In times of crisis, many business leaders will underestimate the role a PMO can play in driving just-in-time business decisions that are critical when companies need to respond and adapt to increasingly uncertain market conditions. The role of the PMO is now more than ever a crucial function that is well-positioned to arm business leaders with the information and resources to guide the going-forward strategy that must be defined as quickly as the environment is shifting.

In some organizations, PMO leaders have found themselves in a reactionary state trying to respond to ad hoc questions, while other PMO leaders are being completely left out of the conversation by business leaders that are not clear on the best way to properly engage a PMO to help drive critical business decisions. In times of crisis, as well as during business as usual, PMO leaders have an opportunity to engage their organizations by bringing valuable insight to the table during the inevitable fast-paced decision-making process taking place in most organizations today.

The objective of this paper is to arm PMO and business leaders with a fresh approach to leveraging the power of a PMO to solve immediate and long-term business problems facing organizations.

The VUCA Reality

Prior to the Coronavirus global pandemic, there were a plethora of articles and webinars stressing the importance of adapting our organizational management in the face of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity and some organizations heeded the warning to shift and prepare for an even more unstable environment. At the same time, this new VUCA reality shows that many organizations were not as prepared as they would have hoped to be when a real crisis strikes.

Oftentimes, the much-needed catalyst for change comes from our organizational system being shocked by an unexpected outside force such as a disaster, major market shift, or a global pandemic. Our current environment has given organizations that necessary catalyst for change to let go of the typical way of defining strategy and the annual project investment portfolio allowing them the opportunity to embrace a more nimble way of identifying and manage shifting priorities quickly.

Today’s business leaders find themselves needing to hit the reset button on the investment decisions they made only months ago and revisit their strategy and growth goals to respond to a rapidly changing environment, often with incomplete information. This has created an urgent need for real-time data to drive decisions that can have a lasting impact on the organization.

The trifecta of a rapidly changing environment, demand for real-time data, and a requirement for just-in-time decision-making create an opportunity for PMOs to take a seat at the table and lead organizations toward a bright future and embrace our new normal.


The PMO Opportunity

Many PMOs are well-positioned to support this new normal because they hold the keys to the information necessary to drive educated and informed decisions across the investment portfolio. To drive these decisions, PMOs can create a stronger alignment of projects to strategy and laser-focus on the outcomes each initiative must achieve to live up to expectations, even when those expectations might be evolving.

The ability for PMOs to leverage this opportunity will be largely dependent upon their ability to embrace a more agile approach to gathering, processing, and reporting on this critical information and finding new ways to accelerate project performance and throughput. In fact, the PMOs that will thrive in this new normal are going to be able to shift as quickly as the needs of the organization shift around them.


Letting Go of the Past

To embrace the opportunity facing PMOs today, many will need to let go of the concept of continuous improvement and embrace a mindset of continuous evolution. The concept of continuous improvement suggests a steady level of progress along a clearly defined path. However, the ultra-VUCA environment today demands that PMOs shift and nimbly respond to requests at a moment’s notice. For PMOs, this means many will need to abandon their current path of incremental improvement and move toward a state of continuous evolution to meet these demands.

The thought of letting go of the trusted path of consistency and structure might be daunting for some PMO leaders, however, this shift is not as challenging as it might first appear. It is simply about being willing to bend and have a more fluid approach to responding to new requirements and requests, sensing and responding to the needs of the business in real-time. As PMOs let go of outdated and rigid ways of working that are holding them back, business leaders will begin to rely on PMOs more readily to support their overall strategy and goals.

Imagine the branch of a tree. If the tree is healthy and well maintained, when you grab a branch and bend it, it bends with you. In fact, even if you apply great force when that tree is properly fed, hydrated, and healthy, it bends with your force. However, imagine if that same tree were not properly cared for and maintained, it would easily break with even light force. This is what we need to do with our PMO and portfolios. We must properly care and feed them to achieve our nimble and flexible state.

The goal for PMOs is to engage stakeholders and business leaders in the organization in a different way than many have done historically. Instead of asking how they can serve or expecting business leaders to come around to the PMO way of thinking, PMO leaders that will thrive in chaos are making it their business to understand the goals of the business and learn how to serve in a more meaningful way. They will work with their stakeholders to proactively respond to business and market shifts that demand a fresh approach and perspective. The invitation to sit at the table in these conversations is dependent upon PMOs being able to provide new approaches to solving business problems while moving away from the standard process-intensive nature of PMO solutions of the past.

Embracing an Agile Mindset

The Agile Manifesto shares a value system that embraces an uncertain world, offering PMOs insight into a way to shift toward a nimbler operating model while not completely abandoning the solutions they have developed over the years. The key is knowing when and how to apply solutions and ensuring that the energy leans toward a more collaborative change-ready culture.

In short, loosening the grip on process and tools, extensive documentation, and adherence to a plan can allow PMOs to put people and collaboration first, focus on outcomes over outputs, and respond to changes in a more outcome-focused manner.


PMO as Strategy Navigator

PMOs can secure a seat at the strategy table by driving organizational agility for the enterprise now and in the future. The PMO can be the central puzzle piece enabling strategy delivery for an organization by connecting the vision and strategy to the planning and delivery processes necessary to make that vision a reality. This is done in several ways:

  • Create 360-degree alignment. Enable an outcome-focused workforce by ensuring that all projects are connected to the strategy of the organization and that this is evident and reinforced in conversations at all levels of the organization.
  • Elevate the perspective. Loosen the grip on the minutia of individual projects allowing space to shift the PMO’s sights toward a more holistic picture of the portfolio and brings to light the questions that must be answered to accelerate delivery of the organization’s critical objectives.
  • Increase organizational change management capacity. Cultivate a change-empowered culture that will thrive in a rapidly changing environment where no one will have all the answers necessary to make decisions and proactively drive forward with the information available toward a not-always-certain future.
  • Enable just-in-time decision-making. Streamline methods for gathering, processing, and communicating information about the portfolio of investments to ensure that the information needed is accurate and timely.


Proactively Pivot Toward Action

There are countless ways the PMO can proactively address the challenges and needs of a shifting business by becoming a strategic business partner to the organization, guiding them on their long-term journey while providing immediate solutions that will address the most pressing pain points of many organizations today. The goal is to find the most crucial opportunities that your business leaders are likely to adopt that can answer the pressing questions they must answer right now to keep the organization moving forward and use that momentum to continue to serve as the needs continue to evolve. This positions the PMO as a trusted advisor at the ready as critical business decisions need to be made in real-time.

Key actions PMOs can take right now include the following:

  1. Anticipate the needs of business leaders that must react in the face of change and start gathering the necessary data that will facilitate quick decisions.
  2. Prepare for the what-if scenarios that are most relevant to the current environment and offer solutions that will minimize the negative impacts of any desired shifts.
  3. Guide the leadership team through an assessment and prioritization of the project portfolio based on the new information available from incoming sources.
  4. Enable faster shut down or pause of projects that are not currently relevant with today’s information, allowing for the reallocation of resources immediately to more pressing initiatives while packaging those projects properly so they can be revisited later.
  5. Build organizational change management capacity within the organization through training, coaching, and guidance so that the rapid shifts taking place can move forward at a rapid pace without resistance.
  6. Streamline and optimize the communication process to allow for more frequent and transparent communication that will keep the staff in alignment with the shifting priorities and new objectives and help them create a connection to their critical role in helping the organization achieve the new objectives.


Starting the Conversation

The next step is to engage in a proactive dialog with business leaders about how the PMO can bring order to the chaotic times. In some organizations, this will happen organically because the business leaders are already engaged in conversations with the PMO on a regular basis. For others, the PMO must initiate these conversations and show how they can contribute to solving the business challenges facing executives in chaotic times. In organizations where the business leaders are not inclined to include the PMO at the table, the PMO leader cannot wait for that tap on the shoulder to get involved.

To ensure that these critical conversations achieve the desired outcomes, PMO leaders must remember that the goal is not to sell the PMO as the solution, but instead sell the solution they can create that will achieve the anticipated results. This four-step process reframes the discussion and creates connectivity between the identified business need, the solution the PMO can provide, and the outcome and impact this will have on the organization.

Need: This is the clearly articulated business pain point or opportunity identified by the business leaders explained in terms that express the urgency and the root cause of the challenge. If this is not explained clearly, the PMO runs the risk of solving the wrong problem. To confirm understanding, the PMO will always reiterate this deeply rooted pain or opportunity in their own words. In some cases, business leaders will rush right to asking the PMO to provide a solution without clarifying the need and this can make it difficult to confirm that the solution will address the need or hide an underlying root cause that won’t be addressed by the proposed solution.

Example: Lack of insight into the projects taking place in the organization, therefore unable to make decisions about what projects should be prioritized or put on hold in the current climate.

Solution: Describe the solution your PMO can provide to quickly address the agreed-upon need explaining how this will address the underlying deeply rooted cause of the pain being experienced or opportunity that has yet to be realized. It is critical that the PMO leader users non-project-based terminology to describe this solution whenever possible. The less “project speak” we use and the more business terminology we employ, the more likely we are to be understood and gain critical support for our solution.

Example: Simple portfolio management solution with streamlined dashboard views.

Outcome: The articulated result that the business leaders have requested. This is simply a way of reframing the pain they have experienced into the outcome they would ultimately like to achieve.

Example: Transparency

Impact: The ultimate benefit to the organization that will be realized when the proposed solution is implemented. The way this is worded should clearly address the way your solution will address the outcome expected and reduce or remove the pain identified or opportunity the business leaders would like to realize.

Example: “Using a straightforward project portfolio management solution, you will have greater transparency into the project work taking place which will allow us to ensure we are working on the highest priority projects, thereby decreasing our expenses toward lower priority projects.”


The PMO Imperative: Become Invaluable

The secret to success for PMOs during and beyond a crisis is to become invaluable. The outcome-focused PMO naturally thrives in chaotic times as well as times of stability by intuitively targeting areas of opportunity to create need-based solutions that business leaders count on to deliver on commitments to their customers, investors, and employees. These immediate action steps will become a catalyst of its own showing the value and impact a PMO can have on moving an organization forward in the worst of times as well as the best of times.

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