In talking about the challenges project management offices (PMOs) face in doing effective strategic planning, Mark Price Perry recalls a conversation he’s had hundreds of times, this time with a CIO at an Australian company. The executive talked about the time and resources that had gone into setting up the PMO over the last five years.
“For all the money we spent,” said the CIO, “I’m not sure we got our money out of our investment. Can you tell me why, Mark?” Perry responded: “So can you tell me what are the top project-related issues and opportunities you want your PMO to address and what’s the value to the business of trusting them?” “And when I asked that question,” Perry recalls in his interview with monday.com, “you could hear a pin drop and then after about five seconds the CIO said, ‘Top value? We’ve been at the PMO for five years and this was the only time I’ve been asked that.’”
Calling himself “Business Driven PMO Evangelist, BOT International,” Perry has spent 20-plus years working in project management and then acting as a consultant, writing numerous articles and three books on PM subjects. “Very few PMOs can answer that question—what is the business need?” he explains. “I’d say 75 percent of PMOs [align themselves with strategic planning] because they are trying to be consistent with the latest PMO best practices. Only 25 percent align themselves with a business-driven way of thinking.”
What Is a Strategic Plan for the PMO?
Before defining what a strategic plan for PMO is, let’s look first at what it isn’t. It isn’t the PMO charter, which is the organizational mandate for the PMO, defining its role, purpose and functions. And it’s not the project plan, which is focused on execution, and the details of what needs to be done.
Rather than outlining a series of tasks, a strategic plan takes aim at a higher level, identifying the resources and tools needed to complete a job on time and on budget, meeting specified business goals.
A strategic plan enables PMO to play an essential role in achieving a company’s business goals, setting out clear objectives and then providing a road map on how to achieve them. The strategic plan has to hold a steady eye on final results while being flexible enough to respond to a constantly fluctuating business environment. In creating a strategic plan, a project management team may need to move out of their comfort zones, thinking beyond execution and putting the hat of business thinkers.
In his article on “The New Face of Strategic Planning,” veteran project manager Bruce McGraw points out that projects and strategic plans can run into trouble because the planners and the project mangers don’t really understand what the other does, and the value they bring to the process.
McGraw insists that companies need “to build a bridge between the strategic planning process and project management’s planning process” by bringing project managers into the strategic planning process earlier. While strategic planners may soar high, as “blue-sky” thinkers, project manages are in the trenches, dealing with day-to-day practicalities. By understanding each other’s role and working together, they can learn to fly at the same height.
But Perry points out one of the impediments to this in that “in the PMO they don’t speak the language of business.” While they may know how to manage projects, haven’t had experience managing the business. “So oftentimes it’s comfortable for them to talk about project best practices and it’s not in their wheelhouse to talk about business strategy in the context of project-related issues and opportunities.”
Your Road Map for a Sound Strategic Plan
A strategic plan maps tools and resources necessary to achieve successful project outcomes. It helps you establish your current business priorities and the means to achieve them, determining how you meet both short-term and long-term goals.
A 2017 KPMG survey (“Driving Business Performance”) found that 27 percent more projects are executed successfully when a company’s structure and resources align with their strategy. By following a well-executed strategic plan, project managers make better-informed decisions, communications among team members and stakeholders are improved, resources are used more wisely and projects are completed more efficiently.
While there are variations on the steps of putting together a strategic plan—according to different sources and the type of business discussed—common key steps include:
Step 1: Understand Your Organization’s Vision, Mission and Business Goals
According to Perry, in order to create a “results-driven Strategic Plan for the PMO” it’s useful to follow the “top-down format” used in classical planning. So it’s important to start by gaining a clear understanding of your company’s big picture—its vision, mission statement and current business goals. Without this, your strategic plan will be flawed and your PMO go astray quickly in its work. As part of this top-level process, it may be also worthwhile to review your PMO’s past performance, identifying strengths and weaknesses, potential threats, and looking at ways to improve and take advantage of growth opportunities.
Step 2: Identify the Resources You Will Need
An analysis of your organization’s resources and assets is essential to understanding on whether or not you can execute an effective strategic plan. The resources typically fall under three main categories:
- Finances—It’s essential that you know, and are transparent about, the real costs of a project. If a client or management doesn’t have a realistic ideas about what things cost, then the project might be underfunded and flounder.
- People—Every project depends on the skillsets that individual team members bring to the table. So you must strategize according to these skillsets and their availability for the duration of a project. Some team members may have other work responsibilities and limited time for the project, so you need to accommodate this.
- Assets—These include the tangible resources you may have to buy, lease or arrange for, such as workspace, software and licenses, computer hardware, testing equipment and so on.
Step 3: Determine How You’ll Communicate
Projects often go off the rails because the lines of communication aren’t kept open or clear. And communication is more than holding regular status meetings, which many people feel can be wasteful. How do project managers and their teams communicate with one another? Who are the project stakeholders, what role do they play and how will they be kept in the loop? How will status updates be communicated? And how will deadlines and dependencies be conveyed?
Step 4: Establish How You Track Progress and Mediate Conflicts
Once you set a timeline for a project, you need to establish a method of tracking progress, including important milestones, set goals and project KPIs. A centralized method of tracking is best, so everyone knows where they stand in relation to their assigned tasks. A project manager, can reallocate resources as he or she sees one part of the project faltering while another meets its goals early (saving the team members under pressure from burnout.)
By staying on top of project progress, it allows a PMO to pivot when needed, and revise their strategy plan. Also, since conflicts are hard to avoid in any complex project—involving team members, stakeholders and suppliers—set in place a mediation process that can be tracked to ensure they have been resolved.
Step 5: Build Flexibility into the Plan
As much as a strategic plan sets thing out clearly, so everyone understands their roles—how they work, how resources will be deployed and how progress will be tracked—it shouldn’t be written in stone. Circumstances change and new insights are gained, so the strategic plan should be able to transform and grow as the job does.
Remember Who’s Boss
Perry insists that a good strategic plan must ask and answer the essential business questions upfront, including what a project’s critical success factors are. This must be done in a language that will be understood by members of the related business unit and the company executive, especially the CFO. But as PMs try to work more strategically and effectively, Perry offers them a warning, what he calls his “Golden Rule”:
“Remember, it’s not your PMO. The PMO belongs to the leadership team. So you should stop telling them you know what the solution is. You should first listen to what the problem is, and then deliver a way to [solve it]. That way you won’t fall victim to the age-old problem of putting the cart before the horse.”
—Peter Giffen is a writer and content developer who often works for, and covers, the technology sector.