projects. “Process-centric controls work well for activities that are transactional in nature, such as dealing with application forms or complaints, since it controls the workload on people with simple decision-making,” he said.

He added: “The same approach does not work with PMOs because a project is made up of a complex set of decisions and each project is unique in scope, resourcing and delivery approach. A PMO has to understand projects to an adequate depth, to know how projects really fit together, how each delivers towards the objectives of the organization and whether the approach is appropriate.”

Victor Wong, Managing Consultant of LOC Consulting, said that they believe a successful PMO is 80 percent perspiration and 20 percent inspiration and that this split creates the environment for success. “There are several ways of implementing a PMO that does add value and it’s important to be mindful that ‘one size doesn’t fit all’,” he said, adding that an important part of any successful PMO is clear communication.

Victor Wong, Managing Consultant of LOC Consulting
Victor Wong, Managing Consultant of LOC Consulting

“Effective communication of the objectives of a PMO supported by practical and pragmatic collateral to enhance and align to the aims of the company can go a long way.  Some of these will be consistent and cohesive templates, e.g. PIDs, RAID logs, feasibility studies,” Wong said.

Rick Brenner, principal of Chaco Canyon Consulting of Cambridge, Massachusetts, said that the command-and-control approach to governance of organizational functions works so well for so many functions that some people expect it to work well for all. “It doesn’t,” he warned. “And among the functions least suited to command-and-control governance is project management and its partner, the Project Management Office.”

Brenner explained that understanding why command-and-control PMOs, and command-and-control Project Management – are ineffective requires an appreciation for the essence of projects. “Almost by definition, projects are unique. In any given organization, an activity that has never before been undertaken must be managed as a project,” he said. “Activities that are repeatedly undertaken are called ‘operations’. Manufacturing is an example of an operational activity. By contrast, designing and building a manufacturing plant—or even a section of a factory floor—is a project.”

Rick Brenner, principal of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Rick Brenner, principal of Chaco Canyon Consulting

He added: “Command-and-control works well for operations, because it’s possible to codify every step for every situation that might arise in a given operational activity. Such codification is impossible for a project, because by definition, ‘we’ve never done anything exactly like this project before’.”

Brenner said that, in the rush to reduce management headcount over the past 30 years, we have tried to govern projects as if they were operations. “We applied prescriptive management principles that grew out of the operational environment to one-of-a-kind projects, or to first-of-kind projects,” he said. “We developed procedures for projects, only to find that, because of the wide variety inherent in projects, the procedures grew so complex that project managers couldn’t find the guidance they needed in process documentation alone. The solution, we all hoped, was to introduce that help in the form of a command-and-control PMO.”

Brenner explained that this effort has failed. “It was doomed from the start, because prescriptive approaches can never cover the huge variety of situations that projects inherently present,” he said.

Like Brenner, Onions believes that a PMO that treats projects as a transaction through a gated process will be ineffective, because it does not have a proper grip on the wider purpose of the project or what is really happening on the ground. “If a PMO strictly enforces gated processes, then project manager attention will be diverted to admin work at the expense of work that has a direct bearing on the success of the project,” he said.

Onions explained: “When projects fail, the most common reasons are poorly understood goals and a lack of stakeholder involvement, as identified in the PwC Global PM Survey. Projects can pass a PMO governance process on the basis of having artifacts that look right, but they often cover up that the fundamentals of the project may not be right.” He added that the emphasis of project governance should shift to free project managers from work that is a burden to work that actively supports the project.

He advised that PMOs should focus more on:

  • Understanding the scope of projects in the portfolio and how they relate to together. Practices such as enterprise architecture can support this.
  • Encouraging more agile approaches to managing projects, with less process control and more active collaboration.
  • Tracking projects based on their goals rather than focusing on admin details and process.
  • Brokering connections between project managers on related projects to encourage collaboration.
  • Supporting projects in making key decisions and making sure the project managers are getting the right stakeholders involved.
  • Supporting the project manager in active risk mitigation, rather than just passive tracking of risks.

Brenner said that agile processes (Lean, SCRUM, etc.) appear to be presenting a workable alternative to command and control PMOs, though it is probably too soon to tell if they really are. “Agile approaches offer promise because they don’t attempt to prescribe at the level of detail attempted by their predecessors. Instead, they rely on the customer for guidance,” he said. “A similar revolution has occurred in military science. In combat, the modern reliance is not on specific orders issued by hierarchical command, but instead on communicating ‘commander’s intent’.”

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This report was originally published by NSAM sister publication Global Delivery Report.

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