How To Avoid PMO Stagnation
Interestingly, one of the largest threats to a High Value PMO is a fundamentally human trait: Normalisation and Adaptation.
In essence – even a High Value PMO can fall stagnant. Over time services become bland and expected, or worse, services become disconnected from client needs.
The context of your PMO changes each year, each month, and even each week. New executives, new projects and new organisational strategies all influence the effectiveness and alignment of your PMO’s value offering.
Stagnation isn’t a surprise to anyone… that is of course until it sneaks up on you.
Thankfully the High Value PMO has a key counter-strategy to stagnation: Learning.
The Counter Strategy: The Learning PMO
We usually love to do it.
But, we usually don’t love the work involved to get it.
The key question here is how do we embed learning into our teams, and then, maximise the payoff of doing so?
Now, if you have been around projects for a while then you will likely be well versed in the idea of a ‘lesson learned’. For those of you that haven’t been in projects for a while, here’s a quick summary: When projects get to a key closure point (whether that be the end of an iteration, a stage or the entire project), the project team will sit back and reflect on what went well, and what didn’t. The idea is that these reflections and learnings can then be passed forward to future projects to improve their chances of success.
The issue is – people aren’t doing it.
Now your mileage may vary, but from what I’ve seen across the industry, at most, 35% of PMOs are asking their projects to capture lessons. Then only 2-3% of PMOs are actually sharing those lessons forward.
And 0% (i.e., none) of the PMOs are doing their own reflections.
Now if you are anything like me, then this may raise a few questions in your mind, like:
- What are the other 32% of PMOs doing with those project lessons they are asking be projects to capture? (Hint – they just file them away), and
- What’s the point of going through those reflection processes if none of the lessons are ever seen again? (this is a very good question!).
But perhaps the most important question here is,
- How do we better learn from the past?
And this is the essence of what we are about to discuss.
Unfortunately, there is no secret sauce to embedding learning into our organisation. What we can do, however, is create the right frame, the right context and the right conversations. If you put these three elements into place you will maximise your chances of counteracting PMO stagnation.
The Right Frame: Proof of Learning
There is a crucial idea that we must embed in our PMOs (and our projects too!). Simply put:
Writing a lesson down doesn’t mean that we’ve learnt it.
What I’m saying here is that Identification =/= Proof.
Just because we sat back and said:
“We could have done XYZ, which would have created a better result.”
is no guarantee that you or your successors won’t repeat the same mistake in the future.
A better frame for our Learning effort is one that creates a separation between identification and learning. I often term these a Lesson Logged vs a Lesson Learned. But feel free to adjust the language as you see fit. What is important here is the frame.
Learning requires action, and ultimately, learning requires proof.
The Right Context: Fund Experimentation, Fund Growth
In order to have our staff learn, they need to be able to experiment. This requires funding and time.
I should be able to end discussion on this element here, because we all know we should be doing this already. We all know that we should be encouraging our teams to experiment and pursue new opportunities.
The problem is – most of us aren’t doing it.
So, here is your gentle reminder that creating space for, and providing the funding to experiment is important when fending off stagnation. Allow your staff to try new things and then back them when they fail.
A truly High Value PMO sets the following as goals for its staff:
- Increase the quality of PMO services,
- Decrease the pain PMO clients feel in accessing the services, and
- Reduce PMO effort to offer the services.
…and then, it lets them run towards them.
And yes, this means budgeting for experimentation.
Reinforce this budget by taking a page out of 3M’s famous playbook. Allocate a portion of time every week, month or quarter for experimentation and innovation.
For years organisations have battled with how to be more innovative. There’s no secret here. Fund it, allocate time to it, then let your staff run.
Tip For Budgeting For Experimentation
There’s no reason you need to call your budget allocation ‘Experiments’.
‘Innovation’ is a fairly safe budget line, or for organisations too conservative for Innovation, try ‘Operational Improvement’.
The Right Conversations: Your Learning Journeys
I’m not going to claim credit for this idea, but unfortunately, I can’t recall where I came across it. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t share it with you as it’s a technique that I’ve well and truly adopted into my toolbox.
But, before I share the technique with you, let me first ask you – how many times have you sat in a lessons review meeting, bored out of your mind, being asked the same old questions:
- What went well?
- What could we have done better?
Typically, these are framed against a series of categories. Time, Cost, Quality, Governance, and the like.
Have you ever sat there and wondered if there’s a better way?
Well, there is. It is Learning Journeys.
The theory here is simple. We humans have communicated through story for as long as we have been human. Tap into this tradition by collaboratively telling the story of your PMO over the last week, month or quarter.
Rather than trying to remember what went well, create an interactive, evolving plotline. To do so, create a shared space for your team with a simple straight line.
Something like the below.
Then as the month progresses, encourage your team to tell the PMO story on your interactive plotline. As an example, maybe you are 10 days into the month and your plotline is shaping up like the following.
I’m sure you can see the power of this. No more pulling lessons from people like you would pull teeth.
This plotline tells the story of your PMO. Its highs, its lows. Ultimately, as you progress you will be identifying lessons as you are experiencing them.
Here’s a few tips on Learning Journeys:
- When first introducing this practice, there is value in prompting and eliciting plot points in your daily standups or similar regular team meetings.
- Toward the end of the story period, you can hold a session to translate the plot into potential learnings. You can then build a plan to implement these learnings and compare your current journey against previous learnings to confirm they were in fact learned.
A Final Point on Stagnation
Avoiding stagnation is about ensuring your PMO continues to create and offer ongoing value for its client base. Learning is the key mechanic to counter stagnation. However, it’s worth noting that a High Value PMO should also be regularly reviewing and updating its fit between client needs and its associated service offering (as a minimum, every 6 months).