PMO wisdom interview with Dennis Bolles, Winter 2016

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Posted by Maya Creasey on 23rd Nov 2016

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.

One of the questions we repeatedly get asked about in PMO SIG is the need for case studies, so this month we asked Dennis Bolles, author of several books detailing case studies in the PMO arena to give us his thoughts on the future of PMO, share some of his experiences, and tell you more about his publications.

The following transcript details our committee member Marisa Silva (MS) interviewing Dennis Bolles (DB).

The full recording of this conversation has now been published.

The archive of PMO wisdom interviews can be heard in the APM resources area and is shown below.





Interview transcript

MS: Hello and welcome to one of our PMO Wisdom interviews. Today we have a very special guest straight from the States, Dennis Bolles. Welcome to our interview and first of all, thank you very much for joining us in this activity.

DB: Thank you very much for inviting me, it’s been my pleasure, I always welcome the opportunity to talk to people about what is my passion, and has been throughout my 45 year career as a project manager and more particularly in the last 15 years writing about it and speaking about it around the world.

MS: Can you tell us a little more about your background in the PMO arena?

DB: Yes, I actually started my project management career as a practitioner very early, probably 45 years ago, and I joined the Project Management Institute in 1985 and at that time I didn’t even know it was a professional organisation. I wasn’t aware of IPMA, or any other organisations that existed and have members but I had a friend visiting me one day, and while talking he said “you know, you should come and join this organisation, so he took me there. I was actually one of the first individuals when I joined PMI to get certified as a project management professional, in 1986. My PMP number is 81.

MS: Wow, that’s amazing, impressive.

DB: Now there are thousands I don’t know the number any more. A friend of mine got his, it was a ridiculous number of about 500,000. Anyway, I am actually one of the founders of the Chapter in Michigan. One of my other I guess you can say notables, is that I was the project manager for the PMBOK guide first edition, which is PMI’s primary standard for project management.

MS: That’s great.

DB: Well, it was a phenomenal experience as I had a core team of about 40 people, and there were over 300 internationals participating in that four-year project. I actually met my current co-author and business partner in that process, we met together in National Tennessee in 2001 at a standard’s work session and they were asking for people to run the projects and this guy was sitting next to me and we talked a little bit and I put my name in the hat. Over the next couple of weeks I had a call and they said they want me to come in on the project. I got him and a bunch of other people together and over the next three to four years we produced the third edition, which by the way actually doubled the size from the previous edition of the PMBOK guide because we added a lot of graphics and some areas were really expanded. I believe the sixth edition is currently in the process right now of being finalised so it keeps growing.

MS: And you remember when was the first time you came across “PMO” as a topic, as a concept?

DB: Actually, yes. I was working for a consulting firm in Detroit, Michigan. I started working there in 1995 and I was working for a General Motors organisation at the time as a project manager. I was working in one of their divisions, on one or two projects of material management and as I got to the end they said “you know, we really need somebody like you to evaluate our organisations structure and suggest how we might improve things”. They had so many projects, and said “we are just not very good at managing them” so I did that project and when reporting to the Board of Directors I told them “what you really need is a project organisation structure”. So at the time, I started that concept for the company of how we create it, what is involved in managing it, and that developed into how do you go and explain to organisations that they need to have a project managed organisation. And really, over the years, I have asked this to many people, and this is a major question of organisations: “how do our executives implement it if it's the right thing to do?”.

MS: Do you think we are still facing that challenge nowadays?

DB: Exactly. When we published our first book in 2007, it was called “the power of enterprise-wide project management” and we republished it again in 2014, and in this book we introduced a term called “project business management” and the reason we did that was that you’re talking to executives and people in the organisation and you need to talk to them about project management. Often I go in and talk to an executive and say “I’m here today to talk to you about project management in your organisation” and I always get the same answer of “I don’t have anything to do with that, I’m the president of the company. You need to go down the hall and talk to the project management people down there” and my response has always been “can you help me understand something here?. You’re the president, you give the vision and direction, so, you’re telling me that in your business everything you create, both in operations and services, aren’t those all done by projects? Absolutely. That’s the only way we create things, by projects. So, where I’m confused is because the president is telling me that the project manager is in charge but they’re not.

MS: That’s a good way to put it.

DB: Yes, so their point, when we started writing the book, my partner and I, was out talking about it to organisations. So we said “look, we’ve got to change this term from project management to project business management. In that book we created a model and a framework that shows how you bring together the operations side of business, their processes, their policies, their procedures, and you integrate it and harmonise it with a project management process for those procedures and policies. They function together, because they need to function together. So we created that term and we defined what project business management is. Since that book came out I’ve been all over the world talking about it and, at the end of my speech, my presentation, people always ask me “has everyone ever done it?”.

MS: That’s a very good question.

DB: I say that, you know, that’s a good question but I really can’t answer because this is a concept that we just created in Autumn 2007-2008 so I don’t know specifically. Finally in 2010, I said to my partner “I can’t answer that question”, we’re going to have to fix that. So in 2011, we created a survey instrument that was based in our model, our framework. There’s five elements in our framework and in the model, It is a cube but the framework looks like a roman house and has five pillars:

  • The first one is governance,
  • The second pillar is methodology or standards,
  • the third one is capability which is education and training,
  • The fourth is planning,
  • The final is execution and this house all sits on a foundation called sustainability.

So what we did was we gathered lots of demographic information about the organisations, and then we asked a bunch of questions in different categories to find out the full process of how they started it, what were the challenges, how did they overcome these challenges etc. At the time there was nothing like it in the market. I had worked with an organisation and I won’t name the name but this organisation did a PMO of the Year award so if you know anything about it, you know who I’m talking about. I happen to be a good friend of the owner, and at the time I was with the PMI SIG. I was in the Board of Directors and this individual came to me and said “look, we’re running this PMO of the Year award programme and we want to transfer over to the PMI SIG because that’s what you guys do, and we’ll work with you and we’ll provide the trophies and that kind of stuff. We were doing a three day symposium at the time, so we took it over and subsequently about two years later, PMI has now taken it over or they own the process but during that process we were creating this new volume one of the book and I had access to a list of organisations that did PMOs. So I sent out a message to I think about 80 companies that I knew had PMOs of some sort, with an invitation to submit to our first volume and we ended up with 11 companies.

MS: That first volume that you are referring to is a book about case studies on PMOs, right?

DB: Exactly. Yes, in the front of the book there’s a little descriptive of how we got started and a little bit of a summary evaluation of what’s in the book. There is also some comparatives between case studies so what we did was we got this tremendous amount of interest, we had reviews by a number of different people. In fact one of the things we do in one of our books is we have people write a brief review of the book based on the manuscript, and that book had 15 reviews from people that are very much in project management around the world. For all three books we have had those reviews. In fact, if you go to our website, you’ll see all about the books, and you’ll see the table of contents, you can read all the reviews. If you want to purchase a book – and I’m not here to sell books, folks – but if you do, there’s a place where you can get a 20% discount.

MS: Thank you very much for that information, Dennis.

DB: It’s a discount code, it tells you how to do it and it takes you to an organisation called CreateSpace, which is a subsidiary of Amazon.com, and you select the book and you buy any number of books you want. By the way, if you buy more than five, I’ll give you a discount.

MS: Dennis, from all the case studies, you have a very good sample of case studies I imagine, what were the main findings that you reached?

DB: Well, you know, that’s really interesting because the second volume is much more in depth after feedback from the first volume The feedback meant more in-depth information so we got eight companies that submitted to us some very large amounts of data. These companies from 2012 to 2016, the second edition was published that year, share their growth which was phenomenal and we incorporated a lot more evaluation of findings in the second volume. There’s two full chapters just based on those two issues. The second volume is much more interesting and I present our case studies volume as a benchmark study, you know people say “we were thinking of doing an enterprise PMO or a PMO, where can I find information?”. Well, telling them to go to this website sometimes works, but the great thing is if you get the case studies, they tell you exactly how they compare. The most important thing about these case studies is how much the executives, the senior executives in the organisations are involved in the processes. That has to happen to be successful.

MS: What would you say are the basic foundations for the PMO to work, I appreciate the case studies you are referring to are a good example of what good looks like, but there is still a high rate of PMOs that fail after a couple of years. Why do you think that happens? What is still missing?

DB: I’m glad you asked that question because the issue is the reason they fail is exactly why we laid out this survey instrument to explain the steps you need to go through. Our presentations are all based on answering these questions, there’s a lot of reasons why you don’t have sustainability in organisations. In fact, PMI started to do testing and research back in 2004 and they did it again in 2007, and they went out and surveyed a large number of companies. There were five major issues and one of them was you don’t have senior executive support. Two, you haven’t defined what you are all about, what you’re delivering. Three, you haven’t shown value benefit, and these still exist today.

In 1997, I did a two day workshop for PMI in Chicago and the title was “Framework for Project Support Offices” and typically they had a maximum of 36 people, when I got there, there were 63 people all on their own. I had a great time, I was doing the old style presenting of projector and slides. At the time I looked around, and you know, I couldn’t find any information about project offices in the internet, there was nothing. I was looking for something to say what kind of information can I get out. So I started the survey back then and over the next two years I presented this workshop to over 200 people and I started collecting information from 1996 to 2006. I got 22 responses to the survey. What I did was, I used the key that I saw and still use today as the issues, from 1996 to 2006, were exactly the same.

MS: So, is that because we are not learning, are we not good enough at presenting our value, what do you think is the root cause?

DB: It’s starting to change. I’ve been, like a said, a member of the PMI since 1985 and this organisation, project management organisation, we started talking about project management organisation structures in our first book. The key is, those organisations, their executives didn’t realise project management is a business function, just like accounting, like engineering, like all those overhead functions that you need to manage the business. Once the organisation realises that, and we’ve been preaching the point, that project management is to be a core competency across the organisation. I don’t care what you do, whether you run your organisation, you can use project management practices to do your job. It’s not brain surgery.

MS: I agree.

DB: So, the concept is what you have to get the executives to recognise it as a business function, then you have to realise how to position it within the organisation structure. We have to create a business function that owns the methodologies, the tools, all the stuff that you would use to manage the project across the organisation. It was interesting, in 2001 I got a job with a local organisation, it was a tier one automotive company and I worked for the CIO. He hired me to put a project office into the organisation of IT, globally. We had offices in the US, Ireland, Germany, and in Spain and so, I went around and did some networking, I was one of 18 managers that worked for the CIO. I worked directly for him, I was a ranger and my job was to implement a project office structure within IT. I actually met with the president of the company when I was there and, he said “I don’t just agree but I want to see it work in IT first.” So I started by creating a methodology, because they had none, no methodology at all on how to do projects. This was implemented and it started to take off not only in the States but also in other countries and they were starting to catch on, then what happened, 9/11 happened and the impact was really huge.

The CIO said I’d rather cut my arm off but I have to show some movement, you’re the last guy hired he said “I’m going to have to let you go”. Well I saw it coming too, so he said “I’m going to give you two weeks, I’m going to give you extended healthcare, I’m going to put you in a job finding programme, I’m going to do all this stuff for you. What I can do is let you have the material you created”. I said “can you put that in writing?”, and he did, that was part of my first book that I published in 2002. The title was “Building Project Management Centres of Excellence” and is still selling electronic versions and I own the version.

MS: That was a valuable experience for you.

DB: It was. The idea of project offices, and that’s what my partner and I, Gerard Hobler who lives in California, when we got together start writing about it after the PMBOK guide project. That was the basis we started building at the time because he had similar experiences, only his was on major major projects with the US government military. He still does mergers and acquisitions, executive reports for different organisations periodically that contact him and ask him to send him all the information, he then puts it into a two-page executive report and they look to him to go do it or not.

MS: I see, ok. Dennis, let me also ask you, because you mentioned before about the importance of showing value and the benefits, about our annual conference which is also going to be on the topic of the PMO and Value. Do you think that PMOs lack a business case or do they lack marketing skills to market themselves to the senior executives?

DB: That’s a great question because it’s one of the things that we put in our survey. You’re creating a new function and I always require when I do projects that you have a business case. It has to demonstrate through the business case why are you doing that, what value is it bringing to the organisation more importantly, how do you measure it if you actually did it, and that you delivered what you were supposed to deliver? A business case if it’s written properly states exactly the requirements needed from the organisation so it is not a trivial pursuit. In fact the research is being done even today, organisations structure project office or how I call, a project organisation, it’s a three to five-year effort. You are changing the culture of the organisation, you are changing the way people do work, and that’s not something that happens easily. One of the case studies in the second book there’s this company in Chile, and it’s interesting that in the beginning one of the questions is what were your challenges, where did you get to where you are? The answer was the president of the company put all executives together; it’s a very large organisation. He said “you know, we have to make changes. We cannot keep doing what we are doing because our competition is getting more aggressive and we’re in a global market now.” So I decided that we are going to put together a project management organisation structure and he said “now, all of you in this room together, you are going to be my champions. It’s your job to get it done in your departments”. This guy was a genius. He just cut the legs off existence because that’s a biggest challenge. If you start making major changes to the way people do work, you’re going to get major resistance. That’s probably one of the biggest things, you know, you see projects going on, and this is usually done at department level. There’s a lot of projects in IT, a lot of projects, at that level they really don’t want to affect the whole organisation. In fact, when I was hired by the CIO at this company in Holland here, the first thing he asked me to do was, he said “Dennis, I want you to go out and talk to all the managers in our group and find out what projects they’re planning to do, because I don’t have a clue” he said.

MS: Yes, and a PMO provides that kind of visibility, exactly.

DB: So I went out and found out what they were doing there and what they had planned. When you do this you get a bunch of projects going on, some of them are working in solo, some of them are coming together, but they are not talking to each other. We had one guy who was in charge of the database, the application. In every major project, when you do applications and software, you have to have a database. So all these project guys were one group and I think they were two or three in that group that were doing all the programmes, and so the guy was going nuts. In the first meeting I went to when they were planning the budget, and they were planning the budget for the next year, and I said “what was your budget for last year?”, and they said “it was millions of dollars and what was on the budget were 25 projects”, “that’s interesting, how much of the budget did you spend?”, “all of it”, “how many of these 25 projects did you get done?”, “six”. They got six projects done, didn’t say how good they were, but that’s what they got done. The point being, because of their lack of collaboration in the structure, they were getting nowhere. This is very typical of organisations and the problem is without this central focus, the job of the project organisation unit is not to manage the projects, is to manage the structure, how it is done, to manage that every project is authorised and approved, and is satisfying a strategic initiative. If it doesn’t and it has to do that through the business case, you don’t spend money on it, you don’t get resources. The problem is these organisations are wasting money by the bucket load because management doesn’t know who it is doing.

MS: I couldn’t agree more. That’s a real issue that PMOs aim to solve, definitely.

DB: So, those situations, and how to overcome them is very much described in our first book, about how you implement an enterprise-wide project management solution and using the term project business management. Then the case study books began as we started looking into if organisations were actually implementing it, and the ones that were really validated that the model works. Of those 11 companies in the first volume, they are still doing it, and in the second volume they are doing it even better. We got 19 organisations, actually 18 because one of them is in both books, who have totally validated that business model.

MS: Excellent, that’s very good news. I’m sure we can look for good examples. Dennis, I have two more questions for you. So, the first one would be how do you think or what do you think will be the PMO of the future? Where is the PMO progressing to?

DB: I think that’s a good question because we talked about that in the second volume and the future of project management is when organisations begin to realise they should be positioning project management as a business function. They are creating this enterprise-wide organisational structure at the executive level, they’re reporting to a senior executive and it could be the president, it could be the vice-president. In some cases, it is created by the board of directors and they are pretty staged having been around for a long time. There has to buy-in, you actually create what is called a RASCIC chart A RASCIC chart is a way to measure two different things and who the people are, and we created one for this whole process.

MS: It’s all about empowering the PMO.

DB: It’s about communicating. You have to define for people what their role is and what their level of responsibility is. You know, when I started doing project management, one of the first things I did when I got my project team together was I did a RASCIC chart. So all the people that were on the team were listed in the vertical columns and all the project schedule milestones were stuck in the horizontal. We used RASCIC to say who was doing what as that’s the biggest problem: communication is the biggest problem in the world, personally and in business. When people understand who is doing what, you eliminate a lot of this dysfunction. The other thing that we found out in organisations is that fighting, you know “don’t get in my department”. I’ve seen this, project offices and I had people in charge in departments that said “they are not coming in here and say to me how to do my job!”, I said “no, no one is going to tell you how to do your job, your president to whom you report to is telling you that, I’m going to help you do your job.” You know, that kind of thing. We’re not responsible for managing projects, we’re responsible for making sure that every project that is run has a specific strategic initiative that has been approved. That the money spent is being spent on only the approved projects. By the way, we measure it. We use metrics, that’s part of it. If we find it’s not succeeding, it’s killed or is put on hold. I’m yet to talk to an organisation that has an unlimited budget, unlimited funds, maybe government.

MS: I’m not even sure about that!

DB: Well, they spent money they don’t have anyway. So the point being, there’s a lot of issues that we talked about, and that organisations need to be aware of. I think that there’s a lot being written about project management, PMO-type books out there. My experience with all these books in concept, and they don’t really tell you much about specifically how do you do it, what needs to be done. A lot of them know what needs to be done, give you concrete examples, and that’s what I call these volumes these case study books, they are benchmarks. There’s so much detail, that’s unbelievable. In fact when I got the first one, out of the first volume, I looked it over and I could not believe the volume of information we’re getting. Now we’re getting, these case studies are only 14-15 pages. The second was in colour, and the graphics will absolutely blow your mind. It’s unbelievable.

MS: Actually, many of our members sometimes ask for a benchmark that they can look at, as a reference, so I’m sure that having these case studies available will be very helpful for them.

DB: All three books are available on Kindle and e-books. I have an ipad and I have my books on my ipad and Kindle, they’re really legible.

MS: Dennis, finally, if you were to give a piece of wisdom to someone starting in the PMO career tomorrow, what piece of wisdom would that be?

DB: If someone wanted a career in PMOs? I would say that the thing is to be involved in managing projects, you need to get that. I joined a local chapter and we did a lot of projects there, networking, but when I got in the company and there are projects available, you know, I said “hey, I’d like to be a part of that”. I met a number of people asking that same question. I’ve actually talked to a number of universities doing this in classes about the concept. In fact, a couple of years ago in Santiago, Chile, I talked to a university graduating class in Engineering but they were taking a course on project management, and actually if you go to my LinkedIn page, my profile, you’ll see a video of it. I said: “there’s only three things I want you to leave with: you’re graduating with a degree in Engineering, and to me that’s projects, I don’t care what kind you do, I’ve got an Engineering background, I’ve got a degree, I used to design special machines, automation and tools and so on and forth in one of my lives. You know, the thing is, if you go in the chapter, there were 80 students, free membership to join a chapter. You can go to PMI, so when you get a new project, you start applying that. There are three things that are going to happen. Number one, you get certified, and there’s jobs offering, you can see the long list of people looking for the job, your name is going to go to the top of the page, because if you look at job offerings and requirements now, PMP is one of the things that is desired.

Well, or a professional certifications from other organisations, PRINCE2 or APM, but a certification is what they are looking for. Secondly, if you did it, you got the job, and you’re certified in whatever discipline, you’re going to make more money and you’re going to be promoted faster than other people.

Thirdly, you’re going to make a lot of money and I’m the living proof”.

MS: Excellent, thank you very much for that advice, Dennis. I think it will be very helpful for the future generations of PMOs. Dennis, anything else that you would like to remark in this interview?

DB: We’re looking to publish the third edition and so, on my LinkedIn I put a post and we’re looking for companies that are interested in providing information, there’s always some reluctance. There are two reasons why I think they might be reluctant: if they look who’s in the book, you know the value of being published is showing that you are working towards it but you’re not there yet. I’ve been told by everybody in the book, the value they get out of this is two-fold: they can tell the people in the organisation, and they are large organisations, what are they all about. The UN, UNOPS (United Nations Office for Project Services), they’re all over the world and they are telling their organisations people exactly what they are doing, why they are doing it, and what value and benefits the organisation has to the world. This is true for every organisation in it.

Secondly, if your servicing, if you are selling a product or a service, they’re using this for marketing purposes. Say, they’re developing the product using state-of-the-art project management practices, the book will prove that. Our executives are so much involved in what happens.

Send me an email and I’ll send you two documents: one that is what we call a copyright, that says “you own the material 100%, you can do what you want with it”, we own the material 100%, we can do what we want with it but only after your corporate executive approves a gally proof, that is the final version of your case study, ready to print. We cannot name you, we cannot use anything in the document until we get that written proof. So, what we do is we put it in a format, we help them with some of the information, we spend a lot of time, we spend about 18 months producing this last document. I think if you go looking for it, you’re going to find there’s nothing like it.

MS: Well, I’m certain that after this interview, you’ll hear from companies in the UK as well.

DB: I’d be delighted. Nobody, other than Denmark, other than UNOPS, and they’re a phenomenal example. I had the opportunity to talk to the Canadian government in an event in November 2016, I actually met with and talked to the Ministry, Department head in Chile. A couple of years ago when they wanted to put in a centralised PMO and I understand the government is looking for the same thing. I’d be delighted, I don’t care whether it’s a government, non-profit or anything, anybody that has a business that can produce some form, it doesn’t have to be mega-big,  and get value from some form of structure.

MS: I’m sure you will hear from us soon.

DB: Good, I hope so.

MS: Dennis, thank you very much for your time today and for all the wisdom that you have passed on in this interview. I hope this has been a joyful experience for you and please stay tuned with our other interviews. Thank you very much!



The PMO SIG have partnered with Wellingtone Project Management for our second State of the UK PMO survey. So get online and tell us how your PMO is shaping up and you will get the report in January. Keep your eyes peeled for more information.
You can find out more about the publications mentioned in this interview.

Recent PMO activity also included the Thames Valley branch event and write up “Partnering to deliver an integrated programme at AWE" held on Wednesday 23 November.


The archive of PMO wisdom interviews can be heard in the APM resources.

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