Never Mind PMO Of The Year – This Is The PMO Of The Century

From the Game Theory in Management Blog
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Modelling Business Decisions and their Consequences

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I know what the ultimate Program Management Office is. It produces winners on a consistent basis, and is probably the closest to a pure meritocracy that any organization has ever, or will ever attain. Any American can join, but overseas GTIM Nation needn’t worry – analogous PMOs exist worldwide. Through this PMO, winning strategies and tactics are truly advanced, with no time given for unproven theories or modes of operation.

The organization I’m talking about? The United States Chess Federation.

“Wait just one minute, Michael!” I can hear GTIM Nation say. “The USCF isn’t a Program Management Office at all! It is, in fact, a collection of people who play a board game, albeit a very sophisticated, ancient board game.”

Fair points, all. But consider: what is a Program Office? Is it not a collection of PMs who manage projects sharing a common theme?

“Chess isn’t a project.”

Perhaps, but projects do share many characteristics with games (Game Theory in Management, anyone?). Besides, each game is unique, with a definitive beginning and ending date (time). Its scope is agreed to prior to its start (checkmate the opponent), and resources are dedicated to it.

But in my opinion what makes the USCF the ultimate PMO is the fact that its members’ value is definitively set, and on a purely objective basis: their score. You can be tall or short, skinny or rotund, beautiful or plain, well dressed or scruffy, and it makes absolutely no difference: if you win chess games, your score goes up. If you lose them, your score goes down. Period.

Compare and contrast this refreshingly objective evaluation basis to what happens in Project Management space. We all know of contractor companies that win large contract awards despite having massive overruns and lengthy delays in their histories. These guys lose, and lose big, but never seem to pay any kind of long-term penalty for doing so. Similarly, there are Project Management consulting organizations that deliver substandard services while charging inflated salaries, and yet, somehow, stay in business. Conversely, smaller, less influential contractors, with winning records, are often shut out from even competing for larger procurements.

Then there are the strategies and tactics that go into specific games projects. In the PM world, so-called experts can sit on the sidelines, pushing baseless assertions about the need to, say, time-phase Estimates to Complete, and how this “analysis” is absolutely critical to proper resource assignment, and print the codex of their idle speculations into guidance documents, and never pay any price for their error. Did any – any – of these people actually manage a project where the time-phased ETC prevented an overrun? No? Again, compare and contrast this to Chess Life magazine, which lists hundreds of Master and Grandmaster-level games. The reader can actually see which strategies and tactics worked, and which ones failed.

Chess players within GTIM Nation know that chess openings – canned strategies for the first 5-15 moves – have their own names, like Ruy Lopez, or the King’s Gambit. Indeed, virtually every named opening has at least several variants, each with their own name. Back when I was playing tournament chess, no player who had failed to commit to memory at least three openings (one when playing white, one when playing black and the opponent opened with 1. P-K4, and another when the opponent opened with 1. P-Q4), each with at least four variants (for those not counting, what was needed was a minimum of twelve game templates, played through around the tenth move) had any kind of chance. On the PM side, we have our own set of must-know canned strategies. The manager who does not know the difference between a Work Breakdown Structure and an Organizational Breakdown Structure, or isn’t familiar with how schedule logic can’t define a critical path within a network if most of the activities have been constrained, isn’t going to (or at least shouldn’t) last long in the PM profession.

In chess, winning strategies remain, and losing ones are abandoned. In Project Management, risk management is a multi-billion dollar per year industry, and yet has no real record of ensuring, or even aiding, project success. Ditto with communications management, or any of a dozen other, in my opinion, highly dubious assertions made in the theoretical quarter. These canned strategies simply seem to hang around and eventually become part of the conventional wisdom without ever having been shown to be the proximate, or even material cause of project success. At the risk of pushing my analogy past the breaking point, chess masters don’t have to deal with so-called communications experts, extolling them to keep their team mates (“stakeholders”) informed of what they’re doing, how, why, or when they do it. Nor do they have to listen to risk managers trying to tell them the odds that their opponent will employ a certain strategy (with an 80% confidence interval, don’t you know). Indeed, it’s illegal for a player in a tournament setting to be so advised.

If GTIM Nation comes away from this blog appreciating the strength of the analogy, great. If not, I understand. But to the latter category, let me add but this: The PMO that successfully enacts the USCF’s two main strengths – personnel status based on a pure meritocracy, and the ability to quickly and effectively reject losing strategies – will consistently out-perform the ones that don’t.

Posted on: March 11, 2019 10:23 PM | Permalink

Comments (8)

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Interesting parallels. Where it all breaks down, of course, is the simple fact that sponsors (& the rest of the stakeholders) don't give a flying flip about meritocracy, and don't see "losing strategy" necessarily in the same terms that the PMO does.

I fear that you have undermined your own argument against "so-called communications experts, ...[and] risk managers trying to tell them the odds": as you say, "it’s illegal for a player in a tournament setting to be so advised." Well, the reason that communication with the players in this way is forbidden is that it gives them a better chance of winning! And winning is what we need the project manager to do!

Good afternoon, Kik.
Thanks for commenting! Respectfully, the only way that listening to consultants in the middle of a tournament chess game provides a better chance of winning is if and only if the consultant is a better player. And, if that's the case, it raises the question of why the consultant isn't himself engaged in tournament play.

Nice parallels. But in a project, we don't have the same pieces game after game! nor the same board!

This is the second time in the last two months that I've read about chess as a metaphor for projects. It might be time for me to dust off my chessboard.

Awesome metaphors. Thank you for sharing!

Hi Michael, I liked your article. I got in practice all chess game phases in a real life project.. And the project reached 99% of quality from customer point of view. Chess is heping me a lot. I would not be a bad idea to prepare a webinar session of this topic.

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