Top Ten Messages from PMO Symposium 2015

PMOSymposium15_525x200-100815.ashxThe theme for this year’s PMI PMO Symposium was portfolio management – or strategy execution – depending on how you like to call that. It is in effect the second year the PMO Symposium has focused on this particular angle which tells you something about which type of PMO is the hot favourite right now. In fact over the three days of the Symposium you’ll be hard pushed to find any sessions or conversations about project or programme office and because of portfolio angle, the audience was very much targeted right.

So what did I learn – or take away from the three days spent in Arizona? Well, I thought about calling this article the top ten trends but that would be stretching it so instead I’ve gone with what key messages were put out there that leave some food for thought:

1. Strategic Alignment

2015-11-10 08.00.39The whole theme for the event was “close the gap between strategy development and implementation” which invariably meant ALOT of the sessions were about portfolio office. This theme was essentially backed up by PMI’s latest research pieces – The Power of Project Portfolio Management.

One thing that struck me throughout some of the portfolio management sessions was that part of the audience was missing. The research has highlighted that strategy execution needs committment from senior executives. It’s these people who needed to be in the sessions that specifically covered the “bridging the gap” challenges. For some delegates, it was even more of an imperative as some highlighted that their organisations actually struggle with setting the strategy in the first place. It kind of felt like these sessions were preaching to the converted.

There was one stand out session for me. It was a session by Christopher Garibaldi and Kevin Laughridge from Deloitte. Christopher has a foreword in the “Delivering on Strategy, The Power of Project Portfolio Management” research piece. The session covered their experiences in creating PMOs for client organisations. The insights were common sense:


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And practical, with an insight into their own roadmap:

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They talked about the next generation PMO being one that facilitates the portfolio, denounce time tracking as producing data which is not really useful and that PMOs should focus on resource allocation instead. They talked about stopping the “nit-picking crap that PMO has to stop getting project managers doing” and essentially start simple, and introduce things incrementally.

There was a call for using dashboards to help build reliable data, but only when project estimation accuracy has improved. In other words keep refining the process until you’re ready to take on a dashboard or PPM tool.

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Their whole presentation was one of the more practical focused sessions on how to do portfolio management which leads me to the next message.

2. Thought Leadership is Good

But there were a lot of delegates who were looking for the next step, they wanted more practical advice on how to make portfolio management work. After three or four sessions talking about portfolio management being the glue between strategy and project execution, we get it.

There didn’t seem to be sessions that went into the details or say, project prioritisation – how do we do that? Or investment appraisals, benefits management, overcoming resistance, managing the pipeline and so on. There were a lot of case study presentations that touched on some of these elements as the presenter talked about their journey but stopped short of getting into some useful detail.

Or maybe there were sessions on these things. With 8 sessions to pick from it was incredibly difficult to work out which ones to go for, so perhaps it’s my bad!

3. There Was a Lot of KISS

This got mentioned ALOT. The acronym, KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid, or just generally talking about the approach to gettting things done, simplicity was the key. It was mentioned in the research pieces which is why I think a lot of the presenters picked up on it. It was mentioned in Anthony Gayter’s keynote when he was talking about how HP’s internal portfolio was initiated and managed. It was mentioned again when talking about how to ensure the portfolio management office meets the organisation’s objectives. It was the key to setting portfolio office KPIs and it was a main factor when choosing a PPM tool.

The other phrase that came up a lot was the need “to keep the lights on”. This was in reference to ensuring the portfolio office focuses on “business-as-usual” just as much as programmes and projects.  This was specifically highlighted when presenters were talking about enterprise wide portfolios as opposed to just IT department ones.

Here’s Anthony Gayter’s summary points from his session. Good to see point one!

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4. Portfolio Management is a Series of Steps

The key message was start simple and mature over time. Ideally it was start the first step before you even know you need portfolio management (that came from Wells Fargo) which in an ideal world I think we’d all like to be in that position. Failing that there was a session that highlighted the series of steps are required perfectly and that was “Methodology Makeover – Practical Advice for Transforming Your Methodology from Inhibitor to Enabler”.

Deborah O’Bray’s session was a great practical insight that started with her organisation’s initial methodology establishment created to provide a common language; standardised, defined, and introduce policies. During the “control years” the methodology was there for control and provide evidence, it was mandatory, about compliance, all about verification, sign off and audits. Now it’s all about lean, tailoring ‘aggressively’ and only focused on the core mandatory processes. Practice supercedes process.

Here’s a couple of shots from that session:

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5. Bias

Is it just me or has there been quite a lot of stuff about bias lately. I’m talking about the psychology around judgement and decision-making that was initially made prominent with Daniel Kahneman and cognitive bias. I’ve heard a lot about it in relation to project management – especially what bias might be in play when we’re creating business cases, stating benefits, planning and estimating projects.

We were treated to a session from Professor Daniel Gilbert from Harvard University on “How to Do Precisely the Right Thing at all Possible Times”  You can check him out via TED. Here were five bias that he covered in his session:

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6. Projects Are Still Important

Although there was a lot of portfolio management talk, there was still the recognition that projects are still important. Specifically reliable and accurate project headline information is needed to effectively feed back into portfolio management. The biggest challenge for projects seemed to be accuracy in project estimating and resource management. These were the two areas that came up a lot.

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7. Technology is Put in Its Place

I mentioned it before right at the top of the bill that PPM tools are an enabler and not the holy grail. Enterprise PPM tools are right for the more advanced and complex portfolio – for the portfolio offices that have cracked the people and process part before moving on to the technology. It was interesting to hear that the PMO of the Year winner last year still uses Excel as the main software for managing their portfolio. They’re looking to move on but it just goes to show that your tool envy might be misplaced.

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8. It’s Young

There’s no doubt that portfolio management is in its infancy. The research reports from PMI indicate that only 10% of organisations align portfolio management and strategy. In fact a recent article from @MrPortfolioManagement has written some good overviews on the research and this one in particular highlights just how far portfolio management has to go.

What was evident at PMO Symposium is that the audience are all in agreement it is the right thing to do – yet it is a work in progress. There were no magic bullet presentations, no-one has really cracked it. Even the larger organisations like HP are still in the journey.

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9. It’s Difficult

And the reason why no-one has really cracked it is because of multiple factors. These were the ones I picked up from sessions and from the research:

  1. A portfolio management office needs committment and support from senior executives
  2. The approach to making portfolio management successful has to fit with the business culture
  3. There has to be the right capability within the organisation to make portfolio management happen.
  4. A simple approach to implementing portfolio management needs to be found.
  5. It’s going to involve a lot of politics.
  6. Attention has to be paid to getting the right portfolio management structures in place.
  7. Communication and cooperation are the biggest leadership traits in portfolio management leaders.

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10. Trends

The final keynote session was from Sheryl Connelly with “Confession of a Corporate Futurist”. You can check Sheryl out on You Tube with a TED talk.

It’s hard to put into a few short words what I took away from this session other than reminding us that global trends really do have an impact on our tiny part of the world and if our tiny part of the world is PMO it is going to be hard to really predict where PMOs are going to be in future.

What Sheryl did was remind us that the past is not a good predictor of the future and that we should always try to challenge the status quo – we should imagine multiple versions of the future which enable us to weather ANY kind of future.

She also said the best way to predict the future…. is to create it. And there’s the final message that any PMO practitioner can take away with them.

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About Lindsay Scott

Lindsay is the founder of PMO Flashmob and a Director at PMO Learning - the sister company to PMO Flashmob and the best training company for PMO people in the world! She's also the creator of London's first dedicated PMO Conference; Director of Arras People and PMO enthusiast. Loves dogs and gin.

One comment

  1. Informative article – Thanks

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