Advice for Junior PMs – #5 – How the PMO can help you succeed

It is day two on your first large project. The business case for the project has been presented to you, and you are driving your team to give you an estimate for everything that needs to happen for the project. Whether you are running Agile and creating a backlog, or running waterfall and defining your phases, you have tasked your team to give you a firm estimate on exactly what the project activities will be and how long the project activities will take.

Stop. Time out. You’re about to let your team know that you secretly want them to fail (even if you don’t) and let your sponsor know that your estimates can’t be trusted.

So how can you be successful if your team can’t, or won’t, give you a good estimate right off the bat?

That’s just it. You need to get comfortable with Progressive Elaboration, and your organization’s PMO is (or should be) proactively supporting you to do so.

Generally, when talking about a PMO, organizations will think of a group of people that elicit demand from business units for new projects, assign project managers, and aggregate status reporting. However, PMOs do so much more than that. Based on the Practice Standard for Program Management from PMI, the principle functions of a PMO are:

  • Organizational Strategy Alignment
  • Benefits and Business Case Management
  • Stakeholder Engagement
  • Governance Management, including Funding, Reporting and Control, and Phase/Stage Gate Management

To help you, and all other projects that are run by PMO staff, the most useful and proactive thing that a PMO can do for Projects in their purview is to communicate out to the rest of the organization that projects require progressive elaboration to give firm estimates as to cost, schedule, and scope.  This is not “grace” or “wiggle room”, but rather a detailed and factual inquiry into the true effort and cost to complete a project.

Think of it this way – in the Energy and Resource sector, specifically Oil and Gas, commitments are not made to shareholders as to how many barrels of oil a certain well will produce or how quickly the well can be drilled until the company has the time to conduct its due diligence. The drilling project will be planned to include seismic testing to estimate the depth and size of the reservoir, and test wells to assess the rock type and formation. Only after these activities have been conducted will a company plan and schedule Drilling and Completions activities and comment on the proven, possible, and plausible oil reserves in the reservoir. That’s not to say that the previous activities should happen in an uncontrolled fashion, but more so that the Well requires progressive elaboration of certainty that it will be economically viable.

Projects – whether software development, corporate rebranding, or office moves – require the same progressive elaboration to be accurate in estimates.

Some organizations will have stage gates with specific deliverables to help facilitate this progressive elaboration – like multiple versions of a project charter. Using the PMBOK in the interest of being company agnostic, percentages/degrees of accuracy could (not should) be assigned as such at the start of each phase:

  • Initiation: +/- 75% estimation accuracy (someone has said that it will take $100,000; it could actually take $175,000, or could take $25,000 to complete the work)
  • Planning: +/- 25% estimation accuracy (we have brought in an expert to help us plan, and they think it will take $140,000; it could actually take $175,000 or $105,000)
  • Execution: +/- 10% accuracy (we have sat as a team and worked through task decomposition and PERT estimation; have assessed areas of knowable risk and built them into the plan; have a day-to-day schedule that reflects duration, effort, and deliverables; and we think that the cost is $155,000.  Due to unknowable risk, it could take $170,050 or could take $139,000)
  • Closure: +/- 0% accuracy (we have wrapped up the project, encountered two risks that became issues that we did not foresee, and have performed all project accruals; actual cost was $169,500)

If the above example were taken in real life, the project above would be judged a financial failure given that it was delivered almost 70% over Initiation estimate.

This is the fundamental reason that the most proactive activity a PMO can do to help facilitate project success is to ensure that the organization knows, understands, and accepts why projects should be allowed to go through the exercise of progressive elaboration before execution. If you are not allowed to re-baseline based on new and better information, the expectation of delivery to an old and irrelevant estimate will be resentments in the making.

So before you go off on your first, fifteenth, or five-hundredth project, remember that your PMO is there to support you and to help you succeed.


About Jason H Zalmanowitz
I am a nerdy Management Consultant / Project Manager with a MBA, have spent the majority of my career working for consulting firms in Calgary, and I race in triathlons because of (and thanks to) my wife. As a Project Manager, I have managed field implementations, strategy development projects, software development projects, and hardware implementation projects. As a consultant, I have helped companies articulate how and why they are going to implement and interact with sustaining technology to support their business.

2 Responses to Advice for Junior PMs – #5 – How the PMO can help you succeed

  1. Pingback: Advice for Junior PMs – Introductory Post | Unnatural Leadership

  2. Pingback: Advice for Junior PMs – # 9 – Choosing the right project | Unnatural Leadership

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