PMI Talent Triangle: Business Acumen (Strategic and Business Management)

Welcome to the PMO Strategies Podcast + Blog, where PMO leaders become IMPACT Drivers! Today we have a special guest interview with Mark Price Perry, we are talking about nudging organizational change. For all the details (and you don’t want to miss them) listen to the full epsiode on your favorite podcast player. Mark is the Catalyst and the Evangelist of the Business Driven PMO. What I love about Mark’s perspective, is that he helps PMOs from a consumer or stakeholder of the PMO perspective as opposed to the PMO leader perspective. itself and that’s why he can provide so much great insight and different perspective that I think we as PMO leaders need. You can see Mark’s full bio on the site.

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Nudging Organizational Change

Laura: What I think really sticks with me from your podcast, your online videos, and sharing multiple stages with you is your mind-blowing topic around business agility, is there anything you’d like to share with our PMO audience about you and your experience?

Mark: I’d like to talk about stakeholders and stakeholders in the context of a stakeholder perspective, for me, that’s really a watershed moment that I had in that for 20 years, mostly with IBM, I had been involved in program offices and project management offices. Typically I was involved as a stakeholder or as one of the leadership team members served by the office and in the environment, I was in, they were typically frontline environments that were seeking to achieve specific business objectives. Those program offices and project management offices were set up and were instrumental in helping us achieve those specific business objectives. But the way we set those up, in my first 20 years of experience, they were always set up with a specific purpose in mind and a value of achieving that purpose with specific measurements from which the office would be held to account. It was a two-step process, step 1: the leadership team was asked to consider starting a project management office. In that, the leadership team asked why? What are we seeking to achieve? How do we codify that? Then based upon how much it’s gonna cost to get this going as an investment,
step 2: what’s an assessment of the return and that becomes a business case for the project management office. People take a means to the ends view of project management and the PMO specifically. Regrettably, I think that’s probably one of the key reasons why so many PMOs struggle in the initial set up. It’s not that you don’t need people, processes, and tools, but in the rush to get those things going, often times lost or not crafted in the first place was the leadership team’s purpose in having the PMO, what they would commit to by way of investment, and the expected return, and then using that information to determine what you actually DO. It’s just mind-blowing to me that business people, whether you call them project managers and whether they have a certification or not, would take the position to just advance the means of the ends and the ends to be achieved will find themselves. That started my reputation as maybe being a maverick. The reality is that I’m not a maverick, I’m just driven by business needs, I’m business-driven. That business-driven aspect spawned into the approach that I took and talking about the PMO, are you business-driven or are you driven by some other intention? I have seen some improvement in the last 20 years in that I do believe that on average PMOs are more business-driven today than I saw 20 years ago. Having said that, we’re talking about instead of 75% being not business-driven is maybe 60%. There’s still a ton of work to be done.

Laura: People spend so much time on that setup and the people, process, templates, tools kind of thing without actually creating any value because they didn’t ask that critical question that you mentioned, which was why, why are we doing this PMO in the first place? I think that’s one of the things that really when I found you, I felt like I had met a kindred spirit because my world’s a little bit different, in that I built my first PMO in 1999. I then spent 15 years in the role of PMO leader and I got to tell you, I wish I had access to you and all of your resources back then because in 1999 they weren’t even, at least where I was working, in the middle of the dot com craziness, they weren’t calling it a PMO.
We just knew we needed to execute and deliver our projects faster and faster and everything was going digital and everything was going into this new Internet online and we just had to speed up getting to that return for the investment.
I mean, it’s not like today where you can go Google how to set up a PMO and get 8 million results back. Back then I couldn’t find the resources, the tools, the training, and the books. There was just wasn’t much out there.  So I  stopped focusing so much on outputs and started focusing on outcomes. Once I started doing that, the magic started happening: the projects were getting delivered, higher return on investment, the strategy was getting realized, all the things that a PMO is supposed to do. Once I started aligning with the right questions, we started seeing some really great progress.  Over the next 15 years, I kept hearing was the same old same old, which was the PMO is set up to create process and tools and get people certified. I’ve just felt like that wasn’t my experience. 

Mark: I think you’re spot on. There’s no one talking about, how to get the leadership team to even talk about or agree with the purpose of the PMO because that’s “not the scope of the PMO.” Instead they just “do the stuff” or just “implement the tool.” The value and the most important aspect of starting a PMO is that determination of what’s the purpose. Then based upon that purpose, how do we craft the most appropriate means to the ends. For one organization, sure that might be implementing a tool when starting a methodology for the organization, for another organization, there may not be a need for a tool or methodology, but you wouldn’t know until you first defined the problem. So again, I think it’s a lot better now than it was, but it’s far from where it should be.

Laura: That’s ultimately what I realized as I was going to these events and I was talking to people and they indicating that they thought it needs to be this certain way, and that’s the only way, or we’ve got to define the types, etc. Once I started seeing all that, and it just didn’t align with the experience I was having when I was successful in organizations as a PMO leader, I really felt this burning need to share that information with everyone. To let people know that there’s a better way.  We’ve got to get out of this mindset of survival skills. If a PMO needs survival skills, then the PMO is not delivering business value, period. It was so important to me when I started seeing all of these things online and in sessions where it was just information on how you survive, or how you sell the PMO. I thought, wait a minute, if that’s what people are focused on, where is the conversation around why are we here, what’s the business problem we’re solving, what are the outcomes we’re trying to achieve, the ends that we’re trying to achieve? I felt this burning desire to go change that.  I would say you and I are on this mission with a group of our colleagues to just change the perspective of the PMO and help people understand that they don’t need survival skills. They don’t need to sell the PMO, they don’t need to do all of those things. They just need to focus on the outcome they’re trying to achieve, not how many outputs they can create.  By the way, guys, value is not determined by the number of outputs you create or the number of pages in your project management plans. Value is determined by the IMPACT you’re making on the organization, how you’re helping the organization achieve ROI. All of that passion and energy, I think you and I share in helping to get the message out there that there’s a better way.

Mark: You use two words that are very fitting for this podcast and that’s passion and energy. As you know, I really have had a lot of passion and energy for the PMO domain. I’ve been at this for nearly 40 years, the first 20 as a stakeholder and then the last 20 as helping others. I’m kind of up there in age, probably a couple of decades older than you, and I’m getting pretty close to that magical line passing the torch. I’ve contributed a great deal, and I’m kind of at a point where there are some very specific niche areas that I am trying to steer my passions and energy towards. If I can say that we went from 75% of PMOs that were struggling 20 years ago to maybe 65% now, I think that there’s going to be a new team of people that are highly passionate and highly energetic, that will drive that 65% down to maybe 33% in the next 10 or 20 years. That’s going to be people like you that are young and vibrant and full of energy and full of passion that have done a lot already and have a lot more to give.  There’s a couple of folks that I think are current stars. There’s going to be even more better future stars and you are right at the top of the list. I’m delighted that you’re going to be doing some PMO podcasting and I am confident that with your leadership and a few others like you, that the PMO domain will see further improvement in the next of couple of decades.

Laura: Wow, Mark, thank you so much. It’s just an honor to be able to work with you at all and I’m just so humbled by your words and your kindness. Thank you. There’s a lot of work to do still. If it wasn’t for people like you that had been, I would say carrying a torch, being the evangelist for business-driven PMO, we wouldn’t be where we are. I think that you’ve changed so many mindsets, many more than you probably realize. I know that I really enjoyed listening to your podcast. It’s still out there. It’s called the PMO Podcast. It’s fantastic guys. If you guys want to go listen to Mark’s content and then, of course, we’re going to continue to bring you content with this PMO Strategies Podcast and keep that positive and forward-thinking and business-driven IMPACT-driven focus with PMOs going forward. Mark, I wonder if we could talk a little bit about the session that you’re going to be doing for the Summit? 

Mark: Sure, I’d be happy to touch on some of the highlights. Many people advocate that as the formal projects that bring about a change, but it’s oftentimes the informal projects throughout the business that sustain the change. Right off the bat, we have a mindset of as a PMO, whether we are a business transformation PMO or change management PMO or an enterprise PMO, we have our formal projects we’re working on each and every day, great. But there’s a complete set of organizational-wide projects that the PMO doesn’t necessarily need to know about or be involved with, but they exist. And in fact, not only do they exist like I just mentioned, they’re tremendously important and they often they sustain the change, desired behavior of those formal projects. So that’s one premise.  Now enter the world of complex adaptive systems, nudge theory, behavioral economics. More than a decade ago, a gentleman economist won the Nobel Prize for his and nudge theory. And the premise of nudge theory is really kind of interesting. The premise of nudge theory is that a nudge influences a choice, but nudges in themselves aren’t mandatory. The person that’s nudged doesn’t have to accept it and there’s no penalty for ignoring it, because nudges are voluntary. But the nudge is intended to make something better, to facilitate a changed behavior for the better.  The example I like to give is putting apple slices at eye level in the school cafeteria is a nudge. Banning French fries isn’t a nudge, that’s forced. We don’t change the choice architecture, but we take actions to, in essence, to change the choice and thereby the outcome. This has a tremendous impact. So much so that over a decade ago, David Cameron in the UK, President Obama in the United States, and the Australian government started standing up these behavioral insights teams or behavioral economics teams or “nudge units” for the purposes of saying “we can’t just do a program and expect the world to change. We have to introduce nudges.”  Think about how a PMO can help. Think about the business side where these units are existing, they are in essence a PMO. I always worked with PMOS and suggested that in their business case documents, their project charge, project status reports it’s not good enough to show in a vacuum alone the project data points like the project budget. Rather, you should show not only the project budget but what is the stakeholder willingness to spend for that project because it’s really important.  If the budget is $1 million and the ultimate benefit is hundreds of million dollars over how many years, what would the stakeholder actually pilot to do the project in the first place? If the stakeholder would be willing to pay $5 million for a project, that only cost $1 million, that’s really good to know and that can set some expectations about how we mitigate risks. Conversely, if the stakeholder only has the ability to pay $1 million on a million-dollar budget, that’s also good to know and that would greatly change the way we mitigate risks. In fact, not knowing that information is almost negligence. It’s almost a gross misconduct.  The whole idea of nudge theory comes into play because the answer isn’t to recreate how we do things from scratch, but to root out those practices and behaviors that don’t support the desired change behavior by way of using nudges that bring about the changed behavior.

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Laura: Wow, that’s really interesting and you can see how that would apply. My mind is already spinning of all the ways that that would apply at the PMO level, when you’re having PMO conversations, setting up a PMO, and of course, across your projects. It sounds like I can almost hear what I refer to as the “yeah but”  monster that sometimes gets in our PMO leaders heads. Our PMO leaders will say, “yeah, but that won’t work here” or “yeah, but we can’t ask those questions” or “yeah, but…” I think a lot of that resistance comes because they haven’t taken the time to build that trusted advisor relationship so they can’t have very hard honest conversations. It sounds like the questions you would need to ask, the kind of the areas you’d want to focus, and/or how you were nudging would require there to be some trust built in between the stakeholders, sponsors, etc. that are part of the PMO and the projects.

Mark: Well, that’s not wrong but, but again it gets back to IMPACT or business-driven ideas. If we’re focused on what we want to accomplish then it merely becomes a discussion of what are the means to the ends. I think most people would agree or maybe I should say the other way, few people would defend the notion that big design upfront plan-driven scientific management is the only way to go. Most people recognize that we need adaptive and agile approaches. We didn’t embrace complex adaptive systems. We need to be open about new ways to improve how we go about achieving the project outcomes, the business outcomes that we want to have. 

Laura: Oh my gosh. Yes. There’s a really simple framework, and I think you saw this when we were doing one of our workshops together, to help PMO leaders and project managers have the right conversations. When PMO leaders and project managers are talking about their projects of getting to the outcome and the IMPACT focus. I tell them to start with the business problem, business opportunity, the pain point, or ask the why. Ask, “what is it that we’re trying to accomplish here?”  Then connect that to the service, the solution, the perspective, whatever is that you’re trying to illustrate will solve that pain point or address that opportunity. Then talk about the outcome that that will create. 

Mark: I think you’re exactly right. I often share with leadership teams I work with that there are really two key steps. The first step is determining, the ends to be achieved. And that’s a leadership team call. That’s not a PMO manager call. And then the second step is to, once they determine what they want to have created, then the PMO takes the initiative to develop the PMO business plan to provide them subject to their approval, the means to the end. Before that two-step process takes place, there’s what I call a subzero or an anty that must be paid. And that is the leadership team must first establish what is the approach, the process or the activity. What is the approach that we as a leadership team plan to take for getting to the why. 

Laura: Right, exactly. And I really like that kind of subzero or the “before we even start” kind of perspective because oftentimes when I go in and work with organizations that want to implement a PMO or build more of a project management culture, they’re so anxious to get started. What I find that is really funny is a lot of times it’s the PMO leaders that want to start doing before they even plan. When that happens I reel them back in and say, “Hold on a second. I think you need to take a little bit of your own medicine and figure out why we’re here, what we’re doing and how we’re going to get to that outcome, first.”   

Mark: Let me offer your listeners and readers an A-ha moment I’m going to ask a question.  How long do you think you should allow for the leadership team to arrive at the purpose of the PMO? A couple of days? A couple of weeks? A couple of months?  When I work with leadership teams we have a formal program, where we sit down with the leadership teams, we meet with them individually to discuss what they want from the PMO. Then we meet as a group to vet out and debate and argue what the group wants. Then we have a number of group meetings, as many as it takes, until such time as we arrive at a leadership team consensus position. This is when everyone raises their hand and says, I agree to this. I agree to the purpose, I agree to the value. Once that happens, we’re ready to have the PMO do the plan.  When we do this work with leadership teams on average it takes us five to six months. Every now and then we can do it in three months, and every now and then it takes nine months. Whether it’s three months, five to six or nine months, not once in all of my work with leadership teams, has there been a complaint about the time expended. Not only do the leadership teams have no problem with the time it takes, but they also recognize that this work should be done or else the PMOs at risk.

Laura:  Wow. So that’s really important perspective for all of you listening/reading today when you’re thinking about starting up or hitting the reset button or just doing a refresh or trying to take on your next set of capabilities.  You also talk a little bit about business agility and for those that are new to that concept, we’re not talking about Agile methodology here. We’re talking about business agility. What is that for our audience today and how does the PMO need to shift how they operate to be more business agile?  Mark: That’s a good question and it gets back to what we were discussing before about determining the leadership team purpose. Because a lot of times different organizations, have different degrees of agility that they’re interested in or can take on.  It’s really about addressing the fact that we have different types of techniques for managing project-related work, techniques that are birthed in scientific management, plan-driven project management kinds of things, but also techniques that are more patterned after the principles of complex adaptive systems. So that’s two dimensions.  The other two dimensions are the type of projects are not just changing the business but the informal projects to sustain, run, and react to the business. That really creates a two by two fitness landscape of organizational-wide project management that traditional PMOs quite frankly are like an ostrich with their head in the sand, only play in one of four of those quadrants.  Laura: Well, it’s got to be a practice before it can be a best practice, right? You’ve got to have people out there that are practitioners, that are putting these things in place, that are proving out what works, and that certain practices are best practices. Are there any parting words or advice that you have for PMO leaders today? Of course they should go watch your episode or the PMO IMPACT Summit as soon as it’s live. But right now, today, what is the one thing they could do differently or how they could start thinking differently to shift the way that their PMO is operating, to be more business agile or business nimble and think about how they can start driving some organizational change more effectively?

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Mark: Well, if I can quote you, “start with why.” If you just start with why and you’re focused on outcomes, you will find plenty of outputs and plenty of things do and turn your attention to. Again, I would always try to make sure that you’re not trying to do what we think should be done. Instead, we are seeking to do that which the leadership team wants us to do and achieve. Sometimes it’s really important to just take a candid assessment. You can’t always change everything immediately or move the battleship, but you really ought to be able to look in the mirror and say, am I fundamentally going about this the right way? Am I putting the PMO in a position to truly achieve the outcomes that the leadership team has? Or are you in the position where the PMO is at risk and don’t even know what the leadership team wants? A good example is if you’re having to sell the leadership team on why the PMO should be there and on value, then you’re already many steps going down the wrong path. It’s not your job to sell the leadership team on the value of the PMO. Your job is to listen, have them tell you what they want to accomplish, have them tell you their assessment of value. Your value is to facilitate that discussion and make it happen. If you can realize your value you will be a highly successful project management office manager and probably a highly successful business manager. If you can’t do that, you might succeed, but you’re putting the PMO at risk.

Laura: Yes, that’s perfect. Well with that everybody, just want to say thank you for being a part of our show today. Mark, thank you so much for being my first guest on the PMO Strategies Podcast and for sharing your experience your expertise and maybe passing the torch if you will. As far as I’m concerned, you’ve been carrying this torch of business-driven PMO for a long time and I am so grateful for all that you’ve done to shape this conversation for the industry and change the mindsets people have around PMO and the IMPACT it can make.

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Laura Barnard