PMO wisdom interview with Mike Kane
Monday 20th June 2016
The recording is available below for reference followed by the transcript.
MS: Welcome to the first PMO Wisdom from APM PMO SIG. Today we have a very special guest, our first guest, Mike Kane. Hello Mike! How are you?
MK: Hi Marisa. I’m good.
MS: Mike, who are you? Why should we interview you?
MK: Well, I’m… I worked for a lot of years and I’ve been connected with project and programme management probably for 30 years.
MS: Oh, that’s a lot of experience! Excellent.
MK: My background is water industry, and I have worked in the UK, certainly with several of the water companies in the UK, but also in the USA, in South America, and in one or two places in the Far East. Almost invariably in the last 30 years on very large water programmes.
MS: And what is your current role at the moment? Are you working in a PMO environment?
MK: I am, yes. I’m currently working with United Utilities, on their AMP 6 programme, and I’m acting as their Programme Controls Manager.
MS: OK, so the PMO that you are working at the moment is a Programme Management Office instead of a Portfolio Office or an enterprise one. OK, I see. And what got you there, what attracted you to the role or to the PMO setting?
MK: Well, to this particular PMO, I initially was asked to give some advice on how should you set up a PMO for this particular AMP, that goes back about a year. And having spent a couple of months in there, and having some long conversations with the guys involved in setting a PMO, they asked me to stay for rather longer, and in fact the role I’m playing at the moment is a temporary appointment helping them finding the person they want to do the job in the long-term. But what attracts me about it is an organization who were open and willing to talk about how they move from where they have been in terms of programme and project management and controls into some new areas that would give them a better management approach if you like.
MS: Working in a programme management office, as you know programmes are temporary, how does that affect your role, in the way that new challenges may be applicable?
MK: Well, the water industry is quite interesting because they have a history of recurring programmes, and you’re right, in their particular case here their programmes last for approximately 5 years and they are then replaced with another. And one of the things that this industry is trying to do is to get a rather longer term views, so its looking at its next programme and seeing how it relates to its current programme. So there is more continuity than you would probably get at programme work.
MS: OK. Do you also have an enterprise PMO overarching the programme management office?
MK: Yes and no. Yes, that’s what they want, that’s the aspiration and it’s not quite there yet, we’re still working on it. That’s a question of not only technical and processes but is also a question of having the organization understand what are the implications of things,
MS: Definitely and the organization needs to be ready for it as well. And how long has your current PMO been in place? So you mentioned that the programme is 5 years…
MK: The programme is 5 years, it formally started a year ago and so, in effect, this PMO was created about 12 months ago, just over. Because of the nature of the water industry in UK, it wasn’t built from scratch, it was built from people who were already there, who had been engaged in previous PMO-type organizations, this one was the slightly different one, with a different approach but there was a certain amount of knowledge in the company already.
MS: That’s excellent, so you didn’t have to do the work from scratch.
MK: Not entirely from scratch, no. A lot of the systems and processes existed. One of the issues was that the organization didn’t use them in the way they were originally intended or as well as they should have used it.
MS: And in your case what is the current size of the PMO? Is it just you at the moment or do you have a wider team with you?
MK: No, it’s quite a big team actually. The Project Control side alone, with its project contollers and programme controllers, counts up to about 60 people. I think the programme services side, which would include all the project management and programme management people is probably in the order of 200 people. It’s a big organization.
MS: In regards to the makeup of the team, do you have specific services that you provide, people that are specialists in any specific area?
MK: Again, if I can describe the aspiration rather than the fact. We have… and I’m talking in the project controls side in particular, we have project controllers, who are being asked to take on a responsibility for what I call the commercial side of projects, and by that I mean cost, schedule, risk, benefits, and all that side of it. We’re trying to upskill the people because there are gaps in the knowledge and experience in the people in the programme and in order to do that what we’re creating a subject matter expert side to the business so there is this subject matter expert in cost, in schedule, in risk, and in benefits, each one with a team of people and their task initially is to provide the direction for the PMO in terms of its aspiration for what services it provides, and to put into place and to strengthen existing processes as are necessary. And then to provide support to the people in order to get them in where we need to get them. In the longer term we see their role more as some support but also an audit role to see how good we are at doing what we think we’re doing.
MS: Ok, so that’s not happening at the moment but you want to evolve to a more strategic level, I suppose.
MK: Yes, it’s also because my background is programme in past 20 years rather than project specific, it’s mainly that link between what’s happening in projects and the impact they have in the overall programme, and trying to get that connection across the business.
MS: Sure, that’s where the real magic happens. Mike, and you also mentioned the importance of upskilling your team – do you manage the competencies of the team in any specific way, do you use any framework, for instance?
MK: Yes, we are looking at the competencies of everyone in the team, project controllers and project managers. We’re using APM as the basis, and we’re pulling people who have specific expertise in APM type stuff in order to create what we’ve got. We’re tweaking it to make it business-specific but it’s very close to APM. I think there are certain areas where we’re trying to get rather more specific in terms of skills required than the APM framework actually describe but they’re very close.
MS: And how are people reacting to it? Am I asking hard questions?
MK: Well, you’re asking questions where there isn’t just a single answer. In a lot of ways, the people invite it, they are looking forward to it, and they want to learn, they want to be upskilled. The conversation you have with is ‘we also have a day job, we’re very busy’, anyway, how do we fit. So it’s that conflict between how we move to where we want to be and it all seems to be back to more effort than what we’re already making. That’s the piece that people have to come to terms with.
MS: Sure, to find the right balance.
MK: What we are trying to do is to bring in people who have, experience, and skills, and have seen it from elsewhere, in order to provide the kind of framework and the support that will help people to get there as quickly as possible.
MS: So are starting from the example, leading by example I can see.
MK: I hope! Yes.
MS: Mike, you also mentioned that where you want to be in the future. Currently what are the kind of services that you provide? Can you give us some examples?
MK: The business, the water company business, is made of a variety of programmes and sub-programmes, some of them straight forward, traditional, construction-based, asset development if you like, now that varies between very simple and very sophisticated, but you also got within that organization, you got programmes of work which are very much more operational based rather than just construction based, you’ve got IT programmes in there. So finding the link between all of those things, and making something consistent and yet acceptable to all of the different areas, is kind of one of the things we are trying to achieve. Not sure that answers the question.
MS: Well, it answers in terms of aspirations but it’s also a good ground for your current status I believe. So do you do some things like resource management, for instance, do you provide support in terms of operations as well?
MK: I’ll run through that list. Risk and opportunity management, benefits management, cost management, schedule management, resource management, and with all of these also planning, baselining, and then the comparisons between baseline and what’s actually been achieved, and looking for trends, etc, etc. So all of those services. There are also programmes of work which are not specific in terms of geography, they cover all regions with little bits of work everywhere, finding ways of making that happening efficiently, so we support that kind of operations.
MS: Let me also ask you, how do you think that the organization, the different stakeholders, perceive the value of the PMO? I’m asking because – actually this is an announcement – the topic for our annual conference is going to be on the value of PMOs, how value is captured, how value is communicated, how we can demonstrate the value of PMOs to other stakeholders. Was this ever a challenge for you?
MK: yes, yes, it’s a major challenge. We’re looking at big organizations here, with multiple stakeholders, and I’ll say something I guess a little bit challenging, that if I could create the best PMO in the world, it would constrain the freedom of action of some major stakeholders in the business because you have less competent management control it gives people a great deal of freedom in movements, people feel threatened by the fact that you might create a PMO which actually has control and therefore you do get people who look at what is going on, they don’t necessarily find this a very comfortable thing.
MS: That’s a very strong affirmation, indeed.
MK: Having said that, the majority of people in the business actually well commit and in fact are pushing us to trying provide more service in a more rapid way and in between programme and project more closely as well.
MS: Now that you also mentioned more rapid way, do you work within a specific framework or methodology, for instance waterfall projects and programmes, or do you also have agile ones?
MK: I’m sorry, could you repeat that?
MS: I was asking if in terms of the methodology and franeworks that you use do you work only within a waterfall framework or do you also use Agile as a framework for your project management? I’m asking because Agile is something that comes up very often when we talk about PMOs and some PMOs still don’t know how to handle Agile projects so I’m just asking to see if you have any experience on that area as well.
MK: No, it’s not one of the areas I would look at to be perfectly honest.
MS: Ok, that’s fine. As you may know some PMOs fail within 4 years, sometimes even less, why do you think that happens, in general?
MK: Do you mean fail in the sense that the programme fails?
MS: Or in the sense that they are stopped regardless of the programme they are involved in. This could be because they are not showing the value or communicating how they are providing that value. So is that something that you think should be improved or is it something that you also see as a cause for concern, PMOs not demonstrating how they are adding value to the business?
MK: Yes. I worked in PMOs and with PMOs because my personal belief is that they add value, good project management and project control add value. So to me is a given. But I do accept that there’s something out there that says organizations spend years doing the same programmes that go on and on and on and there are people in organizations like water companies who will say ‘look I did this 20 years ago, you putting a PMO in place makes no difference, I still have to deliver what I have to deliver’. And quite frankly, we work in an industry which does deliver. Does it deliver as effectively as it might? Probably not. Is it always easy to see what’s being delivered and what isn’t? Again, probably not. But they do deliver and demonstrably as well so you can see the assets being built or the improvement in the industry I work in, so there’s a piece that says I don’t need anything like a PMO because historically we’ve successfully done what we need to do. Now, the thing that a PMO will give you, and I believe, is they will give you a degree of effectiveness in terms of the way you deliver which make you outperform what you’ve done before. That’s difficult sometimes to actually prove, to show, to demonstrate, and what isn’t difficult to demonstrate is the cost of the PMO. So I think that one of the things that PMOs can’t do is ignore the fact that they need to justify regularly and continuously their existence by saying ‘here’s what we’re offering, here’s what we’re delivering on your behalf, here’s why is better than it might otherwise have been’. We sometimes get ourselves involved in situations where we bury our way into what we’re trying to do without looking around our stakeholders and say ‘what are they seeing in here?’ .
MS: Excellent, Mike. Let me also ask you then, so do you measure your own effectiveness of your own PMO?
MK: I would love to say ‘yes’ in a very definite way. We want to, we’re trying to, I don’t believe it we do it as well as it’s possible to do it. Again and I’ll give you an example here, risk management, threats and opportunities, a year ago the organization had a relatively sensible process for dealing with risk. However, it’s the people involved in dealing with risk, project management and other areas of the business, absolutely ignored the process. So the process was ok but it was ignored by the organization. And when we did an audit on how well or badly we though we’re doing risk management, they scored very very low, like less than 1 in terms of the competency, at an organizational level. So what we did was we start to improve it, and we started to look in terms of improving it, we’re looking initially at how well we are doing this and it’s no good saying the project has a risk register, you got not only risk register but what’s the quality of the risk register, how does it tie with other systems, what sort of mitigation has been done, and we’re beginning to move the organization forward in the sense of those things are all in place, we’ve got people working to it now, we actually got senior management in the organization asking the right questions so that the project teams start taking notice of the need to have good risk management. And one of the things we’re saying is that if you got really good risk management, it is likely that fewer risks occur because you’re doing proper mitigation, is therefore likely that the company will save money, and we are looking for ways of measuring, quantifying it in a financial sense, but also quantifying it in the sense of how good is the quality of the documentation, of the approach, and everything else. Now what we would like to do for every area that we’re dealing with, we’d like to create something of that kind of measurement. It’s not always easy and sometimes it’s very difficult to be totally objective, you’ve got to be subjective in some of these things, and therefore you’ve got to be careful the way you do them, and because I work in a business where, and my background is engineering myself, and engineers are very precise in the way they work, so when I get subjective about the way I measure something, the engineering community is uncomfortable so I got to be careful. But, you know, if you can put, if you can measure in the right measurement, it’s better than not having any measurement at all.
MS: Definitely. As you were saying it’s a challenge to see most of the times where does the contribute of the PMO lies because, for instance for risk management, as you were presenting, it’s not the PMO who is handling risks, the PMO only puts the process in place or upskill project managers in order for them to be able to handle risks more effectively.
MK: The value it’s in, I mean, if you look at that specific case, obviously we’d like to do the same with all the other areas, first of all the value is in providing the guidance of ‘this is what good looks like’ and then providing the framework within which we can get everyone to be good, whatever that means. And then after that, to provide support, which is highly skilled support, if there are particular difficulties in the area of risk, or if there are problems solving the risk since, they go in and provide extra support and extra expertise to help out, so in that sense, we’re getting both the guys who we’re doing that, they are getting a good press from those, people see them as being helpful. Now, if you constantly have that flow of, if you like, good press that comes with the things you’re doing, that’s fine but you got to remember that, as I mentioned before, management will always see you as the cost and therefore you got to find that balance between the service you provide and what it’s costing.
MS: I see, communicating your value. And, Mike, in your view, now that we talked about what good looks like and how you need to provide that kind of information and measure your PMO against that benchmarking, what do you think distinguishes high-performance from other ones, the ones that fail to succeed?
MK: I’ve actually seen high-performing PMOs fail as well, to be honest, but I can maybe make a pass at the difference on high-performance and not-so-high- performance that succeeded not. And I see, we’re moving towards it, in the PMO we’re creating at the moment, we’re not yet there, if you have a set of first of all common objectives, which I suspect will always be based on a vision of what you’re trying to do, so a proper vision, with really strong common objectives for everybody in the team, the first thing to put into place, and an approach to the way you work where you don’t silo, you’re actually a single team trying to achieve a set of common objectives, and you’re showing your value. You know, this is not rocket science, this is all very straight forward, you’ve got to have strong processes and strong systems, but most of it, is about putting the situation together where the people actually feel right about using the systems and processes, and they have these common goals which are taking them forward together, and they’re not competing into one another to succeed. You know, you’re in the situation where the PMO and the organization with it succeed by virtue what it does, individuals don’t succeed and fail within that environment.
MS: Well, it’s all about being in it together and ensure we all know where we want to be in the future. Definitely, I agree with you. So Mike, would you say that your PMO is successful in that way?
MK: Partly. We’re getting there. I’m not sure when you can you claim success.
MS: That’s a very good point!
MK: Do I claim success after the programme is successfully finished and I can show that is has been done better than whatever I’m comparing it with? Or do I claim success because I can demonstrate I take a step down the road towards that?
MS: OK, let me then rephrase my question: if not successful, what do you think makes your PMO interesting or perhaps different from the others, if different, of course?
MK: Well, let me tell you what makes it interesting. And I did say right at the beginning of our conversation that one of the things that attracted me into this organization was the fact that the organization was open to the idea of change, that a lot of the people in the organization were open to the idea of change, and that’s relatively unusual ‘cause, you know, most of the organizations I worked in, and this is true in more than one continent to be honest, are very conservative organizations, they are not organizations that normally deal with change very well, so the fact that this one was very pro-change and a lot of the individuals in it were pro-change, was quite appealing, so that’s what makes it interesting. And I have a bit of a problem anyway because it’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle, I get obsessed about the idea of how to fit all of the pieces in the right place and putting a PMO together is much like it that, if I could only fit the pieces into the right place!
MS: It’s a very good analogy, actually.
MK: Yes, something that really works very well.
MS: Excellent, Mike. Let me just, to finalize, what do you see to be the PMO of the future? Do you think that PMOs will progress into a more strategic point, do you think that the PMO is dead and there’s no room for PMOs anymore in the future? What do you think will happen?
MK: That’s quite a question and I suppose I can say whatever I want to because when the future comes we’ve moved somewhere else.
MK: I see a need…OK, I’ve worked for a long time, and if I go back right to the beginning of my career and when I first started to get involved in project management, it was very much about projects, even in big industries, were very much about single projects which tend to do one thing, and everything was standalone, and it was very difficult to see, other than a few cases, what the benefit of doing a particular project was in the load of things.
MS: So you have seen that changing.
MK: That’s changed. I see the need for…when programmes of work are done, I see the need for them to look at the global implications of the programme, to look at what they are trying to achieve, no longer we are trying to achieve the building of 100 projects or a 1000 projects or whatever it may be, we’re now trying to…
MS: to do the right ones, I expect.
MK: To do the right ones, yes. Programmes of work, like the sort I deal with, are there to I guess reduce the risk to the business, of, you know, business failure, and therefore I’ve got to be able to take even the smallest project, and somehow quantify that in a business sense, as to what is it contributing to the overall good of the business. That’s very much different to when I started all of the years ago. Now, if I look at what a PMO, or the success of the organization, what a PMO needs to do, it’s to very much look at ‘are we doing the right things in the right order to provide the best contribution to the business, and what the business wants to achieve, whoever that business is?’. And I know that, if I had three projects, each of them contributes a different amount to reducing the risk of the business, and that’s fine, so I choose my three projects. I might, if I’m being really clever about the way I work as an organization and a PMO, I might then choose to deliver them out of order because that gives me the best value for the way I do it, ie, if I deliver them in the wrong order, ie, not the one that contributes the most first, I might get better price, or better schedule, or something that actually provides the value so this is more delayered view of why am I doing a project or a set of projects, how does it relate to all of the other things that I’m trying to do, and constantly looking back at ‘does it still justify what we’re trying to do here?’, ‘are we still in the right track?’, ‘can we still measure it?’, so the requirement to measure the contribution of what you’re doing is gonna go up, and I think whether we call it PMOs or something else, I think in that kind of organization, I think the organization will become integrated and will involve client and operation stand, as well as the traditional design, engineering, and constructed. That, the idea of alliancing, which is becoming I think more prevalent in the UK, will become more and more important, and the PMO will be tasked with overseeing the all thing, an integrated role that covers everything from operation to maintenance, trough construction, build, design, and all of those things, into measuring the benefits that come into the back end.
MS: Well, let’s find out if you are right in a couple of years.
MK: It may take a little longer than that.
MS: And if you were to provide a piece of advice to someone starting in the PMO career tomorrow, what wisdom would you like to communicate to them? This is your chance, Mike!
MK: I’m thinking, one of the things I was asked to do when I came in to the current organization was to take a couple of the very brightest people in there and trying mentor them and provide some guidance to them going forward, and what I see, and it’s a good thing, I see very bright, very intense individuals who get involved in things like PMOs and they’re career-driven, they want to succeed, and they want their organization to succeed, and all of the other things, and it’s very easy, I think, for people, either just starting out or who have limited experience to pick up on ‘the processes is the most important thing’, ‘the systems are the most important thing’, or even ‘the people are the most important thing’. None of those things are true, it’s a combination of all of the things, finding the right balance between them, which makes them successful.
MS: Excellent. Thank you, Mike. It has been a pleasure to talk to you about all PMO-related stuff. I think our members and all the PMO community will learn a lot from this conversation, and thank you once again for your time and for your support for this initiative. I hope you can join us in our next interview. Thank you very much.
MK: I would like that very much. Thank you.
The archive of PMO wisdom interviews can be heard on the APM PMO SIG microsite page.