How to produce great projects when you're outnumbered, outgunned and weary

The answer: Establish a covert project management office

Your position has been overrun. Trapped behind enemy lines with hostiles lying in wait to expose you, your only option is to go to ground, become part of the crowd. Even allies from previous missions are attempting to thwart your every move. Hidden in the masses, you press forward, attempting to finish the mission. Is it time to surrender to the chaos or struggle on, collecting your paycheck until that perfect job offer appears? Or do you persevere?

You will not surrender! Yes, you may be outnumbered, outgunned and weary to the bone, but you know there is a better way to manage your project, your sponsor and the business. Begin an underground movement to develop a covert project management office.

The purpose of a PMO is to bring people, processes and technology together to consistently deliver quality results. But what can you do when the people you are trying to protect (management, business or customer) think PMO stands for "painful meaningless overhead"? It's time to go STEALTH.

Set your vision. When things are darkest, night-vision goggles can allow you to focus, but without a target, they're useless. What are the pain points that must be destroyed? Are projects dragging on indefinitely and missing their mark? Do requirements show up like land mines during user-acceptance testing? Reconnoiter the business, discover users' complaints, and set your vision to eliminate them. Liberate the business, and you will have strong allies.

Test the environment. Search for hidden allies who can help your cause. If you are under fire, chances are other project managers are engaged in similar battles. Management may be ready for a new approach. Begin recruiting others to support your vision. Let them help sharpen it.

Establish your objectives and plan. Sketch out your attack strategy. How are you going to accomplish your vision? What steps will be needed? Lay out an aerial view of the endgame. Does it have processes to manage change, issues and risk? Do you see templates for status, metrics to measure, a communication plan? Remember, this is a covert operation. Attacking too many places at once may give away your position. Give the plan time.

Agree on standards. Identify a consistent approach for doing business. Issue management is an easy target to start with. Define a recording and tracking method. Risks might be next. A proactive risk management approach can eliminate future issues. These targets should not be difficult to approach. No need to publicly identify them. Snipers don't advertise their operations.

Leave it flexible. Be consistent without becoming rigid. Forcing a mission when resistance is high only gets people killed. If one area prefers e-mail status reports over Word documents, make sure both methods cover the same key topics. Don't fight an immovable force, and never blow up a bridge you may need to cross again.

Train project participants. But don't hold a class or give a lecture; be subtle. Make suggestions. Ask leading questions. Plant ideas. Lead your team, your manager and the business to do projects the way you want them to. Act consistently and perform professionally, making them expect the best of you. Set reasonable and attainable expectations of them, raising their expectations of themselves. Start to win their hearts and minds.

Help others embrace the vision. Success is the best propaganda. You don't need to trumpet your achievements; people will start noticing. Create and use metrics to show improvements. Share your successes with others, and show how your approach can work for them, too. Share the vision, and get them involved in it.

In the end, there may be no hero's medals. The chaos may only be pushed back for a time. But here and now, you can make a difference as a secret agent of change.

Cutting is a certified Project Management Professional and owner of Cutting's Edge. Contact him at Thomas@CuttingsEdge.com.

This version of the story originally appeared in Computerworld's print edition.

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