Project Management

The School Of PMO Hard Knocks

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I think it’s kind of funny to consider the “safe” learning space that so many brick-and-mortar universities seek to establish in order to teach their charges how to succeed in the world outside the confines of their campuses. Virtually all college campuses have attractive facilities, manicured grounds, genteel staff and instructors – on the surface, anyway. By comparison, the world of industry, absent some form of government sponsorship or interference, is marked by extreme competition to provide a product or service better, faster, and/or cheaper than other entries in the particular field. Influencing people to voluntarily part with their hard-earned money almost always occurs in environs very different than the ones where pupils are instructed on how to do so, with results predictable and frustrating, but often hilarious.

The term “ivory tower,” referencing as it does the vast cultural divide between tenured faculty and free marketplace managers, carries with it a connotation of disdain for the perceived arrogance of the former. But there’s more to it than that: in practical application space, education credentials are usually highly-prized, of course. Unfortunately, it’s often the case that those possessing the credentials will arrive at their first full-time job assignments with an ill-deserved confidence that they know the solutions that beset their lesser-educated peers (or even superiors!), and can remedy them all, if only their advice and direction would be heeded.

Consider the following scenario, where a newly-minted MBA from a prestigious university arrives at her first job, having been recruited at an on-campus event by a major defense or environmental contractor. Arriving at the same time is an administrative assistant with an Associate’s Degree, recently promoted to project scheduler due to having attained his PMP® and taken a week-long night school course in how to operate the Critical Path Methodology (CPM) software that the major contractor uses on all its jobs. I’ll call our mythical MBA “Lisa,” and the fictitious AA “Jim.”

Lisa arrives somewhat overdressed, having learned that making a good impression on her first day is extremely important. She’s expecting to be shown a private office, with a door, and perhaps even a window with a view. The person she spoke with at the recruiting event described a corporate culture where PM is widely embraced and respected, with clear career paths for those involved in the practice of it, so that Lisa is anticipating being placed at around a middling rank in the organization’s management hierarchy. She is fluent in the monetary policy implications of Keynesian economics, and has an advanced knowledge of the importance of clear communications among project teams and line management to ensure the level of cooperation needed to be a truly high-performing PMO. She has had some theoretical training on Earned Value and Critical Path, but has never actually had hands-on-keyboards experience in setting up scope, cost, or schedule baselines.

Jim arrives to his new assignment in business casual, but in clothes that won’t look too much worse the wear for having crawled underneath desks to hook up computer cables, just in case the IT department isn’t as prompt as they could be in setting up his new work station. He’s hoping to be able to share a larger cubicle with just one other person, and considers this a significant upgrade from the crowded trailer bullpen he’s leaving. Having come up from the lower levels of the organization, Jim is well aware that the projects with an advanced PM capability represent a minority of the work for this contractor, and even those perform PM at a high level, because their government sponsors expect (or even demand) it. The rest of the organization is, to put it diplomatically, uneven in their advancement of the PM capability, with significant sections of the company actually adamantly opposed to it. Jim has no concept of the reasons Keynesian economics is completely wrong, and really could not care less how clear the communications are among the project teams he’s worked. But he does know how to set up a CPM network, including how to assign resources and compute the Basis of Estimate for a given project’s Performance Measurement Baseline. He also understands how to pull status to generate the schedule’s status file, and to derive the EV performance information from it.

As fate would have it, Lisa and Jim are assigned to the same cubicle. Its walls are five feet high and, of course, there is no door. Lisa’s furious, but hides it well. Jim’s elated, and doesn’t hide it at all. Their computer work station components are available on an IT cart nearby, but the IT people can’t get there until later in the day. Jim sets about setting up his work station – Lisa complains, as politely as possible, to their project team’s administrative assistant. Having been an administrative assistant himself, Jim has his computer up and downloading the software he’ll need to perform his job before noon; Lisa is working at hiding her frustration.

It's about 11:00 a.m., and you, dear GTIM Nation member, are now the director of this particular PMO, and have come to touch bases with your new employees. Ask yourself – which of these two is more likely to:

  • Answer affirmatively to the question of how soon they’ll be ready to attend and contribute to the next project’s kickoff meeting?
  • Complain about the computer set-up problems?
  • Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to your PMO?
  • Snark about the office accommodations?
  • Present a positive image to the organization’s PMs of your team?
  • Grumble that their level of expertise can’t be brought to bear due to the present conditions?

Okay, okay, I’ve set up the scenario in such a way as to make the answers to the preceding questions comically obvious, but you see my point. The School of PMO Hard Knocks is often overlooked in its ability to deliver an early, strong contributor, perhaps even better than many of the highly-ranked business schools out there, and the reason is almost completely reducible to attitude. I’ll leave y’all with this:

“Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.”  -- Winston Churchill


Posted on: November 25, 2019 11:02 PM | Permalink

Comments (5)

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Dear Michael
Interesting reflection
Thanks for sharing

In my opinion, the part to keep in mind is, “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.” - Winston Churchill

Thank you for sharing your perspective!

Very contrasting fictional characters in this example. I real-life I have encountered plenty of similar, although less obvious, situations. Many times I find that the PM with real-world experience is much more valuable. Keep in mind that there are other very important traits that cannot be overlooked that may may the more educated and less experienced PM the correct candidate.

Interesting post Michael. Balancing experience, theory, pragmatism, helping (pushing?) for improvements is difficult. As Luis noted attitude can be a huge factor in successfully delivering projects.

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