One hand firmly on the brake while delighting the speed junkies
On the Kent coast in England, in the seaside town of Margate, sits one of the UK’s oldest theme parks. Dreamland dates back to the 1860s and houses a grade two listed wooden rollercoaster. Unlike its modern counterparts with their high-tech fail-safes and digital controls, the trajectory of each car of the innocuously named ‘Scenic Railway’ is controlled by an onboard brakeman. They deftly apply the brake to control the velocity of each vehicle as it goes hurtling down the track. Hurtling too fast risks injury and disaster. But too slow breeds frustration and disinterest. Given the rollercoaster is the flagship ride of the fair, that’s a lot of responsibility on the young operator.
Portfolio managers and Heads of Enterprise PMOs are finding they need a similarly ambidextrous approach.
On the one hand, they need to ensure projects are delivered in a controlled way that complies with governance controls, GDPR, and investment rules while keeping a firm eye on predictability and the morale of an increasingly scarce skilled resource pool.
On the other hand, they are expected to deliver growth through agility, which involves rapid innovation and business change.
Bringing the two together isn’t easy, and delivery leaders are feeling the pressure.
Businesses across all sectors feel the pressure. Rocketing energy bills, the Russian war in Ukraine, and the additional cost of doing business in Europe for firms domiciled in Great Britain are problems that require organizations to take action to build operational resilience.
These operational challenges put increasing pressure on CIOs to deliver benefits from data and digital transformation strategies.
Pure tech companies are not immune from the squeeze. With quantitative easing at an end and interest rates rising, tech CEOs and CFOs need to pivot from a “growth at all costs” mindset toward a “growth with profits” outlook. In a recent conversation with Fortune.com, Software AG’s Brahmawar noted that “many tech firms will likely shift their focus to ensuring they earn a return on big expenditures,” noting that as the cost of borrowing increases, tech businesses will need to “think more carefully about where they spend their money.”
The World Economic Forum’s 2022 Global Risks Report captures the overall mood. 41.8% of the 12k respondents expect the next three years to be consistently volatile, with multiple surprises. A further 37% predict “fractured trajectories, separating winners from losers.” This makes for a sobering reality check for strategic project delivery leaders hoping they would be steering into calmer waters after Covid and Brexit.
Many project organizations struggle to marry resilience and predictability with agility and innovation, whether due to misaligned portfolios, outdated delivery frameworks or capability constraints, or simply the sheer complexity of organizations and the amount of energy required to turn the metaphorical oil tanker around.
But the past few years have shown that today’s delivery leaders are up for the challenge. During the pandemic, the PMO pulled off a tour de force to keep critical projects running while pivoting delivery portfolios and resource models overnight. Even the most risk-averse organizations dug deep and discovered untapped capabilities to adapt and thrive as they rode the rollercoaster of challenges hitting the global economy. Organizations must retain these capabilities, and the PMO plays a critical role in embedding the learning and building that flexibility into ways of working and splicing it into the organization’s DNA.
With the right people, processes, and systems, resilience and agility can go hand-in-hand. Both are key to delivering performance while minimizing risk. As with our fairground ride, we want to go as fast as possible but still be able to apply the brakes sometimes to ensure we get back to the station in one piece. The key is to align agility and resilience rather than seeing them as opposing forces.
How can Portfolio Managers and Heads of PMOs lead the way?
Unleash the remote workforce
Back in 2020, organizations where working from home was considered a rare perk were disrupted when the world locked down. CIOs moved quickly to deliver new tools and capabilities to enable this change, while HR teams hastily updated staff policies. But many of the systems implemented in haste were inefficient and counter-intuitive. Now is the time to fix that. First, the PMO must work with tech, security, finance, and HR teams to best use the workforce’s newfound freedoms. Enterprise PMO teams are uniquely placed to see where processes are failing the organization and propose better ways of working.
Then through their unique cross-silo stakeholder relationships, the PMO must advocate for (or directly introduce) training, support, and delivery processes explicitly designed for a remote workforce. To succeed, the mindset needs to switch from ‘making do while we are remote’ to deriving genuine competitive advantage from remote and hybrid working.
Business agility means more than simply having a couple of development teams using the Scrum framework or dabbling with SAFe. Agility needs to extend beyond software teams and across the whole delivery organization. Strategies such as design thinking can help organizations take a customer-centric view of problems and identify the right projects to solve them. The Harvard Business Review article 6 Principles to Build Your Company’s Strategic Agility offers up ideals that can aid decision-making and nudge the organization in the right direction:
- Prioritize speed over perfection
- Prioritize flexibility over planning
- Prioritize diversification and “efficient slack” over-optimization
- Prioritize empowerment over hierarchy
- Prioritize learning over blaming
- Prioritize resource modularity and mobility over resource lock-in
These principles are focused on strategic agility. But they can be applied across project portfolios and scaled agile “trains,” too. For example, breaking away from over-optimized rigid portfolio plans with optimistic resourcing models to models where slack is explicitly built-in can allow the business to hedge better against surprises. Prioritizing flexibility also reduces the effort “wasted” in responding to missed deadlines and breaking away from firmly anchored objectives.
Insight to highlight the difficult questions: and help answer them
In Douglas Adam’s book The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, a super-computer called “Deep Thought” spends seven and a half million years calculating the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. It famously concluded the answer was 42. The problem was that no one had worked out what the question was!
This can be a real challenge for organizations. Solving problems can be hard, but recognizing and articulating a problem is often more challenging.
Enterprise PMO teams get a unique perspective on organizations. They are close enough to the executive to understand the corporate strategy while directly engaging with subject matter experts tasked with delivery. From this viewpoint, the skilled PMO analyst/ consultant can do more than plug numbers into pre-formatted dashboards. Instead, they can create perspectives of the organization that encourage senior leaders to embrace difficult yet highly valuable questions. Presenting these different perspectives through data is like holding a mirror up to the organization. For example:
- Is this how we expect to see ourselves?
- Is this data-driven view in line with what we thought we knew about how we operate?
- What percentage of our effort is associated with strategic objectives? What would we like that percentage to be?
Influence Organizational Design
In their book, Team Topologies: Organizing Business and Technology Teams for Fast Flow, Pais and Skelton introduce an approach they call the Inverse Conway Maneuver. They base this on Melvin Conway’s observations that organizational communication structures directly influence the design of technical systems produced by those organizations. Pais and Skelton argue that to transform your business, start by looking at how your teams interact.
In project-driven and matrix organizations, teams are spun up in what Prince2 describes as “controlled environments.” These environments are known as “projects,” and when the deliverables have been completed, the environment is collapsed. Team members are reabsorbed into the organization or join a new project team.
Scaled Agile teams prefer to organize around “value streams.” In such systems, the teams usually stay together for longer, with work broken down into manageable chunks to be delivered iteratively as they ‘flow’ through the delivery system.
An organization’s model will impact the shape and complexity of what is delivered.
To optimize the delivery organization, it is no longer enough for Enterprise PMOs to dabble with a couple of delivery methodologies. The PMO must work closely with strategic leaders and enterprise architects to influence how people are organized for delivery. Portfolio Management Offices that track dependencies across teams can usually provide good insight into where problems are emerging. Work that requires cross-team and cross-domain working means increased cognitive load. This leads to delays, miscommunication, and a negative spiral of additional documentation and control.
Those in Agile PMOs (APMO) with teams organized into value streams may think this does not apply to them, but they would be wrong. The average tenure of CEOs is decreasing, with research from PwC showing a median tenure of CEOs at the world’s largest 2,500 companies being five years. Such changes cause turbulence and priority changes. The value streams that SAFe evangelists rally around are unlikely not the stable long-term paths to value consultants would have you believe. They may not be quite as temporary as project teams, but, over time, the organization will evolve. And fluvialists who were once at the center of a value stream will either need to re-organize or find themselves choking in a silted-up backwater.
The Aligned Organization
“Alignment is a force multiplier.” – Gereon Hermkes, Scaling Done Right
Resilience and agility can complement each other if the organization is designed optimally. In the last section, we looked at the importance of organization design. But goal alignment is another important factor. Businesses operating in Europe, for example, may find conflicts between the insights the marketing team wants to derive from customer data and the Data Privacy Office (DPO) tasked with ensuring data is kept safe and only used in the way the customer expected it to be used. But such team- and department-level skirmishes can be reduced by ensuring goals are aligned, and that everyone has access and insight into how the organization performs against its goals.
Goal-setting frameworks such as Objectives and Key Results (OKR) can be a great way of aligning goals horizontally and vertically through a business. Again the PMO can play an essential role in supporting the cascading of OKRs, the transparency of scoring, and cross-silo communication. Everyone has a part to play when it comes to building resilience. Therefore it should be part of teams’ objectives. Similarly, agility is not the exclusive realm of marketing teams and select groups of skunk-works developers.
Enterprise PMO leaders and Heads of Delivery are in the spotlight with increasing pressure to deliver on the seemingly conflicting goals of building a resilient delivery organization while embracing agility. To achieve this feat, they must partner with other business leaders to tackle organizational challenges such as corporate design, alignment, organizational agility, and deriving insight from data.
But the most crucial challenge for the PMO leader is to get the right balance of speed and excitement. Like the Scenic Railway rollercoaster brakeman, the PMO must strike the right balance. The goal of the PMO was never to stifle the business with watertight controls. Instead, it should work to build in flexibility while keeping ‘just enough’ control in the right areas. When it comes to mastering portfolio and enterprise PMO, it is that enterprise flexibility that leaders should strive to master.