Running With Scissors: Inflight Projects Without A PMO

If the challenge for business is to create a delivery environment that allows for experimentation, innovation, and creativity in a so-called ‘safe’ environment, then what happens to the ‘conventional’ PMO?

There is an oft-quoted phrase that putting convention aside is akin to running with scissors: without adequate safety and oversight, the risk of harm is high, be it unintentional, through carelessness, or because of undue haste.

As the Agile wave continues to gain momentum across project environments, the idea of putting project conventions to the side is very alluring to many high-functioning project professionals. Let’s be honest, often the greatest innovation – and quite often positive change – comes from people challenging well-established convention. Agile – as a response to the shortcomings of the traditional waterfall and iterative project delivery – has shown the profound effect that letting people run can have.

If the premise, then, is that organisations are better off allowing project people to innovate, experiment, and step outside the norm, then surely having a PMO that provides “convention” can’t be a good thing?

Our real-world view is that to a large degree unless the PMO is fit for purpose then this may be quite right i.e. the convention must support desire.

The Relevance of the PMO in a Changing Project Environment

The current challenge we see in a PMO is that it needs to create a delivery environment that allows projects to experiment, innovate, and create within an overall safe environment – ‘safe’ meaning that if the project does trip up, it (and the organisation) have essential safeguards in place to not land on the scissors and impale itself.

We could think of a PMO like a parent whose role is to nurture and educate its children in the family on the soft skills like ethics, morals and values, while they learn the hard skills like spelling and arithmetic. The parent must then support the children as they apply those skills as they grow and develop and – in many ways – outgrow their parents.

An alternative analogy might be to consider what happens in a tribe when convention either disappears or is seriously challenged because the environment changes.

What Happens When ‘Convention’ is Challenged?

If you’re a fan of reality shows like Survivor or classics like Lord of The Flies, then you’ll know the dynamics of tribalism come into play when a group of people find themselves in an artificially contrived or unfamiliar environment without the conventional norms.

Leadership, objectives, process, and outcomes become challenged, corrupted, and reprioritised, as the tribe continuously recalibrates as group dynamics change. Once the tribe settles into its various roles, often conflict will arise from the clash of convention with the goals of power, innovation, or change.

Take William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, in which a group of boys are brought together as the result of a plane crash, leaving them parentless and therefore without guidance and development. This is an environment where running with scissors becomes the norm:

“… the primary theme is the conflict between two competing impulses that exist within all human beings: the instinct to live by rules (convention), act peacefully, follow moral commands (culture), and value the good of the group (community) against the instinct to gratify one’s immediate desires, act violently to obtain supremacy over others, and enforce one’s will (self- gratification). This conflict might be expressed in a number of ways: civilization vs. savagery, order vs. chaos, reason vs. impulse, law vs. anarchy, or the broader heading of good vs. evil….”
Source: Spark Notes

While we’re not necessarily suggesting that project environments go to this extreme (though we have seen some challenging project environments, as yet none have resorted to the tribe chant of “Kill the Pig”!) it’s a valuable allegory for associating the instinct of civilisation (or in the PMO case, convention) as ‘good’ and the instinct of savagery with ‘evil’. Golding’s narrative indicates that moral behaviour in many cases is forced upon the individual rather than a natural expression of individuality. Left to their own devices and without relevant oversight, people will revert naturally to cruelty, savagery and barbarism.

Setting aside the more extreme observations above if we apply this to organisations generally, letting projects ‘run with scissors’ and without the framework from the PMO to guide and support them (convention), projects will naturally fight for their own survival, do things “their’ way, cannibalise each other, and have little to no regard for the impact or consequences for the rest of the organisation.

The Needs of the Project Tribe and the Evolving Role of PMO

The PMO has a tangible role to play in creating an environment that supports individual freedom balanced with the interests of the organisation itself. A simple example of this would be looking at the core project phases of initiation, delivery and realisation.

Initiation: Understanding that speed is a major driver a PMO would do well to create processes that allow rapid project initiation whilst at the same time having checks in place to ensure the projects are on the right track from the outset. An example might be seed money with clear definition of success to progress thereafter (some might call this “fail fast” management).

Delivery: Encouraging the experts to look at the project and decide what is the most appropriate delivery approach (methodology) to deliver the project. This means a PMO can provide a suite of tools and templates to support the delivery but is not prescriptive on the delivery approach (you could call this empowerment). Here the PMOs role is to ensure the right people are involved and facilitate the process.

Realisation: Here the PMO’s role is to provide insight and accountability for the benefits to be realised by the project. Not all projects can be done at the same time so the PMO also needs to manage prioritisation of the competing projects in line with the organisation goals, capability and capacity.

The Delicate Balance of Control and Freedom

For many organisations, there is a considerable balancing act between giving projects their head, i.e. letting PM’s run with scissors at all times, versus bringing projects into a controlled environment, which is set up and managed by the PMO.

There is no right or wrong answer: The key message is that we should encourage and enable each project to define how best to deliver whilst at the same time provide an overarching framework that supports the organisation. This must be balanced with respect for the other project activity and demands that are going on around any one project.

If we don’t, projects will work around the framework and the risk of self-impalement is higher. To avoid a chaotic environment akin to that of Lord of the Flies, it is better that this is done with a semblance of order and control that a fit-for-purpose PMO can bring.

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