Game Theory in Management

Modelling Business Decisions and their Consequences

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The Stepford PMO*

Things Your PMO Is Doing Right

Hey! Stop Those Guys From Doing Project Management!

The Seminar Attendee’s Scoring Guide

Leaving Behind a Legacy of Failure?

The Stepford PMO*

*…with apologies to (the real) Ira Levin.

It was another dark and stormy night. I was staring at the stenciled letters on my frosted window office door, ylnatS yrrebpsaR, etavirP eyE, when my secretary called out “Goodnight, Stanly. I had better get paid tomorrow, or else!” I pulled a whiskey bottle and shot glass out of my lower desk drawer, when the phone rang. It was Charlie Gumshoe, from the PM police department.

“Stanly! I need you to get over to the Stepford Robotics Corporation first thing tomorrow morning.”

“Why? What’s going on?”

“We’re not sure. They’ve got some weird connection with Monolithic Corporation. We think Monolithic is supplying them Project Management Office personnel, in exchange for some robotic welding machines.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing on its face, but we believe that Monolithic is attempting to flood the marketplace of PM ideas with their own cliched approaches, which would inject a whole range of irrelevancies into the discussion. If they get new tech companies like Stepford parroting their particular version of Project Management…”

“I hear you. How will I get in?”

“We’ve arranged for you to assume an alias and join an Independent Cost Evaluation team on a State contract that shouldn’t have anything to do with Monolithic. Your new name is Ira Levin.”

“You mean like the author?”

“Whoa, that didn’t occur to me until just now, but that’s kind of funny, isn’t it? Just in case a Monolithic employee is there, do you have some kind of a disguise?”


* *  *  *  *

As I took my visitor’s badge from the receptionist at Stepford Robotics, I saw that the rest of the team had assembled in the foyer. We headed off together to the large conference room where the review materials were waiting for us in binders. As we opened our binders, the male project team member began presenting the basics of the scope, cost, and schedule baselines, short bios of the project team, etc. Another oddity: every single member of the project team was born in 1990 but hailed from all over the globe. Along about the beginning of the third hour, they began to discuss their risk management plan.

“Are you kidding me? You guys actually spent time on a risk management plan?”

“Risk management is integral to successful Project Management!” they all said, in unison.

“Says who?”

Again the project team stared back and forth at each other, their eyes darting about, their heads going through small but jerky motions. The lone male spoke up again, his voice creepily even.

“There are many sources for this assertion, most of them respected professional associations and scholastic venues. Would you like a precise listing?”

“No, thanks. I know the academic world loves this stuff. I’m just surprised that a high-tech outfit would engage in it. Just spare me the whole business about how ‘risk management’ also involves ‘opportunity management,’ because of ‘upside risk.’”

“But that is so!” they all exclaimed, again in unison.

One of the project team who, it seemed, had been staring at a point approximately three feet in front of her face, suddenly spoke up.

“You do not look like Ira Levin.” Thanks, Charlie, I grumbled.

“The author?” I replied. “No, I don’t, but I never claimed to be him.”

She turned her head back to looking straight in front of her. The male project team member continued.

“We have a complete list of the project’s stakeholders, and will be communicating with them thoroughly throughout the project.”

“Do any of these stakeholders have connections to your competitors?”

The entire project team turned to glare at me as the presenter spoke up.

“Engaging stakeholders is integral to successful Project Management!” he asserted.

“Yeah, so is keeping tech advances out of the hands of your rivals. You can bet that they will be attempting to gain such knowledge, by secondary or tertiary means, if necessary. So I’ll repeat my question: have you vetted these ‘stakeholders’ to see if they have any connections to your competitors?”

The brunette who had been staring at a point three feet in front of her replied.

“Two on the list of stakeholders are related by marriage to one of our main competitors. Another is a second cousin to a common supplier.”

“How did you know that?”

She slowly turned her head to look at me.



The presentation continued.

“We will be updating the resource dictionary used for creating the cost baseline every twelve hours.”

I interjected. “What good does that do you? I mean, after the cost baseline is approved, why do you need twice-daily updates to the resource dictionary?”

“Accurate original estimates are integral to successful Project Management!” they all said, again in unison.

“That’s the third time you all have used that specific construction, that something is ‘integral to successful Project Management.’ Who told you that?”

“Our Monolithic Corporation programmers … we mean, mentors!”

The cat was out of the proverbial bag. Monolithic and Stepford had collaborated to create a PMO staffed entirely of androids, programmed with the unsupported conventional hokum that often masquerades as legit PM. At this point the brunette spoke up again.

“Without the goatee, Mr. Levin looks just like Stanly Raspberry, the famed Project Management detective.”

The androids were slow to move, but the members of the review team who worked for Monolithic tried to grab me before I could get out the door.

“Raspberry!” they cried. “Get back here!”

“Escaping is integral to successful life-living!” I shouted over my shoulder as I raced my convertible out of the parking lot.


Posted on: April 23, 2018 09:55 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Things Your PMO Is Doing Right

My long-time readers will recognize the title of this blog as a derivative of my first book, Things Your PMO Is Doing Wrong (PMI Publishing, 2008). It’s easy to stand astride the struggling Project Management Office team members and kvetch about what they could be doing better, but that’s not how Peters and Waterman created their best-seller In Search of Excellence. Instead, they sought out successful organizations and queried what they thought they were doing right. In that vein, I had an opportunity to direct an extremely successful PMO, but it was successful because of the deviations I took from the nominal, staid approaches that my predecessors had taken. I’ve repeated this strategy on several occasions, and have never seen it fail. The following is a partial listing of the unusual tactics that went into it.

First off, the successful PMO Director will recognize that their main task is not to change behavior, or compel compliance with modern PM theory or practice. Without exception, every single failed (or failing) PMO Director thinks to the contrary, and will spend/has spent a great deal of energy towards those ends. This energy has been completely wasted. Even in those instances where the people involved tell you to your face that they recognize the value of what you are trying to do, and promise to support it, the pursuit of changing people’s behavior to any significant degree is a waste of time.

No, the successful PMO Director will realize from the get-go that their job is simply to put into the hands of the decision-makers the information they need to optimize their decisions in the project/program management realm. This job is simple, but it’s not easy, and it absolutely does not include eat-your-peas-style hectoring of the other members of the organization. They have their jobs to do already, and really don’t need any lectures about how they should be doing better.

Unfortunately, the ability to collect PM data, process that data into usable information, and deliver that information in a format that its consumers can readily understand has been turned, via formality of operations, from a relatively straight-forward task into a labyrinth of irreconcilable diktats, fraught with double-binds. The successful PMO Director recognizes this, and is able to jettison the superfluous elements that the “experts” expect of the PMO.

In order to advance this capability, the successful PMO Director will employ the following three tactics to any change in the business model:

  • The new capability must be falling-off-a-log easy for the participants. Any capability advancement that depends on extensive training, re-training, or behavior modification on the part of the organization is doomed.
  • In almost all instances, the actual systems being introduced will require the direct participation of only a subset of the target organization. For most PM applications, for example, beyond the PMO’s personnel there’s really only a need for Control Account Managers (CAMs) and/or Work Package Managers to help set up the baselines, and provide status once per month. However, if one of these people from whom you need participation opts out, you must respond immediately. Their non-participation cannot stand unchallenged, or else you may as well accept defeat in the here-and-now, rather than watch a slow, agonizing decline.
  • When those from whom you require participation are actually participating, they’re golden, even if their data is marginal, or clearly contrived. Data can be improved – participation can’t.

I know, I know – these ideas are absolutely outside the mainstream. And yet, I’ve seen them work on multiple occasions, despite some highly formulaic and hackneyed objections, including:

  • If you’re not “doing” (insert some aspect of PM here, such as risk management, quality, communications, whatever), then you’re not authentic.
  • On the opposite side of the assertion in the previous bullet, anything you want changed from the existing status quo will be portrayed as an unacceptably onerous demand.
  • Those managers who have gotten ahead based in some part on a lack of accountability for their actual cost or schedule performance will attempt to ruin you personally. How they go about this will vary from organization to organization – you just need to know they are out there, and will destroy you and your PMO as soon as they are able.

The successful PMO Director will navigate these difficulties, typically with these strategies:

  • If you can’t out-and-out dismiss the element of PM that’s being held out as the missing piece of “authenticity,” then imply (don’t state) that that piece will be addressed once the basics are in-place. In most instances, once the basic cost/schedule information is made available and working, interest in the “missing” piece(s) will dissipate.
  • As for the accusation that any change being wrought is onerous, refer back to the very first bullet in the first list. If you’ve included the falling-off-a-log-easy aspect to your implementation approach, this charge will be recognized as self-evidently absurd.
  • The political assassination attempts do not readily lend themselves to a simply articulatable counter-strategy. However, there is hope. I actually addressed this prickly subject at length in my third book, a copy of which I’ve promised to the first person who uploads to the comment section a selfie of my checklist for seminar attendees from my April 2 blog while attending an actual PM seminar.

As for those who would say that, absent a notable change in the behavior of the organization, any claim from the PMO that it has advanced Project Management capability is specious, there’s a real irony at hand. As the basic, readily available cost and schedule performance information gets disseminated, even those project team members who have zero formal training in PM will start to discuss things like how to identify the causal factors behind their negative schedule variances, and the most appropriate uses of resources on tasks not on the critical path. They’ll start thinking about Project Management as they realize its capacity for improving their odds of project success, and in a way that force-feeding them the same precepts would have never accomplished.

And that, in my opinion, is how Project Management is done right.

Posted on: April 16, 2018 10:10 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)

Hey! Stop Those Guys From Doing Project Management!

When fairly large organizations institute a Project/Program Management Office (PMO), some very strange dynamics are often bubbling just beneath the surface, dynamics that can easily doom the PMO’s ability to attain even a mediocre level of success. Every organization is different, of course, and many, many PMOs start up and enjoy a long, successful run. But of those that fail, the arc towards failure tends to be remarkably consistent. I’ve seen the pattern so many times I can almost recite it in my sleep.

  • First, some enlightened Vice President, Director, or other honcho, who recognizes the value of having Project Management practices adopted across the organization’s portfolio, will convince a plurality of the other wizards with whom he hobnobs to provide the funding for a PMO.
  • This enlightened one will then either promote a mid-level manager from inside the organization, or do an external hire, and name that person the PMO Director. This person will be either (relatively) young and idealistic, or more experienced and seasoned, having performed the same function for another, similar organization.
  • The new PMO Director will also either promote from within (it’s amazing how quickly an Earned Value Management course, followed up with a basic course in driving one of the more popular Critical Path software packages, can turn a lowly administrative assistant into a fully-functional Project Controls specialist), or do a few more external hires, or a mix of each. They will then attempt to codify what the rest of the organization’s project teams “must” do in PM space.
  • Those project teams already fluent in PM will either negotiate an exemption from the procedures being churned out by the PMO, or else will insist that one of their members has a hand in directing the requirements.
  • Once the first major project’s team has arranged to not have any part of the new procedures apply to them, the floodgates open, and all other projects will seek to carve out exemptions for themselves.
  • At some point, a major project will want to set up their own team of project controls specialists, outside the purview of the PMO. These are usually comprised of subcontractors, who are almost always notably more expensive than the organization’s home team version. No matter: some excuse will be offered on why the sub’s people are more appropriate for the specific application, and a “shadow organization” will have been born.
  • As the shadow organization grows in influence and expertise, the PMO will attempt to bring them into compliance with the growing number of procedures being generated. These attempts will fail.
  • Some project teams will be perfectly happy using the PMO’s personnel and techniques, but others will not. As this list of others grows, the original enlightened VP will become frustrated with the Director of the PMO, further eroding the Director’s influence and ability to stop the proliferation of shadow organizations.
  • The PMO loses its funding, unable to justify its budget in light of the highly uneven advance of capability maturity across the entire organization and number of projects not using their personnel or policies.
  • Another (or even the same) enlightened VP will convince a plurality of the other wizards with whom he hobnobs to give the PMO idea another shot. The current Director will move on, and the cycle starts anew.

Because of the way that the introduction of shadow organizations within the macro-organization becomes a harbinger of institutional PMO failure, savvy PMO Directors will often attempt to leverage authority or influence to either stop these shadow orgs from coming about in the first place, or, if they already exist, thwart them. In addition to churning out procedures, additional tactics include restricting access to the Critical Path software, or attacking the basis for rogue projects to claim exemptions to the way they “ought” to perform Project Management, based on the PMO’s procedures.

These attempts will also fail.

So, what’s the solution?

The solution is to set up the PMO in such a way that you are clearly offering a service to the project teams. Never – and I do mean NEVER – presume to tell them how to do their Project Management, especially via some sort of codex that you think ought to be binding. In previous week’s blogs I have stressed the main corollary of the Triple Constraint, “Affordable, Available, High Quality: Pick any two.” You must not only make your PMO flexible enough to accommodate any project team’s preference in selecting which two, you need to communicate this flexibility, loud and clear. The subcontractors already have one strike against them: they’re almost always going to be more expensive than the members of the PMO’s team. Exploit that weakness. Offer a level of PM support that’s not as rigorous as the nattering nabob class insists it must be, and make it readily available to any potential customers.

Subs are attractive because the PMs know that they work at the PM’s discretion. They can be let go for any reason, or no reason, meaning that they will never crank out dubious PM procedures, and then demand adherence to them. If you, as the PMO Director, see shadow organizations suddenly taking root, don’t employ any of the previously reviewed tactics to try and stop them. Simply offer whatever it is that makes them attractive to your organization’s project teams.

In short, as disruptive to the PMO’s goals the shadow organizations can be, don’t try to stop them from doing Project Management. It’s futile, and a waste of time and energy. Just do it better than they do.


Posted on: April 09, 2018 09:58 PM | Permalink | Comments (8)

The Seminar Attendee’s Scoring Guide

As Project Management seminar season approaches I think it’s a good idea to be able to readily identify which paper presentations are worth attending, and which are a complete waste of time. Of course, most people make this type of decision based on the presentation’s title and the descriptive blurb that accompanies it in the schedule. If that’s not enough, extra clues about a particular session’s efficacy may be gleaned from the presenter’s short biography. However, I’ve been fooled into wasting between an hour and an hour and a half attending presentations that were basically self-aggrandizing theater, time that would have (literally) been better spent at the beach or pool – or, in some cases, taking a nap. In retrospect, I’ve come to the realization that the waste-of-time sessions had some things in common. So, to prepare my readers for the upcoming seminar season, and with a hat tip to John Baez’s Crackpot Index, I’m going to provide a quick-and-easy checklist that will help score the presentations, based on the materials provided when you check in/register for the seminar, or, if necessary, the content of the presentation within its first ten minutes.

The pathology that afflicts many of these seminars is intertwined with something about which I’ve been complaining long and loud, and that’s the lack of actual science in management science. The development of an hypothesis, advancing it towards theory, and disciplined collection of data or the exact staging of an experiment to either prove the theory or disprove the null hypothesis, peer review of the findings, all leading up to a Project Management paper presentation at one of these get-togethers is distressingly rare. Instead, we get inundated with, broadly speaking, three different types of material:

  1. Ideas about how risk/quality/communication (or other trendy type) management should be performed, supported by virtually nothing more than speculation or anecdotal evidence.
  2. The “Look What We Did On Our Gee-Whiz Project!” presentation, where no real causality analysis goes in to determining how (or even if) the particular project was successful.
  3. The bazillionth eat-your-peas-style covering the basics of or scolding about how everyone ought to be doing Critical Path, Earned Value, or any other aspect of traditional PM.

If you can attend a session that avoids these categories, it’s likely to be worth your while. However, for the remainder, which may or may not belong to one of these categories and is, therefore, possibly a waste of time, use the following scoring to quickly determine the sessions’ worthiness of your attention.

Start with -100 points, then:

  1. For every assertion without hard backup data that we’re supposed to accept simply because of the authors’:
    1. PMP® certification (add 10 points)
    2. Other PMI® certification (add 20 points)
    3. Other, non-PMI® certification (add 40 points)
    4. Affiliation with PMI® (add 50 points)
    5. Affiliation with another PM-centered professional organization (add 60 points)
  2. Every time the paper presenter mentions his college degrees, add another 50 points.
  3. Add 25 points for each piece of anecdotal evidence that “supports” the paper’s thesis.
  4. Add 100 points if the paper doesn’t have a clearly articulatable thesis.
    1. Add 200 points if the presenter doesn’t know that the presented paper ought to have a clearly articulatable thesis.
  5. If the presenter mentions the project-owning organization’s name as a point of reference, don’t add any points. However, if he keeps referencing it as if the name of the organization itself lends credence to his main assertions, add 20 points for the academic infraction, and 100 points because this is simply very irksome.
    1. Add an additional 100 points if this organization happens to be The Pentagon or a well-known aerospace company.
  6. Any statistical inference based on fewer than 50 data points, add 25 eval points,
    1. …unless the inference is based on fewer than five observations, in which case add 500 points.
  7. Any reference to a deceased person who “almost certainly would have agreed” with the author’s conclusions adds an automatic 200 points,
    1. …especially if the author claimed to have known the person being referenced, and
    2. … another 500 points if the deceased person reference didn’t publish any findings in a peer-reviewed journal, but just happened to be well-known.

If you can make these determinations without actually stepping foot in the hotel ballroom/conference center meeting room, and a full slate of sessions’ scores remain in negative territory, then you’re in great shape. However, if many are in positive score territory, then you can rank them from smallest to largest to maximize the odds that you won’t be wasting your time. Keep in mind that it’s entirely possible that a whole seminar is being put on by a bunch of people who will lean towards flattering themselves, with precious little true management science being performed. If this happens, it’s not really the presenters’ fault – it’s the fault of the committee scoring the original paper proposals.

Then there are those times where you are actually in the beginning of the presentation when the score suddenly moves from sub-zero to positive territory. When this happens, you should have a measured response, based on the following table.

New Score

Recommended Response

1 - 49

Stick it out and hope for a nugget or two of actual insight.

50 – 100

Pretend you’re being paged, discreetly head for the exit.

101 – 200

Audibly scoff, push past those seated between you and the exit, stomp off.

201 – 300

Raise your hand well before the question-and-answer session and, after being recognized, ask “Excuse me, but I have a condition that requires I not be exposed to excessively stupid ideas. With that in mind, are you going to continue in this vain?”

=> 301

Pretend you’re being paged, discreetly leave, and return wearing a clown suit that looks like something out of a Stephen King movie.

While some of the Recommended Response tactics may seem extreme, consider that they are most likely in response to expertise signalers whose only true objective is to make themselves look better among their peers, at the expense of wasting your time. With that in mind, I would argue that these tactics are fairly benign!

Posted on: April 02, 2018 10:09 PM | Permalink | Comments (12)

Leaving Behind a Legacy of Failure?

As newly-minted PMPs® come into the Project Management arena, on fire to bring the ideas that their business school professors told them represented authentic project management, even though those very professors haven’t had to beg reluctant Control Account Managers for a status pull since the second Reagan administration (if ever), we more experienced PMs tend to roll our eyes, sigh a portion of patience, and try to channel their energies towards real-world project solutions. How do we do that, exactly? Well, we mentor them, assign them the task of begging status from reluctant CAMs, teach them to drive Critical Path and Earned Value Method software packages, invite them to Change Control Board meetings and project reviews, etc., etc. But there’s something else we do that, I believe, leaves behind an invalid, backward approach to Project Management, and does so in a way that’s singularly hard to avoid.

Yes to my regular readers who are asking themselves at this point “Is this another anti-guidance/procedure rant?” But this time I have something a bit more solid than the garden-variety frustration with the guidance-generating organizations’ overly proscriptive publications.

Procedures Eliminate Options

From the last two blogs, I have made the point that probably the most significant derivative of the Triple Constraint, or Iron Triangle, is the axiom “Quality, availability, affordability: pick any two.” I pointed out last week that, since most government projects are awarded to the lowest bidder, the option for obtaining an end-result that is both high quality and available soon has been taken off the table. The only options left are (1) low quality delivered on-schedule, or (2) high quality, waaayyyy late, either of which is sure to infuriate some set of stakeholders.

The guidance-generating organizations have done something similar, just against another leg of the Triple Constraint. It’s been my experience that these guidance authors, who recognize each other as “experts,” get into the ballrooms of the hotels where their meetings are held, and basically get into expertise-signaling contests, with the level of perceived proficiency being assigned by the number of mostly speculation-driven scenarios where traditional Project Management Information Systems might, just might, deliver an artificial variance. One never hears how a given experiment was set up, or how real-world data was collected in such a manner as to eliminate bias in conclusions or analysis. It makes Kabuki Theater look like King Lear.

As they amp up the “requirements” for setting up and running cost and schedule performance information systems, they sincerely believe that their work will result in an improved or more mature capability in such systems. But it doesn’t, and I know why.

In most cases, what these organization churn out represents invalid strategies to improve PM in general, and performance measuring information systems in particular. For example, one of the Implementation Guides insists that comparing the Basis of Estimate (BOE), on a line-item level, to that Control Account’s actuals, also at the line-item level, represents some form of advanced Earned Value Management capability. It does not. Indeed, the very raison d’etre of EVM stems from the uselessness of comparing budgets to actuals, level of granularity notwithstanding. But that didn’t stop this particular organization from publishing this deviation from legitimate management science.

But What If They’re Right?

For the sake of argument, let’s say that these guidance documents, either from outside organizations or from within your own company, are full of valid, insightful rules, and all the experienced and insightful managers think it’s just swell. Given such a scenario, what could go wrong?


Referring back to the Triple Constraint, this code of valid, insightful rules will inevitably decide a priori one of the aspects of your organization’s PM implementation strategy. It will mandate a certain level of quality rigor, meaning that anyone who uses such guidance has just been deprived of some latitude when it comes to advancing capability maturity. Your “quality” has to be at level X. That means that it will either be expensive, or it won’t be available in a timely manner, perhaps not until way past the time the project should have had a performance measurement baseline and regular reports generated. Since the projects involved can’t be made to wait, that means…

Yeah, that the “expertise” of these guidance-writers is now in more demand, meaning that they should be paid more for (ironically) less flexibility in delivering the products they promote. It’s all very much outside the manner that results from real management science research should be published, in my opinion.

What Will They Do? What Would You Do?

So, as the next generation of Project Managers enters the workplace, and seek their own ways of advancing PM capability, any general guidance that tries to decide for them which two aspects of the Iron Triangle they must accomplish in their specific circumstances won’t help anything. On the contrary, such guidance only limits the nextgen’s latitude of action, and in a way that’s certainly more fatal to successful project completion than any anomalies coming from the Critical Path or Earned Value analysis. This leaves our newbies with one of two options: obey these guidance documents to the letter, and hope for the best; or else respect these guidance documents as they see fit, and be prepared to abandon certain strictures when the situation calls for it. Which set of decision-makers will have the better odds of consistently bringing in their projects on-time, on-budget?

My money is on the latter.



Posted on: March 26, 2018 09:48 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

Denial ain't just a river in Egypt.

- Stuart Smalley