PMO and Uncertainty

Guest contribution by | 08.03.2021 | Project management |

Shaping project management culture from within the PMO

When Michael Schenkel from t2informatik suggested I write an article on uncertainty and project management offices (PMOs), I was initially taken aback. How do two topics that seem so different at first glance fit together?

In systemics, we hold the principle that irritation stimulates reflection, and indeed that is exactly what happened to me. I began to enjoy the idea of bringing together the two topics that I have been actively involved in shaping in the German-speaking project management scene over the past few years and presenting them in a blog post.

PMO and uncertainty – two terms and their meaning

Let’s start first and very briefly with the important terminology. PMOs are line functions in companies that accompany and support project business. DIN 69901-5 defines them as “cross-project support function for the introduction and optimisation of project management systems as well as the operational support of projects and project participants”.

The range of services provided by PMOs varies widely among companies and is based on the needs of the organisation for which they are responsible in each case. In many companies, PMOs are an active driver of PM culture and related standards because, unlike projects, they have the necessary resources and – due to their line-item set-up – the consistency to make it sustainable.

The second important concept is uncertainty. Uncertainty is understood as the set of all unexpected or, more precisely, unpredictable events. For the context of this article, it is essential that uncertainty is an integral part of projects.1 Full planning and control is an illusion, this is especially true for projects that are characterised by uniqueness.

PMO and uncertainty meet

Let us now come to the actual question of what the role of PMOs can be on the topic of “uncertainty”. The answer is already in the above explanations. How we deal with uncertainty is strongly shaped by our culture.2 Since uncertainty is an integral part of projects and many PMOs actively shape project culture, they can also shape the constructive handling of uncertainty in the environment you are in charge of: With the aim that project managers and project teams have the necessary competences to deal with uncertainty and actively use them in case unexpected events occur.

In the following sections I present a rough outline of the concept for such a PMO initiative.

Prevention and situational action

Two competences on uncertainty can be distinguished:

  • Competences to prevent unexpected events (preventive measures). These include the classic PM disciplines such as appropriate planning and control (including risk management), order clarification and stakeholder management as well as vendor and claim management.3
  • Competences in the event of unexpected events. This is essentially about security beyond planning and control as well as intuition, experience and a learning (fault-tolerant) culture that is reflected operationally in situationally appropriate action.4

In terms of preventive measures, an established PMO that is not exclusively concerned with portfolio management but (also) with project management should already be well positioned and offer the support that is appropriate for the organisational culture, such as training, operational support for projects, PM standards and templates, coaching.

It becomes more interesting when unexpected events occur. Here, help in the situation itself (i.e. support in situational action) is rather difficult, because in most cases the PMO is not an active part of the actual project work. Of course, it can provide relief from project tasks at the interface with the outside world – and thus enable the project to focus on the unexpected event. But above all – and this brings us to the core – a PMO can promote a PM culture in advance, in which project managers and project staff acquire conscious competences for dealing with uncertainty.

A detailed description of a PM culture initiative (illustrated by an example of a PMO I set up and managed) can be found in the book “Beratung von Organisationen im Projektmanagement”.5

Such an initiative – one can also speak of an organisational project – follows the “usual” rules of good change management. This sounds more trivial than it is in practice. However, this blog post is not about change management per se, but about specific aspects of dealing with uncertainty.

Uncertainty has still not really arrived in the professional context despite (or perhaps because of?) the current pandemic situation. A key aspect of this is that the skills required in uncertainty do not correspond to our cultural preferences for objectivity and rationality. Especially in professional business, we have a tendency to focus on fighting uncertainty instead of dealing with it productively: in other words, a AGAINST instead of a WITH.

Of course, many successful project managers have at least some of the necessary competences for dealing with uncertainty due to their experience, but these are rather regarded as talent or “he just has a flair for it”. The fact that such competences can be learnt and trained, and can thus be promoted in a targeted manner, has not really been recognised – even by the Deutschen Gesellschaft für Projektmanagement (GPM), which published an expertise on dealing with uncertainty in projects in 2016. And the expertise already states that uncertainty has economic potential.6 Unfortunately, we are not exploiting it.

Possible tasks of a PMO in the face of uncertainty

From all this, it becomes clear which tasks and responsibilities a PMO can take on:

  • Clarification in the organisation that, especially in projects, predictability has limits, i.e. uncertainty
    + exists
    + cannot be eliminated
    + does not necessarily lead to crises, but rather
    + has economic potential that needs to be exploited.
  • Here, of course, (top) management is an important target audience.
  • Leading a cultural initiative to deal with uncertainty with the aim of making uncertainty part of the PM culture.
  • Lead the selection and introduction of approaches to dealing with uncertainty that are appropriate for the company.7
  • Initiation and, if necessary, implementation of necessary (training) measures for competence acquisition.
  • Organisation of peer counselling and exchange forums.

 

Parameters for the cultural change

As I said, the term PMO stands for a diverse landscape. And so some manifestations of PMOs and the PM cultures usually associated with them are more and others less suitable for launching the culture initiative. Here is my perspective, which of course needs to be verified for concrete cases, because behind it are hypotheses, observations and experiences from my personal and subjective working world:

  • A project organisation that values projects in their individuality and autonomy and offers them a simple framework (keyword: lean project processes) for embedding them in the organisation fulfils many prerequisites for launching a cultural initiative on uncertainty. This is equally true for organisations that have an image of projects as expeditions, they quickly find fun in dealing with uncertainty.
  • A project landscape that supports research has a lot of contact with explorative procedures, unexpected results or even “failure”. Uncertainty already plays a big role here, at least implicitly. The topic can find a fertile breeding ground.
  • Project people who enjoy trying out something new and even being wrong once in a while are good multipliers to promote dealing with uncertainty as part of a PM culture.
  • A PMO that is focused on highly standardised project delivery and reporting, that controls or at least demands compliance with the associated processes, is often oriented towards improving planning, control and comparable metrics for project success. Here, my suggestion would be for the PMO to first subject its own image of PM culture to a review. The road to project uniqueness and the uncertainty closely associated with it starts with the PMO itself.
  • PMOs that tie project and portfolio quality to adherence to plans need new quality benchmarks to deal with uncertainty. And PM cultures in which deviations from the plan are seen as a culpable error of the projects and in which justifications thus tie up resources and negatively affect the climate, I recommend reviewing their error culture before dealing with uncertainty. A learning error culture instead of a justifying one is an important prerequisite for starting the cultural process.
  • And last but not least: project landscapes in which the uniqueness of projects is of little relevance and in which projects run successfully according to clearly standardised processes have good reasons to ask themselves whether dealing with uncertainty needs to be addressed at all.

Finally, there is the question of how management should be involved in such a cultural initiative. As described, uncertainty has not yet really arrived in the professional context; management disciplines are strongly oriented towards measurability and analytical approaches. Culture is also, perhaps even primarily, a question of leadership freely following the motto “the locomotive determines the direction”. The famous bad-smelling fish does not fit here, unfortunately, as it rather describes the destructive moment of leadership. 😉

Of course, the whole thing doesn’t work without the crew either – Odysseus too would hardly have arrived home without his comrades-in-arms. Again, a somewhat flippant note: a cultural initiative should NOT be based on the loss figures from the Odyssey. What is needed is a fruitful collaboration between leadership and staff, whether it starts as a grassroots movement or is initiated “from the top”.8 What is important is that the PMO’s educational work gets people excited about uncertainty. I am deliberately not talking about “picking people up” here, because it is about a conscious, self-effective and self-responsible decision by each individual whether to join the journey. Half-hearted pick-ups are not good companions for uncertainty, as we are currently experiencing on a daily basis.

Conclusion

Action and decision-making require perceived security. In a world in which complexity and imponderables are perceived to be increasing and have a growing influence on companies, organisational cultures are needed in which perceived security (of the individual and of the organisation) does not arise exclusively from planning and control. The constructive handling of uncertainty is little established in our culture, uncertainty is still (or perhaps now even more) considered to be deficient. By definition, projects are characterised by the occurrence of unexpected events. Projects and the associated PM culture can therefore be an important cultural driver for dealing productively with uncertainty.

PMOs accompany project landscapes in organisations. Many PMOs are already an important initiator and promoter of organisation-specific PM culture. They are therefore virtually predestined to promote a “culture of uncertainty” in the corporate context. “Uncertainty culture” does not mean that classical project management loses its significance or that our previous corporate culture should be turned upside down. It is about a complement, a “both/and” or even a cooperation of intellect and intuition. I would be thrilled if companies bring this promotion into focus.

 

Notes (some in German):

[1] see Planning subject to reservation
[2] see among others Prof. Fritz Böhle, Arbeit als subjektivierendes Handeln, p. 3 hereafter
[3] see How can I avoid uncertainty?
[4] see also What we can learn from starship Enterprise
[5] Beratung von Organisationen im Projektmanagement, Kapitel „Entwicklung von Lösungsansätzen und Interventionsarchitekturen“, hrsg. von Reinhard Wagner
[6] GPM: Umgang mit Ungewissheit in Projekten
[7] An overview of possible approaches can be found in the GPM expertise in chapter 3.
[8] PMO-Einführung „von unten“ – Erfahrungsbericht über einen ungewöhnlichen Ansatz

Astrid Kuhlmey has published other articles on the t2informatik blog, including

t2informatik Blog: Is the world getting more complex?

Is the world getting more complex?

t2informatik Blog: Digital Transformation - A Plea for Quality

Digital Transformation – A Plea for Quality

t2informatik Blog: Letting go is the new way of planning

Letting go is the new way of planning

Astrid Kuhlmey
Astrid Kuhlmey

Computer scientist Astrid Kuhlmey has more than 30 years of experience in project and line management in pharmaceutical IT. She has been working as a systemic consultant for 7 years and advises companies and individuals in necessary change processes. Sustainability as well as social and economic change and development are close to her heart. Together with a colleague, she has developed an approach that promotes competencies to act and decide in situations of uncertainty and complexity.