Voices on Project Management

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Voices on Project Management offers insights, tips, advice and personal stories from project managers in different regions and industries. The goal is to get you thinking, and spark a discussion. So, if you read something that you agree with--or even disagree with--leave a comment.

About this Blog


View Posts By:

Cameron McGaughy
Marian Haus
Lynda Bourne
Lung-Hung Chou
Bernadine Douglas
Kevin Korterud
Conrado Morlan
Peter Tarhanidis
Mario Trentim
Jen Skrabak
David Wakeman
Roberto Toledo
Vivek Prakash
Cyndee Miller
Shobhna Raghupathy
Wanda Curlee
Rebecca Braglio
Rex Holmlin
Christian Bisson

Recent Posts

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PMO of the Year Winner Calls Out Executive Support

Less Really Is More When It Comes to Yogurt — and Project Portfolios

How To Express A Project Manager's ROI

By Dave Wakeman

I spend a lot of time focusing on value and ROI. For a project manager, it's often a challenge to understand how to communicate your role in terms of value or ROI. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

The fact is that without strong project management and project principles in place, most projects wouldn’t come close to realizing any ROI or creating value for their organizations.

So how can project managers begin thinking and expressing their success and impact in terms of value? Here are a few ways:

1. It isn’t about actions, it’s about outcomes.

It can be tough to think in terms of outcomes with all of the various requirements built into your project’s plan. Or with a sponsor sitting over your shoulder asking about every minute detail.

But your goal is to produce a project that creates value for your organization and client. You don’t do that with a list of activities you have completed. You do that with the outcomes those activities produce as a whole.

To begin to turn your thinking around, instead of stating the tasks you’ve completed, start stating your accomplishments like this:

“Based on our objective to create a new drilling platform that has the following functions, we have successfully created the framework for the platform and have integrated these three features into the framework. We are on schedule to finish the remaining features within our predicted timeframe.”

2. Ask questions based on intended impact.

Too many project managers find themselves in environments where their input isn’t desired, their thoughts aren’t respected, and they feel reluctant to ask questions.

That’s a terrible situation. And, if it’s a common experience, I’d advise you to put down this article and go find a new job, because you deserve better than that.

If you’re merely failing to ask good questions, you need to get over that right away. Questions empower you as a leader. 

The questions you ask should be directed toward the intended impact of the project on the stakeholders, the sponsor and the organization. So ask strong questions like:

  • “What will this project mean to the stakeholders?”
  • “Why is this project being prioritized right now?”
  • “What should we be on the lookout for as possible challenges to the project’s success?

These kinds of questions will empower you with two things: knowledge to make better decisions within your project and the context to explain and communicate those decisions to your team and key stakeholders.

3. Measure your work in a meaningful way.

In so many businesses, we hear about data and measurements.

What does much of it mean? Not really a lot, in too many instances.

To refocus your project management efforts and maximize your ability to talk in terms of the value of your projects and your leadership, you have to measure the outcomes in a meaningful way.

Here are some examples:

  • Because of these improvements in processes and decision-making, we saved 5 percent on costs and came in 3 percent earlier than expected.
  • By making the decision to fast-track this part of the project, we were able to free up these resources, and that enabled us to realize a 10-percent gain in productivity.

The key here is to make sure you focus on making things meaningful and measurable. Being fast or cheap is one thing, but being better, faster and cheaper is what counts. 

By the way, I write a weekly newsletter that focuses on strategy, value, and performance. If you enjoyed this piece, you will really enjoy the weekly newsletter. Make sure you never miss it! Sign up here or send me an email at dave@davewakeman.com! 


Posted by David Wakeman on: November 01, 2015 11:18 PM | Permalink | Comments (9)

PMO FAQs: Frequently Avoided Questions About PMOs

Categories: Best Practices, PMOs, Strategy

Organizations exist in all shapes and sizes, which means there is a wide range of project management needs to be fulfilled by standards, processes and best practices. In order to cope with that challenge, some organizations implement project management offices (PMOs).

PMI’s Pulse of the Profession: PMO Frameworks describes types of PMOs and their characteristics. Moreover, there are plenty of books and research on this topic (see Brian Hobbs and Peter Taylor, for example). However, despite PMO’s good references, detailed implementation and well-intentioned frameworks, organizations continue to question the value of these offices.

I recently came across four multinational organizations that killed their PMOs entirely. Although I believe these decisions did more harm than good, it is unquestionable that PMOs have to reinvent themselves. That’s why I compiled a list Frequently Avoided Questions that should be answered with honesty right from the start:

  1. Does your organization really need a PMO?
  2. What is the unique value proposition of your PMO?
  3. Do you have a business model for your PMO?
  4. Who are the clients of your PMO?
  5. How are you going to measure the impact of your PMO?

Answering these questions is not an easy task. In order to answer, “Yes, we need a PMO,” you have to understand organizational strategy, structure and culture. 

  • Strategy
  • Structure
    • Project-oriented organizations are more suitable to PMOs because support functions are designed to improve projects’ performance. Matrix organizations pose different challenges to PMOs because there is a need to balance operations and projects. Functional organizations are not PMO-friendly due to silos and specialization.
  • Culture
    • Change management is critical in PMO implementations. Some organizational cultures would simply target a PMO as an “anomalous cell” to be purged. If that’s the case, don’t even try to implement a PMO.

If you understand the organizational contexts of strategy, structure and culture and your answer is still, “Yes, we need a PMO,” it is time to define what type of PMO (questions 2, 3 and 4) to create. Performance measurements and KPIs are part of answering question 5. After working through those questions, we can finally craft and execute a plan.

But I get ahead of myself: I’ll address these topics in my next few blog posts. Don’t miss them! And please, leave your comments and suggestions below.

And by the way: Visit PMI’s Knowledge Shelf to learn more about PMOs.

Posted by Mario Trentim on: October 26, 2015 01:02 PM | Permalink | Comments (11)

5 Things Unsuccessful Portfolio Managers Do

By Jen Skrabak, PMP, PfMP

I am amazed that so many projects and programs (and by extension, portfolios) are still so challenged. Forty-four percent of projects are unsuccessful, and we waste $109 million for each $1 billion in project expenditures, according to the 2015 edition of PMI’s Pulse of the Profession.

One solution that the report identifies is mature portfolio management processes. With that in mind, I’ve come up with a list of five things that unsuccessful portfolio managers do—and what they should focus on doing instead.

1.  Worry about things they can’t change.

Unsuccessful portfolio managers worry about the past or dwell on problems outside their immediate influence. Successful portfolio managers learn from the past and move on. Sometimes, failures turn into lessons that create the foundation for future growth and opportunity.

Portfolio managers should stay focused on what can we influence, negotiate and communicate, as well as what we can start, stop and sustain. Every month or quarter, assess the processes, programs and projects in your span of control. Decide which to start, stop and sustain, and develop action plans around those decisions (including dates, resources required and collaborators).

2.  Give up when things get too hard.

It may be easy to throw in the towel when conditions become challenging. But the hallmark of a good portfolio manager is the ability to find solutions.

Sometimes, our immediate reaction to a proposal is to think the timeframes or goals are not possible. However, when we get the team together to focus on what can be done, we come up with creative solutions. It’s necessary to gather the facts and do the analysis instead of jumping to conclusions.

3.  Set unattainable goals.

There’s a difference between a stretch goal and an impossible one. Sometimes, projects or programs don’t start off as unattainable (see #2 above) or undoable, but they become so.

Although we may be good at starting projects or programs, there’s not enough emphasis on stopping them. The environment (internal or external) may have changed, key resources may no longer be available, organizational priorities may have shifted, or the business buy-in might take too long. Rather than calling attention to the situation and recommending a “no go,” unsuccessful portfolio managers tend to press on with blinders. This wastes time and resources.

Once I was managing a $500 million portfolio of international expansion programs and projects. The portfolio sponsor told me, “I want to know if we’re falling off the cliff.” Although we hope our programs or projects never get to that point, his words did clearly specify the role I was supposed to play.

4.  Stay in your comfort zone.

It’s easy to create a portfolio in which the potential for risk and failure is low. But that means we may be missing out on opportunities for innovation or great returns. Advocating change in your portfolio requires taking calculated risks that you can learn from or will pay off in the longer term. The successful portfolio manager will advocate taking good risks (aka opportunities) instead of blindly going forward with bad risks.

Taking advantage of opportunities is the key to transformation and reinvention. It’s essential to any organization that wants to survive long-term. For example, who could’ve predicted just a few years ago that Amazon, Netflix and even YouTube would become rivals to TV and movie studios in providing original entertainment? This required calculated risk taking.

5.  Forget about balance.

Balance is important, whether it’s balancing your portfolio or balancing your work and your life. If you’re not performing your best because you’re not taking care of yourself, it’s going to affect your portfolio. Especially with technology blending our work and personal time, it’s sometimes hard to think about balance. One survey showed that we’re checking our phones up to 150 times per day. But remember the basics: eat well, exercise, take time to de-stress, and set aside time for yourself, family and friends. 

What do you notice unsuccessful portfolio managers do, and what would you recommend instead? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Posted by Jen Skrabak on: October 10, 2015 11:12 PM | Permalink | Comments (14)

Agility vs. SOPs: Finding the Right Balance

By Lynda Bourne

Organizational agility is being promoted as the silver bullet to create value and eliminate project failures. However, decades of research show that factors like methodologies and standard operating procedures (SOPs) are essential underpinnings of consistent success.

Are these mutually exclusive propositions? Or is there a more subtle answer to this apparent contradiction?

First a bit of background: There’s decades of research looking at various maturity models, ranging from the old CMM (now CMMI) to PMI’s OPM3. The consistent findings are that investing in creating organizational maturity demonstrates a strong return on investment. Developing and using a pragmatic methodology suited to the needs of the organization reduces failure, increases value generation, and outcomes become more consistent and predictable. These findings are supported with studies in the quality arena, including Six Sigma, which consistently show that good SOPs reduce undesirable variability and enhance quality.

But given that every methodology consists of a series of SOPs, where’s the room for agile? In fact, you can get the best of both worlds by embedding organizational agility into your procedures, methodologies and management.  

Solid Standard Operating Procedures

Getting your standard operating procedures right is a good starting point. SOPs should define and assist project teams in the performance of standard processes. SOPs also should provide templates, guidelines and other elements that make doing the task easier and quicker.

Key success factors for SOPs are:

  • Team members need to know there is a SOP and when to apply it
  • SOPs need to be easy to locate
  • The SOP must be in the right format and meaningful
  • The information must be accurate and up-to-date
  • The SOP must reflect current work practices: the what, how and why
  • The SOP must be lean, light and scalable so it can be used in different circumstances
  • The SOP must demonstrate a clear purpose and benefit (saving time, quality, safety, etc.)
  • Leaders must be seen using the SOP
  • SOPs must be consistent across the organization
  • Team members must have the opportunity to improve the SOP, embedding lessons learned and agility in the process

The enemy of useful SOPs is a dictatorial unit focused on imposing its view of how work should be performed in a bureaucratic and dogmatic way.

Flexible Methodologies

Methodologies combine various SOPs and other requirements into a framework focused on achieving project success. A good methodology must also be lean, light and scalable so it is fit for use in different circumstances. Every project undertaken by an organization is by definition unique, therefore the methodology used by the organization must allow appropriate flexibility—one size does not fit all, ever! 

The PMBOK® Guide describes it this way: “Good practice does not mean that the knowledge described should always be applied uniformly to all projects; the organization and/or the project management team is responsible for determining what is appropriate for any given project.” A good methodology incorporates agility by including processes for scaling and adjusting the methodology to fit each project.

Management Agility

The final element in blending agility with sensible processes is an agile approach to management. But agile doesn’t mean anarchy. It means the flexible application of the right processes to achieve success.

The so-called military doctrine of command and control is outdated. The rigid, process-oriented concept was replaced by the idea of “auftragstaktik,” or directive command, in the Prussian army following its defeat by Napoleon at the battles of Jena and Auerstedt in 1806.

The core concept of auftragstaktik is “bounded initiative.” Provided people within the organization have proper training and the organizational culture is strong, the leader’s role is to clearly outline his/her intentions and rationale. Subordinate personnel can then formulate their own plan of action for the tasks they are allocated and design appropriate responses to achieve the leader’s objectives based on their understanding of the actual situation.

But the process is not random. SOPs define how each specific task should be accomplished, and bounded initiative allows team members to optimize the SOP for the specific circumstances to best support the leader’s overall intent.

Helmuth von Moltke, chief of staff of the Prussian army for 30 years, believed in detailed planning and rigorous preparation. But he also accepted that change was inevitable, famously saying, No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.”

Projects are no different! Both the methodology and the project management plan need to encourage bounded agility to lock in opportunities and mitigate problems. Effective military leaders were doing this more than 150 years before the Agile Manifesto was published. It’s time for project management to catch up!

How much bounded initiative does your methodology allow?

Posted by Lynda Bourne on: October 05, 2015 11:37 PM | Permalink | Comments (14)

From Birth to Adulthood: How to Mature Portfolio Management Practices

By Wanda Curlee

When we talk about project, program and portfolio management, the word “maturity” often comes up. But with respect to portfolio management, the newest of these three disciplines, what does “maturity” really mean?

For starters, it means time. Simply aquiring a portfolio management tool doesn’t align the portfolio to the strategy, as Dr. Mark Mullaly noted in a projectmanagement.com blog post earlier this year. Alignment typically doesn’t happen overnight or even in one year. Implementation of strategy normally comes with organizational change, and most humans do not like to change.

Here’s a look at a typical portfolio management developmental process.

The Early Years

Immature portfolio management practices are normally less than three years old. I think of this as the toddler stage. Getting to the next stage of maturity takes a committed C-suite that believes that a portfolio manager can balance the checkbook while delivering strategic benefits.

Remember, no company or individual has a blank check to fund all projects and programs. There must be mutual trust between the portfolio manager(s) and the C-suite. The C-suite must provide the portfolio manager with the authority and support needed to get real traction.

Traction should follow from a defined governance structure, rudimentary metrics, and programs and projects adhering to the governance structure. As Andy Jordan notes, without successful projects, portfolio management will not succeed. Project leaders need to realize that the portfolio manager drives the organization’s strategic execution.

Project managers may see this as an attack on their independence or worry that a project will be cancelled, Mr. Jordan adds. With a cancellation, a project manager and team may be placed on the bench. Organizational shifts are uncomfortable.

Throughout this state, it is imperative that portfolio managers demonstrate value to project and program managers, according to Mr. Jordan. One way to do this is to constantly communicate to these practitioners that they must see everything they do through the lens of the customers’ wants and needs.

Growing Pains

The next step is what I call the teenager stage. This phase takes between three and five years, during which—as any parent knows—rebellion can happen.

An important way to avoid rebellion is by making sure project and program managers see themselves as invaluable. They have the ability to see opportunities and risks that the portfolio manager cannot see. The portfolio manager must create this dialogue, which is part of maturing in the teenage phase.

Throughout this phase, the portfolio manager is working to overcome the remaining naysayers while tweaking the process, procedures, governance and metrics. This will take time as well, just as it takes a teenager time to mature into a young adult.


The final phase is, of course, full maturity. This is not a time for stagnation—if that takes hold it will be the death of the portfolio management team. Stagnation means the portfolio isn’t nimble or reactive to change—the opposite of agility.

Mature portfolio management means calibrating the portfolio as frequently as necessary to fit a changing strategy. Strategy today is not the strategy of yesteryear. Depending on the industry, the strategy may change every year. If there’s upheaval in the industry, strategy could change even quicker.

Can you fathom Apple updating its strategic goals only every three to five years? I can’t either. Reaching maturity for the portfolio manager means truly understanding the industry, becoming entrenched with the C-suite, making changes to the portfolio management process to increase delivery to the stakeholders. It means being agile enough to understand that change is needed.

During the process of portfolio maturation, the portfolio manager needs to consider portfolio rebalancing. This is a relatively new concept, and it was discussed during a breakout session at PMI’s PMO Symposium last year. 

The presenter suggested reviewing the portfolio mix at least quarterly to ensure strategic alignment. The larger point is that, as portfolio management matures, project and program managers should become more comfortable in re-estimating on a quarterly basis. By doing so, those projects and programs that are under-running may give back dollars to the portfolio.

Why is this important? First, it means that excess funds can be used for any projects and programs that are overrunning. But more importantly, these funds can be used to start new projects and programs to deliver increased benefits.

Posted by Wanda Curlee on: September 23, 2015 08:40 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Nobody can be exactly like me. Even I have trouble doing it."

- Tallulah Bankhead