Project Impermanence: The Sign of an Infant PMO

Object permanence is that step in infant development where the infant comes to realize that an object returning to the field of vision may actually be the same object that left several minutes ago, i.e. leaving the room is no longer an existential threat.  (Think a variation of the Schrodinger’s Cat experiment, but hypoallergenic and with less moving parts.)

I was chatting with a friend/new parent/portfolio manager the other day, and we started joking around that PMOs tend to go through the same development milestones as newborn infants.  In fact, his particular PMO was struggling with the concept of project permanence.  The problem was that the PMO would often accept a certain number of projects for execution as part of the annual planning process and then simply ignore anything not approved.  This meant that as funds freed up throughout the year, they would be made available only to the latest and newest requests – the shiny objects that captured the organizational attention at the moment.

More significantly perhaps, when it came time to start planning for next year, the list of projects that didn’t make the cut this year was no longer available and it was up to the business to come up with a new list.  In essence, these become all net new projects.

Instead of this simplistic approach, we see our clients keeping a running backlog of projects that reprioritized on a regular cadence.  As funds are made available (say, through a monthly reforecasting mechanism), they may be allocated to the next project in the queue.  Similarly, when it comes to planning for the next planning period, we already have a list of projects that are in the queue.

From an epistemological standpoint, we can periodically review this growing backlog to spot the emerging trends and categories that we should be focusing on as an organization.  If we see a trend of projects emerging around improving the customer experience, we can call that out as a high level portfolio category and then actually sit down to plot out the capabilities and projects that really would be required to meet those needs. (Building a sensing mechanism)

We find that project permanence may also be fostered through simply moving planning to a higher level, i.e. moving to an asset based planning model (or here for a discussion of the push vs. pull model).  In this scenario, planning is performed at the asset level.  In the case of IT, where an application is considered an asset, I can create a long term roadmap of the projects I will need to support an application – as I know every year will have a project to enhance it and then I’ll need to run an upgrade project in 5 years.  In this case, we don’t treat each year as an exercise in net new planning, but instead already have a good understanding of what our cost base looks like several years in the future.

In the end, what does this mean for the PMO?  This means the PMO is no longer simply focused on planning for this year, but setting up a framework to support decision making, planning and project approvals over a multi-year planning horizon.  That then supports the fundamental underpinning of portfolio analytics, i.e. that the PMO can assist in assessing the long term cost implications of any project that gets chartered today.  More importantly, that repositions the PMO from supporting the simple transactional process of an annual planning process (mapping resource capacity to demand, keeping everything in one place, etc.) to functioning as a trusted advisor on the implications of chartering a specific project.

Project Impermanence: The Sign of an Infant PMO

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