How to Ease the Tension

Does your project management office have a reputation as oppressive process cops? Try taking a more supportive approach.

Frontline project managers often view the staffers of project management offices (PMO) as "process cops" whose mission is to ensure that project teams are hitting their deadlines and adhering to corporate procedures and quality-control criteria. They know that if their team isn't hitting those measures, the PMO won't sign off on the project phase.

This Big Brother view has occasionally led to latent hostility between project managers and PMO officers. "There's definitely tension sometimes between PMOs and the front line," says Jeff Collins, president of Innovative Management Solutions Inc., a Newport Beach, Calif.-based project management consultancy.

Sometimes it comes down to whether PMOs are staffed with the right people or have executive sponsorship, say Collins and other observers. Still, most executives who run PMOs say the best way to avoid tensions with project managers is to position the office as a support organization that can provide mentoring and coaching in addition to establishing project management guidelines and controls.

For instance, before The E.W. Scripps Co. established a PMO two years ago, the company's business units had always acted autonomously on IT projects, says PMO managing director Oscar de Jongh. So instead of taking a confrontational approach to IT project governance, says de Jongh, the PMO's objective was to foster project management disciplines "and manage the technology component of our business as a business.

"We certainly didn't want to go down a path of malicious compliance and have people say, 'I'm doing what you asked me to do. What more do you want?' " adds de Jongh. So if a project manager disagrees with the PMO on a requirement and wants to approach an aspect of a project differently from what the PMO would advise, "we'll allow them to," de Jongh says.

An Important Call

When Dennis S. Callahan joined The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America three years ago as CIO, "there was very little in the way of process and controls - it was an 'anything goes' environment," he says. Over the past three years, New York-based Guardian has built a PMO team and implemented a project management process, a project life cycle and an enterprisewide tracking tool to improve control. Recently, Callahan and his team made refinements to help bring the PMO, the processes and the adoption rate to the next level, including the development of a more balanced coaching and control model. They also created a PMO steering committee that included several project managers and reorganized the PMO team to mirror the IT organization's alignment with Guardian's businesses.

Now a PMO manager works directly with specific senior business systems officers, helping to create a deeper partnership and business focus. And in September, Guardian's five-person PMO made a small but important change in how it alerts project managers if they've forgotten to complete a time sheet or classify the project in question.

Instead of e-mailing project managers and copying business officers, the PMO now calls project managers first to discuss and resolve compliance issues. Guardian's project teams have improved their rate of compliance by 70% since the new alert system was launched, says Shelley McIntyre, second vice president of the PMO and application development.

In the District of Columbia, which established a PMO for a multiplatform ERP system in January 2002, the office was designed to both oversee the project "and be an integral part. So the philosophy right away starts to ameliorate any tensions between the PMO and others," says Sandy Lazar, director of key systems for the city.

The ERP project includes contributions from multiple constituents, including city IT workers as well as vendors such as Unisys Corp., BearingPoint Inc. and Boston-based Keane Inc., which set up the PMO, says Lazar. "If you came to one of our meetings, you wouldn't know who were district employees and who were contracts, and which were contractors for Keane or Unisys," he says. "Everyone leaves their badges at the door."

Communication goes a long way toward easing tensions, but collaboration tools and other technologies can also help. At Fox Filmed Entertainment in Los Angeles, a portfolio management package from Niku Corp. helps provide oversight, time tracking, collaboration and document management to support a project management methodology from the PMO, says Doug Goetz, executive director of IT project management.

Goetz says he could try to enforce the use of the PMO's methodologies and standards throughout Fox's business divisions. But because there's a subset of about 30 project managers at Fox business units who don't work directly for Goetz, "we tried to make the tools useful enough so they'd be appealing to use," he says.

Special Report

The Resourceful Project Manager

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Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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