Failing PMO? Follow the Wisdom of the Shepherd

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I came across a plea for help on the Association for Project Management discussion board. The message boiled down to this;

“Help! My PMO is failing…”

It’s a common cry, yet one of the answers was most uncommon. It seems that the answer to a failing PMO is the Wisdom of the Shepherd.

Know your flock

The response came from a chap called Chris Walters. He used a metaphor of the Wise Shepherd to address some key issues and I’d like to expand on his ideas here.

First, a wise shepherd knows that to count his flock, he has to bring them together. How many sheep do you have? Are they all yours?

For a PMO, the basics are, “What’s the portfolio and what’s my role?” I’ve written on the role of the PMO before, but the point here is that you need to know what you’ve got before you can begin to manage it.

Are they the right sheep?

A wise shepherd knows that some sheep are good at producing wool. Others are great eaters (apologies to any vegetarians out there!) If you want great wool, you wouldn’t have sheep on the farm that deliver meat-but-little-wool.

In PMO-land, this converts into looking at your portfolio. If your projects aren’t aligned with corporate goals, you will not deliver value. Executive sponsorship will decline and project failure will increase.

Regular readers will know that I bang on about this all the time, so today, I’ll exercise restraint and point you at this page if you want more project prioritization inspiration: Ultimate Guide To Project Prioritization.

Time for the vet?

Are any of your sheep sick? A wise shepherd knows that you need to keep the flock healthy.

Now some sheep just have a mild case of pasture bloat (yeah, really!); a few spoons full of vegetable oil and Flossy will be gambolling over the hills in no time at all. Others less fortunate sheep contract foot-and-mouth (look away now if you’re squeamish) and there’s only one way to stop that disease from spreading.

Similarly, some projects can be fixed simply by tweaking its resourcing, applying good process or by reengaging executive sponsors. Others should be ended swiftly and mercifully.

Now, the parallel between sickness in a flock of sheep and a portfolio of projects isn’t as daft as it seems. A “sick” project can be contagious. It sucks resources from other projects leaving them weak and vulnerable. It demoralizes the team and that illness travels virus-like from project-to-project.

Of course, a good portfolio governance process will constantly prioritize projects based on their alignment with goals AND on their “health”. Prioritization and governance go hand-in-hand.

Like a shepherd and his vet.

Is your field too small?

A wise shepherd knows that you can’t put too many sheep into a field. If you do, they won’t have enough to eat and some may die of hunger, disease will spread more quickly and the grass will get all churned up. And let’s not even talk about waste products…


Well, it’s the same with a project portfolio. If you have too many projects competing for the same budget and resources, some will fail due to lack of support. The weak projects will suck resource from the stronger ones putting even the best projects in jeopardy.

There’s no easy way to make a field bigger, so you need to have the right number of sheep for your field. In the same way, you have to prioritize projects and pick the strongest ones for your portfolio.

A real-life Wise Shepherd

None of this is new, of course, but it works.

For example, one PMO client of mine counted his sheep. He had around 80 projects, 60 were listed as Top Priority yet 30 were obsolete. Of the rest, there were many “stovepipe” projects, “knee jerk” projects and “pet” projects. There was little consistency to the flock and overall, they delivered poor returns.

Clearly, his first job was to stock up with the right sheep, but it might be counter-productive to kill the half-grown sheep in the field. He made the decision to let the in-flight projects complete, and replace them with well-aligned projects during the forthcoming budgeting cycle.

He did this through a well-structured project prioritization process, but that isn’t all. Because he has strong buy-in to his prioritization model, it’s trivially simple for him to do a monthly health-check, comparing the projects in the portfolio with new requests coming in and with the backlog. If one of those other projects is better, he can tweak the portfolio and keep the flock healthy.

Moreover, with clear priorities, when resources do get stretched, it’s clear which projects to support. The stronger sheep, the ones that will deliver the best price at market, are protected and nurtured.

So far, this has all been about “doing the right thing”. What about “doing things right”?

Well, he addressed that too, but sorting that out is a significant “change program”. Standardizing processes, training staff, “selling” the PMO to PMs, making sure you’re perceived as adding value rather than as an inconvenient overhead; it all takes time. Usually it’s lots of time.

Sorting out the prioritization process, in contrast, was something that could be completed in a month or two.

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