Fresh out of college, shortly after starting a new job, I remember my old boss sitting me down and giving me some advice. “To succeed in this job,” he said, “You’ll need a high tolerance for ambiguity.” That’s a theme that keeps recurring of late as I have been preparing for a couple presentations at the upcoming Project Conference. Specifically, it’s a theme I’ve been revisiting in preparation for co-presenting a talk on how the PMO can both be collaborative and help an organization become more collaborative.
As part of that preparation, I’ve been reading Chris Argyris’ Flawed Advice and the Management Trap: How Managers Can Know When They’re Getting Good Advice and When They’re Not. I also picked up a used copy of Suresh Srivastva’s Executive Integrity: The Search for High Human Values in Organizational Life. Specifically, when reading an essay in there by Steven Kerr on Integrity in Effective Leadership, a couple things clicked with some of the discussions I had at the PMO Symposium in San Diego last November.
One of the cornerstones of having integrity as a leader, Kerr writes, is to remove ambiguity around the organizational goals. Everyone should understand what the organization wishes to achieve, and how it arrived at those decisions. According to him, leaders should “clarify organizational values and priorities and individual rights and obligations.” (He also writes about maintaining integrity between stated goals and performed actions – but that’s a different discussion).
So in this sense, clarity and definitions are good. Argyris brings up an example of where clarity can actually be detrimental. His book talks about the difference between internal and external motivation. Internal motivation is driven by a need to achieve goals. External motivation is driven from a desire to look good – which in the corporate world, often means hitting our target metrics. The problem with role definitions, he writes, is that when they are overly precise, they remove the element of internal motivation from our work. They end up reducing our jobs to specific processes that must be followed. Inevitably, that replaces internal motivation with external motivation.
In reconciling those statements then, we can derive some guidance on how to construct a high performing organization. We clarify what we are hoping to achieve. We maintain ambiguity about how to get there and about how people will interact to achieve this. We clarify the “what” while deferring the “how” to the team. This is how collaborative cultures are born.
Note however that this does not constitute a wholehearted endorsement of vague position descriptions. That sort of thing would never fly in a team that is going through the “storming” stage of team development, i.e. when each individual is coming from a different organizational or departmental culture. Vague position descriptions only work in a team where everyone agrees on what they’re trying to accomplish – and when the desire to achieve the goal (internal motivation) supersedes the petty disagreements on how to achieve it.
So what’s the PMO’s role in all of this? That speaks to the changing role of the PMO. Increasingly, I see discussions of the PMO as a cultural change agent. The PMO’s role is one of communication – both vertically and horizontally within the organization. The PMO’s job is to maintain the prioritization structure for new work – and to communicate how projects align with that prioritization structure. The PMO then is chartered with ensuring consistency and clarity between the stated goals of the organization and the actual work of the organization. This is achieved through project selection mechanisms, through strategic scorecards, and through simple things such as maintaining a top ten list of all projects within the organization.
The PMO often provides both the catalyst to define organizational clarity as well as the vehicle to communicate that clarity through clear project selection and prioritization mechanism. That is one of the building blocks to achieve a high performing team – and by definition, a collaborative culture.