PMO wisdom interview with Colin Ellis
As part of bringing real PMOs to our members, our PMO Wisdom Series provides us with an opportunity to interview PMO professionals that bring new and interesting points of view regarding the industry.
The following transcript details our committee member Marisa Silva interviewing Colin Ellis, a co-owner of Project NPS in Australia. The full recording of their conversation can be found here.
MS: Hello and welcome to today’s session of PMO Wisdom, an initiative session of the APM PMO SIG. Today we have a very special guest, Colin Ellis, straight from Australia. Right, Colin?
CE: That’s right, in Melbourne.
MS: How are you? Tell us a little bit about yourself.
CE: I’m really good. Thanks, Marisa, and thanks for asking me to talk to you today. A little bit about myself: I run my own project management practice here in Melbourne, I specialise in leadership and culture, which we don’t have enough of in PMOs or project management – that’s a whole lot of video – and I recently published my first book, called ‘The Conscious Project Leader’, which I’m really proud of. But I started my career as a project manager way back in year 2000 so I’ve picked up a few scars along the way.
MS: So you are handling some PMOs at the moment as your clients, I suppose.
CE: Yes, I’ve got a number of PMO clients about here in Australia, in New Zealand, and I’m heading out to Canada in a couple of months’ time to work with a PMO out there as well. Specifically, around engagement, I think Marisa, that seems to be the key issue that people have and have had for quite a while, it’s how to build those relationships with the project management communities such that the PMO is seen as a value-added function.
MS: Why do you think that happens? Because PMOs, they are generally known as a value-added function so why do we still fail so many times?
CE: Well, when we build business cases for PMOs, Marisa. I think, you know, that the intention is always a good one, it’s always to create a community or a centre of excellence, that’s something that we hear a lot of, the intention is always that we even go so far as to put some metrics and then we forget, you know, the people basics, particularly around delivery, and that’s relationships. It’s building relationships, and you know, very quickly PMOs become known as the project police or the word ‘bureaucracy’ is thrown about here and everywhere and that point, you know, probably PMO is seen as a bit of a failure. But it starts, always starts, with relationships. Building relationships with project managers, with senior managers, and that’s where you build what I call ‘emotional capital’, people have had to want to work with you, people have got to see the value in what you do, it's not good enough for you to ram a process down someone’s throat, metaphorically speaking, there’s got to be more to it than that.
MS: Any practical advices then on how to build that kind of relationship with the wider community?
CE: I think that if you’ve been a project manager, and you naturally transitioned into a PMO role, is don’t forget your roots, don’t forget where you came from, and don’t forget about the things that would have really helped you. You know, the PMO role it’s one of support, it’s not the police, say, that’s such a bad word, I hate hearing that because the PMO’s role is, you know, is of significant value. I think that if you’ve never been a project manager before, what you need to do is before you even get on to the methods and processes, I’ll talk about that in a sec, is you kind of need to get out there and shadow some project managers, learn from them, find out what makes them tick, find out what kind of personality they have, find out what their challenges are, find out what pressures they’re under, and really get under the skin so that, you know, you understand what value you can add, where you can add it, and when you can add it. And you know, PMOs have got a really important role to collect organisational information so that we can mitigate corporate risk, so that we can set priorities, but actually without getting close to those people who are actually delivering projects, you never really are going to build a relationship such that you can do business effectively.
MS: I totally agree with you. So, in that case, for the PMOs that already have some good relationships established, what do you think is the next step? How do you see the PMO’s maturity progressing?
CE: A lot of the maturity surveys we see at the minute are around processes, and really what you want to see is much more around leadership. Maturity, you know, we’ve got a tool here that we launched in Australia called Project NPS, which measures the leadership performance of project managers and that’s a much greater barometer of success than a process maturity. It’s great to have a process that really ticks, but actually you know we talk a lot about Agile these days and PMOs should have the Agile mindset that’s required to get things done because that’s the support that PMOs provide, is in getting things done. I think too often we’re rigid in our approaches and ‘It’s gonna be this way’ or ‘we provide scaled approaches and it’s one of these three ways’ and, you know, at the end of the day it’s about getting projects done and what’s the right way to do that. Don’t fall into the trap of telling a project manager to suck eggs, a project manager should know their job, and usually it’s a case of ‘how can I support you?’, and if they are not filling in the templates, then they are not project managing so it’s a question of performance management rather than trying to convince them.
MS: That’s a strong message.
CE: To convince them to fill in forms. I was in one PMO and they said that 80% of their projects don’t fill in risk registers, and I said ‘so how are they managing risk then?’, ‘Oh, well, I’m not sure’. These people need to be performance managed, it's not about convincing them that they have to do it, it’s about what project managers do, it’s management of risk. I’m sure it’s easy to me as an external to say that but there’s a strong point there.
MS: Well, I can see, exactly. And you mentioned before, about business cases for PMOs and how their value is perceived differently, how do you thinks PMOs can demonstrate that value to the business?
CE: It depends. Different organisations measure project management success in different ways, but if you get your PMO right it should add to those statistics. So if your organisation is still one that measures on time, on budget, as its success measures, and most do, then implementing a PMO should add to that. You put in a PMO, you should increase the number of projects delivered on time, to budget. The pushback I get from that is ‘oh, we’re not actually delivering the projects’.
MS: Exactly, I was going to mention that!
CE: Yes, but you provide the support to people who do. So if you’re not adding to the maturity of your project management capability, there’s kind of no point. There really isn’t. Otherwise people will very quickly start pointing the finger ‘so, what do those guys actually do?’, ‘oh, they curate the method. Right, great, brilliant’, ‘oh, they manage the project management tool, oh, good, right. Is anyone using it? No, right.’
MS: Exactly, the difference between what’s in paper and what’s happening in reality, definitely.
CE: Yes, that’s right. Listen, I’ve worked with some excellent PMOs and I know a couple of excellent PMO managers and the foundation for their success is the relationships that they have with senior managers and with project managers, who would tell you if they were on here right now, those PMOs are worth their weight in gold, because they don’t focus on the method. What they focus on is building a culture of project management success, the methods are just one part of that. I’m not saying that it’s not important, it’s just one part of that. And the offerings that they provide, around coaching and mentoring, come from the fact that they’ve been there and done that, and know what it takes to get projects done in the right way within their organisational context.
MS: Definitely, so culture is the basis. And actually there’s that old quote from Drucker, "that culture eats strategy for breakfast". That’s exactly what you are saying.
CE: Yes, that’s right. A very famous Peter Drucker quote, which he said to the CEO, I think it was Ford at the time, and strategy is all good, and I talk about strategy a lot, it’s really good, and it sets the direction but actually getting stuff done is where he’s at, and the PMO’s role is to help people get stuff done.
MS: Would you say that what defines a high-performant PMO would then be the attention they pay to the culture of project management in the organisation?
CE: Yes, the attention they pay to the culture but not only that, they should be the role models, from a leadership perspective as well. There was a survey, I think it was a Fortune 200 companies CEO’s, two years ago and only one of them has previously been a project manager. And, you know, that’s not good enough, project managers, PMOs, we are at the forefront of transformation. We should be seen as such not only that our role should be elevated to that, but less than one third of what we do is considered successful according to the Standish Group, so that’s no wonder that project managers, PMO managers, don’t reach those heady highs. So I think that we have to, PMO managers, we have to really role model what great looks like. Not just about the kind of way and the methods of getting things done but also as individuals, our behaviours. We should be the people other people look at and go ‘that’s the way to get things done’, ‘that’s how we need to behave’, ‘that’s how we need to treat people and that’s how we need to create a culture that really resonates with the people in this organisation such that they want to be a part of it’.
MS: Sure, leading by example, that’s what you’re saying. So, in that case, you also mentioned PMOs being able to do all that, which I totally agree with, but we can also see that in some cases PMOs are seen like only a support function, they don’t even talk with the executives. Is that something that you also see in the Australian market, for instance?
CE: Yes, I do, and I’ve seen the assumption that some PMOs think that they should have a seat at the top table, I hear that all the time, ‘we need direct reports into the CEO’. My answer to that is always ‘you've got to earn it’, you've got to earn the right. You've got to produce the quality of information necessary such that the organisation can get things done. I keep coming back to that, of getting stuff done quickly and efficiently. You earn the right, it is not something that a given, it should never be a given. It always has been the way we always got promotions, because you’re really good at what you do, and the PMO is no different to that. You know, I spoke to one client this afternoon and I said ‘does your organisation value project management?’ and they said ‘no’. And unfortunately that’s not uncommon, you know. I read the PMI’s Pulse of the Profession report earlier this year and they said so many organisations still don’t understand the value of project management. The PMO’s role is to get senior management to see the value in project management. That’s their role. That was my role when I was a PMO manager, I think I’ve been PMO Manager in six organisations. And when I got it really right was when I was able to demonstrate the value of project management and that was in the planning, in the leadership, in the culture that we built such that we could transform the organisation and achieve the outcomes. You know, one of the other challenges PMOs face, and I hear this all the time, is ‘oh, we don’t get the benefits’. The KPMG did a survey, less than 2% of organisations get the benefits that they expect from projects. I guess because line managers don’t care. There’s really no other way and I think that with the PMO, there’s a great opportunity for the PMO to get line managers to care by demonstrating that actually if we get this out of the project, we don’t overstate our business case and if get what we expect then the organisation is in a much better position moving forward.
MS: You also mentioned some of the challenges in regards to how PMOs are perceived. Are there any other challenges that you would like to highlight for our members?
CE: Well, I think, project management has low maturity. Even today, generally, fifteen to twenty years, you only have to look at the statistics, I've mentioned the Standish Group, the Chaos Report. In 2004, the number of projects considered successful in the Chaos Report is 29%. In 2015 it was 29%. So as a profession we stood still and there’s no week goes by where I don’t overhear a conversation on a train, in a cafe, in a pub, about some project manager not being very good at what they do. And the challenges that we face in project management are the same challenges we faced fifteen years ago.
MS: Yes, exactly, and every year we have reports being published about how project management fails. So, why can’t we learn from it? What’s your view on that?
CE: Yes, that’s right. In 2011 here, there were 10 major ICT projects in Victoria, in Australia, they all failed. The reasons they failed are all the same reasons projects have been failing. But there’s only two reasons for project failure: poor project management and poor project sponsorship. Every other reason you could come up with, scope creep, priorities, you could relate back to one of those two roles. So it’s time for us to get our act together. I get really cross about this and really annoyed because I love my profession and I want it to be talked about in terms that we talk about other professions. But we don’t. Project managers are vilified and one of the biggest challenges PMOs face is the fact that our project management communities generally are low maturity. It’s time for us to put the emphasis on leadership and culture because the best projects are down to the person who leads it and the environment that they create, and this is where organisations need to invest their time and money. The methods, we know, we got that inside out, everyone can do PRINCE2, PMBOK, we learn all that online, but it’s learning how to be a good person, and how to create the kind of environment that people want to be a part of. That’s where PMOs can lead the way and that’s what we want to see from our project managers too.
MS: So all around the competencies of the people who are working in the project management arena.
CE: These are personal competencies. This is leadership, these are kind of the very basic things. This is emotional intelligence, and there’s just not enough of that in project management. We don’t talk about it enough. Well, I talk about it a lot!
MS: So you would recommend that people start focusing more on soft skills: leadership, emotional intelligence and so on.
CE: Soft skills, you’re absolutely right. My dad told me when I was just starting out in work, he said ‘it’s not important to be liked, it’s important to be respected if you want to be successful’ and that was true in the 1980’s but it’s not true now. If you want to earn respect, you've got to be liked, you've got to be a likeable person. So we need to start with that feedback, that’s why tools like Project NPS are good, because what they do is allow organisations to provide feedback immediately in project management performance, which raises that self-awareness of the soft skills that they need to change such that they can create teams and just get the job done time and time again.
MS: So would you say that in general people are not listening to each other in terms of the feedback they should expect from their teams, from their senior managers and so on?
CE: Yes, there’s a lot of arrogance in project management. I’ve been there myself, there’s a lot of arrogance in PMO management. I know, I’ve been there myself, and it takes some frank feedback to drag you out of your own little bubble and say ‘ok, well, here’s a bunch of things that I’m really not doing that well. You know, I’m focused on chasing reports by twelve o’clock on Friday rather than understanding the challenges that people have and actually addressing some of the key behaviours, but actually if I role model at the beginning with people they can look at me and say ‘ok, that’s the way to do it’. There’s a certain tone that you need to use and it’s different for every person. You can’t just send out an email and expect every single personality to react the same way and that’s just one example of where PMOs get it wrong. You know, simply by sending out an email at nine o’clock saying ‘get your reports to me by twelve pm on Friday’. It doesn’t mean it’s gonna happen. If I’m more off than that, it definitely won’t happen. People won’t be doing it if they don’t see the value in it, you know.
MS: Yes, and it's all about adapting your message to the receptor instead of doing it all the same, definitely. So Colin, just to finish our interview, what do you think is the PMO of the future? What do you think are the next steps and how to get there?
CE: The PMO of the future for me, and I have to say, for the first time for a long time, the PMI’s Pulse of the Profession, the PMO remains static. KPMG did a survey in New Zealand two years ago and the actual number of PMOs had been reduced, so I think we've got big challenges ahead of us. The PMO of the future for me is at the heart of the project management community.
MS: So you think PMOs will still be there, will still exist.
CE: Well, I think there is still a value in them. We have a very strong curation role. Not only that, we should be setting the example from a leadership context, I already said that, and at the heart of creating a network of project managers who know how to get the job done properly. But the focus has got to shift away from the mechanical, technical, method-based approaches, it doesn’t work anymore. The new generation, they like to do things way more nimble, I nearly used the word ‘agile’ but everyone’s talking about Agile. Agile is a mindset. If PMOs can develop agile mindsets, absolutely, survival will be achieved.
MS: Well, I prefer ‘nimble’ too or ‘agility’, instead of ‘Agile’. If you were to give a piece of advice to someone starting in a PMO career tomorrow, what wisdom, what advice would that be?
CE: It would be to roll up your sleeves, get out there, and find out what challenges your project managers face, spend at least two to four weeks doing that, then you’ll have built some emotional capital with them, not only that, you’ll understand what it takes to build the kind of support structures they need to be successful, ‘cause that’s the role of the PMO: is to make project managers look great. Once you’ve got that, they will see the value, not only in the support you provide, but also in the tools that the organisation uses as well. The other thing that I would do is make sure that the organisation understands fully the value of project management and that means that senior managers have to understand that too, their role is just as important as the project manager but quite often it gets down played so the two need to go hand in hand.
MS: Excellent. Thank you, Colin, I think that people who are starting in a PMO tomorrow will really value that advise. Thank you very much.
CE: I hope so.
MS: Colin, it has been a pleasure to talk to you today and I hope you can join us for our next interviews and thank you very much for your support.
CE: My pleasure, Marisa, thanks so much. Cheers.
The archive of PMO wisdom interviews can be heard on the APM PMO SIG microsite page.