Focus and the 72% of PMOs at risk?

Nov 29, 2018 · 5 min read

Data suggests that 72% of PMOs are being called into question by senior executives. Clearly these executives don’t perceive value in what the PMO is doing. Now, the project portfolio exists to deliver business-value-oriented projects and programs, so this brings us to some really important questions:

  • Why isn’t every single project aligned with strategy? (Aligned projects are 57% more likely to deliver business value)
  • Why do I never have enough resources for my projects?
  • Why is “the business” frustrated with the project delivery organization?
  • Why do so many project teams get frustrated with their business “customers”?
  • Why is there a picture of Bono at the top of this blog?

These are the important and urgent questions we will answer in today’s blog.

Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

This is a blog about focus, and I reckon the U2 song I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For has a hidden message for PMOs on the subject.

In the song, Bono laments how he has climbed mountains, kissed lips, held hands and generally wandered around willy-nilly without any specific focus. And guess what…

He still hasn’t found what he’s looking for!

That’s the thing about focus. If you don’t have it, you don’t achieve your goals. Your resources are spread too thin. Your attention wanders.

And you get the impression from Bono’s rasping voice that he’s frustrated. He really wants to find what he’s looking for, but…. well, he just can’t find it, poor lamb!

Resources, Frustration and Focus

A very wise consultant told me last week that his customers always complain about having too few resources. “They don’t have a resource problem,” he quipped. “They have a focus problem!”

With that statement, this whole blog was born. What a great way to put it!

Your portfolio of projects is all about enacting change in the business. If you’re trying to achieve too much — if you lack focus, in other words — you will achieve nothing. You won’t achieve enough in any one area to really make a difference and this is one main reason for tension between “the business” and project delivery teams.

The business always wants — no, needs — more business impact, but the delivery team pushes back because they don’t have enough resources.

Project teams are frustrated with the business because they can never decide what they want. They are forever changing their minds and then — the ultimate insult this — they lose interest in the project and start yammering for something else!

The root cause of a lot of this frustration on both sides is a lack of focus.

This happens at both the portfolio (and program) level and at the project level. Let’s look at each in turn.

Project Prioritization and Focus

At the portfolio (and program) level, focus is about prioritization.

It’s not easy, picking a portfolio of projects. Every stakeholder has a list of things they want or need yet the organization doesn’t have sufficient resources to deliver everything. This is as close to a “law of physics” as you get in organizations.

If the business doesn’t make the “tough decisions,” and make them explicitly and with strong stakeholder support, then the key projects will be starved of resources as those resources are pulled away to deal with less important projects. Now this is a really simple concept and every senior stakeholder can get their head around it.

So why is it hard to do?

Because there is no common understanding amongst the key stakeholders of what “important” means. Each person, each department, has its own definition. As such, each has a separate and distinct “focus” to what they are trying to do.

As a result, the project team gets asked to deliver too many projects. Moreover, if you’re delivering projects, it feels like you’re being pushed and pulled all over the place when really you’re just moving from one area of focus to another.

The result is frustrated business stakeholders and frustrated project delivery teams.

The answer is to start with a good project prioritization process. I have written on suitable project prioritization methods elsewhere, so I won’t dwell on it here.

Suffice it to say that, if you can get the stakeholders to agree on what the focus of the whole organization is — the strategy, if you like — life gets a lot easier. You can focus resources on the highest-impact projects so that the project teams can really get their teeth into them leading to happier project teams.

“The business” is also happier. Stakeholders may not be getting their own projects done, but they were part of a structured process that set a direction and they were part of the team that picked projects to “support” that direction.

They understand WHY they are doing the projects they are doing and they have bought into supporting those projects.

Sounds simple, but it’s quite hard to pull off successfully. Spreadsheets and the prioritization tools in PPM systems typically fall-short. In fact, recent research suggests that AHP-based project prioritization is one of only two methods that is suitable for prioritizing projects.

Project-level Focus

One side-benefit of a good project prioritization process is that it tends to focus the mind on the “business case” for each project. I don’t simply mean “what’s the return on investment” (in fact ROI is a poor way to pick projects).

The business case for a project will typically hinge around the business benefits the project is intended to deliver and how those benefits contribute to the strategy of a business. This should form the focus of your project delivery activity right down to the task level.

This is kind of interesting. This means that you can quantify (AHP would be a good tool for this too!) the impact of each user requirement and scope change-request against those business goals. You now have a tool to maintain “focus” within a project and to align activity around delivering the business goals.

At an even more detailed level, focus during task-delivery can have a huge impact. In this webinar, Mike Hannan of Fortezza consulting, talks about how “focus on task completion” is one of the main tools he uses to dramatically increase productivity. His rule is pretty simple; give your team tasks and then give them the peace and quiet they need to deliver their tasks… without interruption.

Mike often creates signals (a flag, a green light, etc.) that team members display to let other team members know that “I am in delivery mode — please don’t disturb me.” And this works (Mike, as I recall it, guarantees a 20% increase in task productivity in 20 days, or something similarly dramatic).

I have even tried it on my kids and it really does work!

U2 Can Get What You Want!

We started with U2 bemoaning how they were not getting what they wanted, but with the song “All I Want Is You” I suspect the old rockers’ success rate will be higher! They have a goal and are really focused on that goal.

So, if you too (U2… get it?) want to get a good result, get yourself some focus. Sort out prioritization-level focus using an AHP-based project prioritization process (which is simply best practice) and focus on giving your teams the space and direction to focus on effective and efficient delivery.

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