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The Rock n’ Roll of Project Management: Metaphors and Foundations
By Carl M. Manello

“I’ve had enough of the way things have been done
Every man on a razors edge
Someone has used us to kill with the same gun
Killing each other by driving a wedge.”
– Pete Townshend

I’ve long been a fan of Pete Townshend—from his days with Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band The Who, through his solo career and even his time as an author. While I’m sure he never formally managed a project, his lyrics resonate for me on effective delivery and the need for change.

When we don’t sufficiently plan our course and approach for governance, we end up on the precarious edge of meeting expectations or falling into failure. I’m not trying to be too absolute by suggesting that there are only two possible outcomes. However, for those of us responsible for establishing the governance infrastructure to run large-scale business initiatives, the extremes may ring true. When it goes well, no one notices (and that may be just fine). But when delivery begins to slip, it is often the program manager being singled out and blamed. Teams break down and are divided and the scapegoats are identified.

Now I’m not going to suggest that it is never the fault of a program manager when things go awry. However, if a solid foundation was never established; senior leadership was not engaged; the organization is not mobilized to make the required changes; and participation in the business program is lacking, it can hardly be the fault of one person. Another Hall of Fame rocker sang a poetic metaphor for poor planning.

And so castles made of sand, fall in the sea, eventually.

To paraphrase Jimi Hendrix in the context of program management, we must ensure that we put in place the controls and establish the operational visibility to ensure that our most important initiatives succeed. Without a proven foundation in place to ensure effective delivery, our programs are destined to crumble eventually.

So what can be done to prevent erosion of our efforts? We can do it differently! Instead of being program managers that follow an academic playbook and balance between success and failure on a too-often daily basis, let us rally and start driving change. I’ve had enough of the way things have been done too. I want to see more organizations devoting a strong operational focus to the execution of their business programs. Let me provide an example.

Doing things differently: a solid foundation

Tired of the way things have been done, one of my clients sought to set up their “PMO” on a more solid foundation for effective delivery. As part of a large-scale merger integration, my client did not simply set up a PMO and require that all PMs report in. In fact, given the scale of the program, there were relatively few PMs. However, the leadership team did recognize the need to set up a formal means for controlling and delivering successfully. Day-to-day operations depended on it.

The leadership team, including the heads of each department (from HR to accounting and IT to marketing) got a seat at the table. This decision-making team was the “PMO.” They met weekly to review status, escalate issues, and discuss the week’s challenges. Status reporting was not the sort of dog-and-pony show report focused solely on work stream “Red/Yellow/Green.” Instead, it was a focused update shared with the entire team regarding requirements, dependencies, identified risks, and calls for action (that were addressed offline).

The day-to-day operations of the program were headed up by a member of the senior leadership team, not a project manager. The accountable parties around the PMO table were from their respective departments, not project managers. Program management processes and methods were established (e.g., a SharePoint collaboration site for status, milestones, issues, etc.), but was not heavy-handed or overly complex. Leaders were in charge of this program; project managers were the support structure.

Removing the wedge

By leveraging an appropriate amount of structure (i.e., process, methods, templates, and tools), the team was able to nimbly react as needed, minimize the impact on operations and work toward the successful integration of the new business in time to meet contractual needs. Doing things differently had positive impact and made the program stronger. Sure, we still had challenges, like milestones not being updated or unexpected issues arising. But with the governance structure in place, the team was able to react quickly and drive for resolutions.

So as you move into your next business critical or enterprise-wide business initiative, ensure that you are setting up the appropriate level of controls; the right kind of “PMO”; and that you are focused on enabling people through collaboration instead of driving a wedge and looking for someone to blame. Leaning on Townshend’s “same gun” metaphor, we don’t simply want to use the same tools used last time… unless it was proven to work. Find a better way to build a foundation to support your castle so it doesn’t slip into the sea.

Carl Manello is a Solution Lead for Slalom‘s Program & Project Management practice based in Chicago who enjoys exploring how to tightly couple the art and science of project delivery with business operations. You can read from Carl on his blog.

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