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The PMO Trojan Horse: Building a Project Management Culture by Stealth

By Marisa Silva – Wellingtone

Have you ever been in a situation where you would like to put in practice these amazing learnings you got from that project management training course you went to last month but no one else seems to follow? Are you getting annoyed by missing out on the beauty of project management? If you are the only one realising the value of organisational project management but getting no support from your manager or peers, life can get frustrating. Yet, there is still hope.

Consider the PMO trojan horse. No, of course I don’t mean it as an internet virus! I’m alluring to the very clever approach the Greeks used to enter the city of Troy and win the war, with their huge wooden horse. They conquered the city by stealth, and so you too can conquer the chaotic organisation environment constraining your projects by implementing project management (or a PMO) by stealth.

In fact, as important as managing projects well is to create an organisational environment in which projects can flourish. We need more than manage projects; we also need to manage for projects!

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon in low-maturity organisations to find resistance to the introduction of project management as a systematic and standardised approach and set of practices and behaviours to manage projects. This can be due to a misunderstanding of project management methodologies – perceived to be an unnecessary evil –, someone who got traumatised by a bad project management experience in the past, or simply because people are naturally afraid of change.

In this scenario, bringing project management in by the back door, in a subtle but focused way, might be a last resort option. Risky and not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure, but still an option. Indeed, stealth project management means doing just enough project management needed to get things done and doing it as unnoticeable as possible, not drawing attention to it. Think of it as an invisible superhero flying under the radar.

Building a project management culture (or a PMO) by stealth implies a bottom-up approach, where the results of such daring endeavour should be solid enough for project management to, at least, start to become “tolerated” in the organisation. In a nutshell, you might be invisible, but the results of your actions must not. In extreme, this approach challenges the common myth that PMOs fail due to the lack of sponsorship – what we argue is that if senior management perceives the value the PMO is bringing to the organisation, then, it will very likely endorse its activity and become a strong advocate for its work.

Let’s be honest here: it is rare for someone to be given the opportunity – or a blank cheque – to change the world up side down in an organisation, particularly if that involves changing its way of working, the organisational culture. However, we all accept that a long journey starts with a small step. So…take that step! Eventually, in time, others around you will start to appreciate what you have built, and the organisation will move from a stage of resistance to project management to a scenario where project management is advocated for:

While this approach is not likely to succeed in all cases, it can also be your only option. If that is the case, here are some hints and tips to keep you going:

  1. Ask for forgiveness, not permission: be firm in your decision. After all, you know what benefits project management can bring, you are knowledgeable about what you are implementing, and you are simply trying to do the right thing for the organisation.
  2. Find your MVB: do not try to boil the ocean. Instead, focus on ensuring that the basics are covered and covered well. Too much project management will trigger the alarm in people. Uncover what your minimal viable bureaucracy (MVB) is that would allow you not to fall into chaos but still to have just enough project governance.
  3. Start with the end in mind: focus on showing quick wins, practices over processes and results over tasks. What is that one thing that would get people’s attention because it makes their life easier and/or because it enables better decisions? Work towards it.
  4. Avoid project management speak: introduce elements of project management, unnamed or using plain English. If the mere mention to the word “project” gives people the chills, don’t force it, instead, call it something else. As Mr. Shakespeare wrote, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.
  5. Maturity is a journey: don’t be too ambitious in your objectives. After all, organisational project management maturity takes time. Focus on incremental improvements, baby steps, rather than a big bang approach. Slow but steady progress is key for your Trojan horse to ride in new exciting fields.

Implementing project management by stealth can be a lonely job and requires someone with strong emotional intelligence, courage, and even a bit of optimism. You will have ups and downs in your journey and certainly also moments of disbelief and that is totally normal. However, you have a mission to accomplish, brilliant-invisible-super-hero. Be brave.

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