Eight to Late

Sherlock Holmes and the case of the terminated PMO

with 9 comments

“Tch, tch,” clucked Holmes, shaking his head. “What a tragedy, Watson,” he continued, “yet another project management office cut down in its prime.”

Watson said nothing; he knew his friend did not like interruptions when he was surveying a crime scene.

Holmes walked around as he always did,  in apparently random fashion, his sharp eyes darting from here to there taking in the details –  the process flowcharts on a wall,  project schedules displayed over on the other side,  the printed portfolio reports  that lay on the table and the many other artefacts that are part and parcel of a PMO.

After watching  his friend  for what seemed like an eternity, Watson could hold his curiosity no longer: “What’s your guess, Holmes?” he asked.

“I never guess. It is a shocking habit—destructive to the logical faculty.” He looked up sharply, “You should know better than to ask Watson….”

“I know, Holmes, but my curiosity gets the better of me. What do you think happened?”

“Ah yes, what I think. What I think is not important, Watson,” he said, wagging his index finger in his friend’s direction. “We must focus on what we know – the facts.”

“So, what are the facts?” asked Watson wearily. His friend could be an insufferable pedant.

“You know my methods, Watson. Look around you. What do you see?”

Oh, they were going to play that game again. Shaking his head in exasperation, Watson said, “Why don’t you save time and tell me, Holmes. You are the genius, not I.”

“Ah Watson, sarcasm does not become you. Anyway, I take no offence and will offer you some hints so that you may begin to discern the real reason for the failure of this PMO.”

He walked over to the flowcharts on the wall and asked,” Tell me Watson, What are these and what do they  tell you?”

Watson  walked over to the charts, looked at  them intently and said, “I think we can safely say these describe project management processes.” Then, jabbing his finger at a chart, he continued, “This one  describes the process of authorisation. It seems sensible enough –  a need is identified, a business case drawn up and submitted to the project governance board, it is evaluated against certain criteria and then a decision is made on whether the project should be authorised or not. And look at this one, ‘tis a work of art….”

“Do you know, Watson,” interrupted Holmes, “that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these attractive flowcharts, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which they may be subverted.”

“Huh?” blurted Watson, not knowing quite what to make of this.

“I see you are perplexed, Watson. Let me put it another way,  a  PMO may require that project managers comply with certain process, but it cannot enforce compliance.”

“So you think the PMO failed because it could not get project managers to follow processes?”

“Yes, Watson. But experience tells me that although that may be a visible symptom, it is not the cause. You’re a doctor so  I don’t need to tell you that identifying symptoms is necessary but, to cure the disease, one must find the cause. It is all too easy to label the symptom as the cause – many  consultants have done so, and have thus made recommendations that are worse than useless.”

“Worse than useless? I don’t understand, Holmes.”

“Yes, worse than useless. If  organisations focus on curing symptoms rather than causes, they will end up exacerbating the underlying dysfunctions. For example, if a consultant mistakenly labels the fact that project managers did not follow processes as the cause, the organisation may put in place procedures that forces managers to comply with processes. That, as you will no doubt appreciate,  is doing exactly the wrong thing – it will only make things worse.”

“Why is it the wrong thing? Surely if they are forced to comply, they will and the processes will then be followed as they should be.”

“Ah, Watson,” said Holmes, shaking his head in exasperation, “that’s the army man in you talking.” He continuted sharply,  “This is not the military, Sir! This is the messy world of organisation-land where people are autonomous agents even though management orthodoxy would have us believe otherwise.”

“’Tis a matter of discipline, Holmes. Surely you do not advocate letting project managers behave as they would want – as, how do you say it…autonomous agents.”

“ You know Watson, may be you are right,”  said Holmes.  “Perhaps when a man has special knowledge and special powers like my own, it rather encourages him to seek a complex explanation when a simpler one is at hand.”

“Indeed, I think you are over-complicating matters my dear Holmes. This is an open and shut case – a failure of enforcement and compliance.” said Watson.

“Possibly, Watson. However, the truth is not to be found here in the PMO. It lies elsewhere, in the hallowed heights of the executive floor… Anyway there is a more immediate matter that needs our attention: it is late and the sun sinks rapidly. We must make our way to that fine establishment I noticed at the end of the street – I could do with a pint or three.”

“Well said, Holmes!”

The two made their way towards the exit.

———

“Come,  friend Watson, the curtain rings up for the last act,” murmured Holmes, as the two of them entered the elevator. They had come to the head office to meet the executive director.

The two found their way to the meeting room on the executive floor and entered.

“Hello Holmes, it is good to see you again,” boomed the executive director, “and I see you have brought Dr. Watson with you. Good to see you too, sir. Do come in and meet my management team.”.

After the mandatory round of introductions and business card exchanges, the director continued,”I take it you have something for us, Holmes.”

“Yes sir, I have a number of questions.“

“Questions? I don’t understand, Holmes. We hired you to find us some answers about the failure of our PMO, and you tell me have  a few questions. I take it you have some answers too. The CIO expects answers not questions,” he said with a nervous chuckle.

“No,I have no answers…but a hypothesis that I hope to validate soon.”

“I do not understand the need for this drama,” said the director.

“Watson here will tell you that I can never resist a touch of the dramatic.”

“OK, Holmes, you had better get to it then,” said the director shortly.

“I’ll get right to it sir,” he said, and turned to face the seated managers. “Ladies and gentlemen, pray what was the objective of your PMO?”

There was a stunned silence. Finally, one of the managers spoke up, “Surely that is obvious Mr, Holmes.”

“Thank you.  I do realise my question may seem a little simple minded to you, but I beg that you answer it in a way that you would to someone who knows nothing about PMOs.” He turned to the executive director for confirmation.

“Yes, yes, answer his question,” said the executive director impatiently.

“OK, if you insist. The basic objective  of the PMO can be summarised in a line. It was to ensure that all our strategic projects are delivered on time, within the agreed budget and to the required standards of quality.  Needless to say,  the PMO failed to deliver: as I recall, out of the 12 strategic projects we have, 8 or 9 are in serious trouble – over budget and/or time by more than 50%,”  said the manager. “That is all the relevant detail… I trust it is not too much  for you, Mr Holmes,” he added.

“”I am glad of all details, whether they seem to you to be relevant or not,”  retorted Holmes. Then,  in a gentler tone, he asked, “How exactly was the PMO expected to achieve these objectives?”

The managers looked at each other, nonplussed at the question.

Finally,  one of them asked, “Mr. Holmes, what do you mean by “how”? I do not understand your question…and I think I speak for my colleagues too. We followed the advice of Lord Gartner and Baron McKinsey in setting up our PMO. Among many other things, we are fully aware of the importance of giving a PMO complete authority to oversee and control IT projects across the organisation. I am sure  you are aware that our PMO had implemented a set of proven best practice project and portfolio management standards to ensure control and oversight.”

“Yes, we have seen the process charts…they are impressive indeed,” piped up Watson. Holmes gave him The Look.

“That is so, and the fact that some projects have succeeded shows that the processes do work,” said  another manager.

“My dear sir, results without causes are impressive but assuming a causal link between them, sans proof, is not,” said Holmes. “Let me ask you a simple question, sir. Would you say your organisation is unique – one of a kind?”

“Of course it is,” said the manager. “We have just been voted a ‘best employer’ and we won several industry awards in previous years. Indeed we are unique.”

“…and yet you implement standardised processes?”

“What is your point, Mr. Holmes?”

“Let me spell it out: your organisation is unique, as are your people. Right?”

“Yes,” said the manager. Others around the room were nodding their assent.

“In view of your uniqueness, don’t you think you ought to develop – rather evolve – your own unique  processes in collaboration with your project managers rather than impose one-size-fits-all “best practice” standards on them?”

“But…why should we do that…and how ?”  Asked the executive director.

“Sir, I’ve already answered the “why.” I will leave the “how” for you and your team to figure out. Whatever else you do,  I  cannot overemphasise the importance of including your frontline managers and employees in the discussions about how your PMO should function,  and also in selecting and designing appropriate processes.”

“I see…,” said the director thoughtfully.

“Sir, your PMO failed because it attempted to transplant practices that allegedly worked elsewhere into your unique –dare I say, special – organisation. As was inevitable, the transplant was roundly rejected: your people found the processes strange, even arbitrary, and resented them. Consequently, they found ways to work around them instead of with them. Failure of your PMO was preordained because of your focus on processes rather than intentions.

The executive director nodded thoughtfully, as the penny dropped. “Thank you Holmes,” he said, “I see your point….finally.”

“Thank you sir…and thank you all,” said Holmes nodding at each of the seated managers in turn. “There is much work for you all to do now, so Dr. Watson and I will show ourselves out.”

The two gathered their papers and left, shutting the door behind them gently.

“Never underestimate the power of a question to illuminate the truth,” said Holmes sententiously as he and Watson entered the elevator.

Watson rolled his eyes; his friend was brilliant, but he could also be a pompous ass.

——–

Acknowledgements:

Thanks to Arati Apte and Paul Culmsee for encouragement and feedback on earlier drafts of this story.

Notes:

  1. Spot the quote (for Sherlock Holmes trainspotters):  there are eight quotes from various Sherlock Holmes adventures in this post; most are verbatim, but a couple of the longer ones have been adapted to fit the narrative.
  2. If you enjoyed this piece, you might want to have a look  at the other business fables on this blog.

Written by K

March 19, 2013 at 8:01 pm

9 Responses

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  1. Kailash

    Many leading practitioners have been examining afresh the net value to an organisation of adopting a universally applied project management methodology. While seeking to reap the benefits of compliance with its universal standards, they are also recognising the dangers of such a policy as it threatens the project player’s freedom of action. The dilemma for them is that while not wishing to loosen the rigour of a commonly applied methodology, they also recognise the value of players as resolute professionals, making their own choices to suit a situation.

    A PMO (project management office), if simply acting as custodian of tools and standards, is unlikely to call on players to comply while at the same time ‘waiving through’ practices that are exceptional to universal standards. So what is to be done? The issue addressed here arises from the all-too-common and perilous presumption that project management is merely a methodology with its associated tool-sets.

    There is very much more to project management than this. Methodology, rather than a dominant factor, has to be regarded as just one of a number of features, all of which bring strengths and weakness, depending on how well they are handled .

    They run alongside other features concerning a project’s resolve, dialogue and organisation. A project professional or a PMO, in judging the efficacy of a project management endeavour, must take account of all that is needed to manage it. If we are to judge the proficiency of a project regime simply by its access to methodology and its compliance with standards, a distorted picture will emerge of an endeavour that is simply a procedure or procedures. A project is subject to irregularity that demands adaptation; making the player’s social engagement, conversation and collaboration also vital features.

    http://projectsgatheringpace.com/From my latest blog

    http://projectsgatheringpace.com/

    Martin

    Martin Price

    March 19, 2013 at 10:54 pm

    • Hi Martin,

      Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment. I agree with you entirely – methodology is no substitute for dialogue and adaptability.

      Regards,

      Kailash.

      K

      March 20, 2013 at 7:52 am

  2. [...] “Tch, tch,” clucked Holmes, shaking his head. “What a tragedy, Watson,” he continued, “yet another project management office cut down in its prime.”Watson said nothing; he knew his friend did not l…  [...]

  3. [...] “Tch, tch,” clucked Holmes, shaking his head. “What a tragedy, Watson,” he continued, “yet another project management office cut down in its prime.”Watson said nothing; he knew his friend did not l…  [...]

  4. [...] “ “Tch, tch,” clucked Holmes, shaking his head. “What a tragedy, Watson,” he continued, “yet another project management office cut down in its prime.”Watson said nothing; he knew his friend did not like interruptions when he was surveying a crime scene.Holmes walked around as he always did, in apparently random fashion, his sharp eyes darting from here to there taking in the details – the process flowcharts on a wall, project schedules displayed over on the other side, the printed portfolio reports that lay on the table and the many other artefacts that are part and parcel of a PMO.After watching his friend for what seemed like an eternity, Watson could hold his curiosity no longer: “What’s your guess, Holmes?” he asked.“I never guess. It is a shocking habit—destructive to the logical faculty.” He looked up sharply, “You should know better than to ask Watson….”“I know, Holmes, but my curiosity gets the better of me. What do you think happened?”“Ah yes, what I think. What I think is not important, Watson,” he said, wagging his index finger in his friend’s direction. “We must focus on what we know – the facts.”“So, what are the facts?” asked Watson wearily. His friend could be an insufferable pedant.“You know my methods, Watson. Look around you. What do you see?”Oh, they were going to play that game again. Shaking his head in exasperation, Watson said, “Why don’t you save time and tell me, Holmes. You are the genius, not I.”“Ah Watson, sarcasm does not become you. Anyway, I take no offence and will offer you some hints so that you may begin to discern the real reason for the failure of this PMO.”He walked over to the flowcharts on the wall and asked,” Tell me Watson, What are these and what do they tell you?” Read more : http://eight2late.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/sherlock-holmes-and-the-case-of-the-terminated-pmo/  [...]

  5. Well said, as always. Transplantation is a good analogy. Introducing anything new into an organization is tough and customization is seen as expensive and unnecessary.

    Allow me to riff on some thoughts provoked by your post?

    I ponder the value of PMOs in any organization because the overlap with good leadership and good management is challenging to navigate and in some environments, where PMs have all the responsibility and none of the control, a PMO creates confusion, adds to workload and is typically not viewed or treated as part of core business. Total no-win for the people who work within it, unless the possess exemplary their people skills. I also wonder if the proliferation of PMOs isn’t some kind of response to the flattening of organizations over the years. Some of those layers might actually have had a very useful and productive function. More insidiously, what you’re pointing out — or rather what our dear Holmes is pointing out — is just like skinny jeans, multicoloured bra straps peeking out from under white tops and gangnam style dancing — there are fads and trends and fashions in the corporate world too. Some organizations have jumped on the PMO bandwagon because they’ve got lots of project managers which often breeds lots of projects necessary to the business but running parallel to it. PMO! Everyone’s doing it. As Holmes elucidates, slavish adherence to process is a problem. It has always been a problem. Once we called people who did that bureaucrats. Today we call them zombies. ;-) But that’s can’t be the only issue. Bolting on a new functional area to an existing org structure? How can that not create a problem?

    There are some deeply held beliefs and behaviours at play as well that can contaminate decisions in the executive suite: we have a culture increasingly married to the religion of managing everything and where there are gaps, plugging them with quick fixes.

    As you point out, the presenting symptom is rarely the real issue: not in medicine and not in the business world. But aren’t we crazy about symptoms? And ways to manage them? Consider the proliferation of over-the-counter medications for every imaginable manifestation of being human. Today, no matter what ails you — aging, catching colds, getting older — there’s something to alleviate the appearance of it. Can’t eat spicy food? There’s a pill for that. Sore shoulder interfering with your life? Pill for that. Spouse #3 not as exciting as a year ago? Quickie divorce for $99. In our culture and its institutions, we look for quick fixes wherever there’s a hint of a hurt or an issue instead of doing the work to get it back on track. It seems that a fair amount of leadership in a good number of organizations do the same thing: symptom management. And I’m sure you heard that some academics who study organizations have coined the term “immunity to change.”

    And might I comment about consultants? They’re not all bad. I have worked with amazing one, and think I’m not so bad myself ;-). Besides, with more and more employers opting for time-limited employees, or a la carte, aren’t more people becoming contracted consultants? But let’s be clear: consultants are not hired to be detectives or truth tellers. Answering the question of, “how can we make this work better, or how can we prevent this from happening again?” is rarely attached to “let’s discover root cause.” It’s more about painting a cold room a different colour to make people believe it’s warmer even though the temperature remains constant — and low: you know, to save money. Even when consultants discover what the real issues are, they’re not allowed or are not paid to bring it to light, although they might whisper it in someone’s ear.

    But back to project management. With tongue in cheek might I suggest that it is simply a tool to get things done and used well by masterful craftspeople, it is an excellent tool. At the end of the day, though, it isn’t the PMO. Or the org structure. It’s about the people and the environment in which they operate, and their leadership and management and their environment and how people behave — or don’t.

    FS

    March 23, 2013 at 12:11 am

    • Hi FS,

      Thanks for reading and for posting your very interesting thoughts.

      Although, PMOs are (in principle) a sensible idea, their responsibilities frequently overlap with those of existing structures leading to confusion and, ultimately, conflict. Most often it is project managers who are caught in the resulting crossfire.

      Dare I say, the establishment of PMO is one of those quick fix actions you speak of – a kind of “Our project failure rate is too high, hence, we need a PMO” reflex response to a deeper issue that has its roots in misunderstood organisational problems (and hence, misguided projects aimed at “solving” them). I have seen too many enterprise scale projects that should not have been given the go-ahead in the first place. The problem is not the failure of the cure, but the diagnosis itself. As our friend Holmes put it, “If organisations focus on curing symptoms rather than causes, they will end up exacerbating the underlying dysfunctions.” Organisation-land is into alleviating symptoms of headaches rather than finding and eliminating the pathologies that cause them.

      To be honest, I don’t blame consultants at all. I have been one myself and, like you, I hope my clients found me worth the fee :-). Like you too, I have worked with brilliant ones, but they do take some finding. Charlatans touting pre-packaged “best practice” solutions are all too common. Caveat emptor: the onus is on the customer to distinguish between the thinkers and the talkers. It isn’t that hard, but I’m ever surprised at how often people make the wrong choice.

      Thanks again – I look forward to our continuing conversation.

      Regards,

      Kailash.

      K

      March 24, 2013 at 10:19 pm

  6. […] Baron McKinsey and Lord Gartner (who seemed to be doing well enough). Moreover his success with the case of the terminated PMO  had given him some credibility in management circles.   As it turned out, it was that very case […]

  7. […] “Tch, tch,” clucked Holmes, shaking his head. “What a tragedy, Watson,” he continued, “yet another project management office cut down in its prime.” Watson said nothing; he knew his friend did not …  […]


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