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How Life Insurance Companies Can Use the PMO to Improve Outcomes of Agile Projects

The Agile approach used in software development helps projects respond to unpredictability.

What? Unpredictability?

Life insurance companies are founded on predictability! How can Agile work at insurance companies, the reigning rulers of predictability?

In an informal examination of multiple large life insurance provider websites, the following key words were found (multiple times/places):

  • Preserve
  • Long tradition
  • Security
  • Base for building
  • Permanent
  • Fixed
  • Deeply committed
  • Dependable

So how can we, as project managers and program managers, fuse the “traditional” insurance corporate cultures with Agile projects that are based on evolving, iterating and changing?

A PMO initiative can help manage the point where predictability has to meet unpredictability, and blend as peacefully as possible in the project world:

  • Work with project teams and vendors to ensure agile terms, practices and goals are understood and met
  • Instill a level of commitment for agile projects that meet and align with overall project goals
  • Help set up or enhance proper Agile governance for projects and vendors
  • Assure that all integration points between multiple projects are identified, efficient and manageable
  • Perform ongoing scope analysis while adhering to the Agile philosophy of shifting and reprioritizing as necessary
  • Initiate risk analysis and align with the Agile methodology
  • Provide long term, short term or interim leadership in overall project work and Agile core competencies
  • Supplement resources to help with project and business area gaps
  • Guide project managers, sponsors and stakeholders throughout the agile process and provide ownership and stability with this methodology
  • Keep a balance of traditional project reporting and documentation while managing everyday Agile shifts and changes

As daunting as it may be for “old school” companies, exposure to Agile projects is inevitable. Managing Agile in a predictable way allows insurance companies to understand what it will take to adapt to the Agile project mindset and advocate the change.

When I grow up…a project manager’s path to the future

when you grow upWhen you were young, I bet you said “I want to be a project manager when I grow up!”

Probably not, since most of us plunged into project management the old fashion way – by accident. Someone probably approached you and said, “I want you to manage this project.” I bet you scratched your head and thought, “Ok, what next?”

Typically, companies don’t have career paths for project managers.  Project management is generally not seen as a core competency, so  career paths or training aren’t a priority. This reality leaves the project manager frustrated as their career seems to stall.

Another career conundrum: who wants a “new” project manager running the project? How else can project managers learn and gain experience? They can be mentored by a more experienced project manager, but mentorship is an area lacking in most organizations.

So what do we do? Here are some suggestions.

First, identify what your company CAN do to continue your growth as a project manager:

  • Work with your human resources department to create a career path, including continuing education and certification
  • Expand your sphere of impact by implementing project management methodologies, processes, and governance mechanisms to improve productivity across your company
  • Create a mentorship program. While we share some skill sets that make us good project managers, we can still learn from one another

Second, identify what YOU can do to continue your growth outside of work. Remember, it is our responsibility as project managers to continuously learn and apply this knowledge to our projects. Take charge of your growth as a project manager!

  • Join professional organizations like the Project Management Institute (PMI) which, through local chapters, communities of practice and other events, provides additional learning opportunities and certifications branching across the project management universe
  • Think outside the box and identify other opportunities, such as mentoring, to learn and grow as a project manager

Companies want to hire the best talent, but like other professions the company and the project managers need to share in their career growth and development. This is a win-win all around for the company and the project manager.

So back to my question, what do you want to be when you grow up? Me, I want to be a Project Manager.

Project Management Resolutions for 2014

resolutions-catIt’s that time again folks.  New Year’s Resolutions. Been a few years since we did project management new year’s resolutions, so here’s what I am offering up based on this year’s project experiences.

1Make change management integral to your project management methodology. If it’s considered a separate discipline, it can often get left by the wayside with disastrous results. It’s the project manager’s responsibility to make sure that there are tasks in the plan that pertain to the people-readiness for the go-live of any project.

2. Document meetings in project artifacts, then link or copy into minimalist meeting notes. Back in 2010, we talked about limiting meeting attendance, let’s talk today about eliminating or minimizing meeting minutes. The way to do this is to parse the meeting content directly into project artifacts. Actions go in an action log and issues go in an issues log or register or whatever your flavor of project management calls it.

3. Simplify. Simplify ruthlessly.  Instead of adding to your methodology, look for ways to streamline it and cut it back. You may find that you get better adoption of your pm methodology when less is more. The trick is in knowing where and when less is appropriate.

4. Broaden your knowledge base. Read new and different blogs and books, delve into business journals, neoroscience, leadership, psychology, sociology and other seemingly peripheral topics. You would be surprised at the creativity it sparks in your thinking and approach to your projects.  My favorite ways to do this include:

5. Embrace new tools.  The rumble from the trenches is starting to include disatisfaction with MS Project as the be-all and end-all of project management tools. Have you looked into alternatives yet? Sometimes it’s actually simpler to manage projects with Excel.   Are you using social media effectively to manage, motivate and communicate with your project teams? Be especially alert for tools that can help you simplify to achieve resolution #3.

Let’s grow this list:

  • How are you looking to change the way you manage projects in 2014?
  • What new tools are you going to explore?
  • What’s on your reading list?

PMOs and Business Strategy

cogsFor most organizations, the Project Management Office (PMO) is simply a centralized organizational structure for standardizing practices used in the delivery of their projects.  An effective PMO allows these organizations to more consistently deliver successful projects.

For some high-performing organization, the PMO is able to achieve much more.  It is able to help the organization drive and achieve its business strategy.  So how can something as boring and ordinary as good project management become a key to organizational success?

First, let’s think about the planning process.  Successful organizations define their goals and their plans for meeting those goals using some type of strategic planning process.  As a goal (e.g. achieve 5% organic growth) is refined into a strategy (e.g. by attracting more customers through a better customer experience), strategic and tactical projects emerge (e.g. redesign customer portal to improve ease-of-doing-business).

A mature, fully-engaged PMO becomes the keeper of the project portfolio.  If the PMO understands the strategy that the organization is striving to achieve, the PMO can use this understanding as it manages the project portfolio to drive that strategy.  First, and most critically, the PMO ensures that key, business-critical projects are delivered successfully.  It also ensures that project success is aligned with and measured against the strategic goals that the project is defined to address.  The PMO works with the project teams to define KPIs that clearly tie to the organization’s strategy.  If a project can’t be tied to the strategy, the organization can then determine if the project fits into the portfolio.  Similarly, the PMO can be used to resolve priority conflicts between projects, helping to clarify situations where the strategy may be at odds with itself.

More pro-actively, the PMO can forecast capacity, helping the organization understand how much change it can realistically undertake within a given budget or timeframe.  The PMO can also see and exploit synergies between projects, helping the organization take advantage of unexpected opportunities.  For example, given its view of the project portfolio the PMO may see how a service being built to support one project can be utilized to simplify or enhance another project.  Finally, the PMO provides a feedback loop, informing the organization of its progress against its strategic goals and allowing it to take early, corrective action when progress lags or goals shift.

Thus, a PMO becomes a crucial management tool for implementing the organization’s strategy.  Organizations that are able to effectively use this tool are better able to achieve their organizational goals and thus continue to thrive.  In today’s competitive and challenging environment, can any organization afford not to take full advantage of a PMO?

Do PMOs Matter

successProject Management Offices (PMOs) have become a fixture in many organizations.  According to the 2012 State of the PMO Study, 87% of organizations surveyed have a PMO, up from 47% in 2000.   Although mid-size and large companies are more likely to have a PMO than small companies, the biggest growth, by far, was in small companies – 73% of small firms now have PMOs and over 90% of mid-size and large companies have them.

Still, people question their value and ask, Does having a PMO matter?

The statistics say yes.  According to the 2012 State of the PMO study, PMOs directly contribute to the following performance improvements:  a 25% increase in projects delivered under budget, a 31% increase in customer satisfaction, a 39% improvement in projects aligned with objectives, a 15% cost savings per project, and a 30% decrease in failed projects.

Experience also says yes.  A 2012 PMI White Paper described multiple PMO success stories.  In one case study, a company shifted the focus of its PMO from a process orientation to an outcome orientation. The PMO now focuses on working with organizational units as they launch projects, requiring them to build a business case and complete a scorecard to demonstrate how the project aligns with corporate strategy.  The reorganized PMO was able to triple the number of projects that delivered on organizational strategy.  In another case study, an organization was able to reduce project planning time by 75% through standardizing and leveraging common project plans defined by the PMO.

Having a PMO CAN matter, but simply having a PMO is not a silver bullet.  Implementing an idealized methodology that isn’t tailored to an organization’s needs and cultures won’t suddenly or magically solve all problems.  To meet its objective of improving the likelihood of project success, the PMO must gain maturity and acceptance within the organization.  It must become more than another structure or process.  It must become focused on continuous process improvement and proactive management of the project portfolio.  Keys to achieving this level of maturity are strong executive sponsorship, tailoring the PMO to solve practical, real-world problems within the organization, and actively measuring PMO and project success.

So if you are an organization that struggles to consistently deliver business critical projects do you have a PMO?  If you do, is it as effective as it could be?  Maybe it is time to consider the benefits of a PMO assessment and reap the rewards that a highly functioning PMO can bring to your organization.

Why a PMO

shudder_homer_smallProject Management Office

The words make some shudder.  Of course PMOs have existed for a long timeThey grew as the discipline of project management itself matured and people recognized that project management was a distinct skill set that demanded training and experience, as well as certain natural talents.

While PMOs are often associated with larger firms which need to establish a standard methodology and approach for initiating, managing, and controlling systems-related projects, there are many reasons why a company might consider establishing a PMO.

First, a PMO does not need to be focused on systems-related projects.  The real benefit of a PMO is its ability to bring a disciplined approach to how an organization approaches projects.  Any time an organization is contemplating a series of projects to introduce transformational change, a PMO can improve the odds of success.  Those projects can be systems focused, but they could also be focused on business process redesign, new product development, geographical expansion, acquisition, or reorganization.  Each organization can decide for itself what type of projects should fall under the auspices of a PMO.

Similarly, a PMO does not need to be focused on all aspects of project management – at least in its initial implementation.  A PMO should address existing organizational problems.  If the organization struggles with prioritizing project requests and deciding which projects to fund and staff, the PMO should be focused on this issue.  If the organization struggles with keeping projects on track and resolving issues during project execution, the PMO should be focused on this issue.  Simply implementing a PMO doesn’t bring value to an organization.  Implementing a PMO so that it addresses the real-world issues that the organization is facing does bring value.

While PMOs take many shapes and flavors, they all seek to improve communication, collaboration, and consistency.  Organizations face increasingly complex environments while striving to respond to customer demands.  They often rely on a set of projects to drive the organization towards a new strategic vision of itself.  These organizations can leverage a PMO to more effectively meet these commitments.

So why consider a PMO?  If your organization is facing substantive change and needs to improve its ability to consistently and successfully deliver projects so that it can implement that change, a PMO can help.