Every now and again I come across tweets with links to interesting and stimulating web sites and articles, two of which I’ve spotted today:

@troy_plant tweeted a link to a great quote from Dave West, VP Research Director at Forrester Research (brought in Software Development and Human Capital):

It’s interesting, what we at Forrester have observed across the industry this particular kind of  maniacal kind of addition to the program management kind of practice. PMO’s have grown in size and stature in organizations and become incredibly…big, in terms of their execution. One thing that it illustrates is that complexity does not solve complexity.  As organizations wrestle with increasingly diverse portfolio, time-to-market pressures, one thing that they want to do is add more complexity. “When in doubt, add more governance!”,”When in doubt, add more people to manage the people that are managing the people!” “When in doubt, get more Gannt charts!” And I think that we’ve found that that does not work. I think it’s clear that breakthrough companies or companies that are definitely driving the industry around change and innovation are not solving those problems with complexity.
I love this quote because it says so beautifully and eloquently what I’ve been thinking for quite some time but was unable to articulate so well. In my experience (and IMHO only – but see also “Project Management Offices: A Waste of Money?“), PMO’s are a complete waste of time and money.
@pbadenski tweeted a link titled “Ten Politically Incorrect Truths About Human Nature“. This title is absolutely spot on as the article outlines 10 human traits, some of which one would hesitate to mention or discuss in public at least on certain circumstances.
Here’s the list:
  1. Men like blond bombshells (and women want to look like them)
  2. Humans are naturally polygamous
  3. Most women benefit from polygyny, while most men benefit from monogamy
  4. Most suicide bombers are Muslim
  5. Having sons reduces the likelihood of divorce
  6. Beautiful people have more daughters
  7. What Bill Gates and Paul McCartney have in common with criminals
  8. The midlife crisis is a myth—sort of
  9. It’s natural for politicians to risk everything for an affair (but only if they’re male)
  10. Men sexually harass women because they are not sexist

Think about it!

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  1. The notion that “complexity does not solve complexity” is of course nonsense in the absence of a domain and context.

    The Future Combat System, http://goo.gl/OZ6pj is a very complex system and the systems used to mange FCS are themselves complex. Same for Orion which began as the Crew Exploration Vehicle http://goo.gl/24SOJ. I’ve worked the programmatic architecture for both these.

    Senior executives like to see simple and many times simplistic approaches to complex problems. But in the end the management of complexity requires complex approaches. Just to “plan” the launch of a vehicle using an ATLAS V Heavy requires 420 pages of “high level” narrative, http://goo.gl/PNawO. A vehicle and the program that builds them that we “ride” on.

    The Program Performance Management Process Directive (PPM-PD) used to “manage” the programs we work is 300 some pages, with links to several 1,000 more pages for the end to end processes. This “guide” is what directs our weekly work on multi-Billion dollar programs (weapons and manned space flight).

    Are these approaches applicable to software projects of 5 to 20 people building an emergent product – of course not. But those same people may be building a 21CFR complaint medical device, with many 100’s of process steps to get it validated by the FDA.

    So when I hear someone, especially an analyst who has probably never worked a complex program, with other peoples, money, whose outcome could kill people, either by accident or on purpose, I get a smile on my face – Yea right buddy, you probably have no idea what you’re talking about.

    So in the end, PMO’s provide a vital role in specific domains and contexts. I’d like the Forester analyst to explain that to this guy http://goo.gl/pXHGs (we’re on one of his programs for autonomous landing of the F-18) or this guy http://goo.gl/KKEan (I work for a person 5 levels down in the Pentagon under Carter’s office)


    • Hi Glen, somehow I knew you’ll have a perspective to share regarding this point. And in hindsight I should have picked up this point myself as all of my professional career has been in and around non mission-critical organizations where failing consequences did not translate to loss or damage to human lives. So point certainly taken. You cannot, however, ignore the fact that there seems to be a growing body of evidence that questions the ROI for PMOs in certain organizations and in certain circumstances. My experience is anecdotal only but seems to support this notion.


  2. Of course, it all depends upon what one means by “complexity” (not to be confused with “comlpicated”, or even “big’ which seems to be the thinking behind a lot of “complex project management”!)…And of course it is the complexity of the project NOT of the product that we need to consider – of course there is a relationship, a correlation, but not necessarily causation between the project (people, processes, etc. etc.) and the product characteristics in terms of how convoluted they are.

    To the core question of PMOs, the jury is definitely out. One of the issues we have is that they are often process police and their inhabitants have little understanding of how projects are managed. I concur with the comment re: the Gantt chart; it is a comfort blanket for so many project managers and (unfortunately) executives…


    • Terry, I probably would not have used the term ‘complexity’ in the context of that quote. I think what they were trying to say is that adding another layer of governance is not a cure for ineffective governance. If your project or programme lack effective governance get it fixed, don’t add another layer as this, in itself, will not necessarily solve your problem but rather, in some circumstances, just increase it.


      • “… adding another layer of governance is not a cure for ineffective governance.”

        I think you’ve nailed it, Shim. Extending your insight with a completely unjustifiable generality: An entrepreneurial leader will initially attempt to solve perceived management problems by tinkering with the managers, whereas a bureaucratic leader will attempt to solve them by tinkering with the management processes. I base this on my observation that bureaucrats try to make every process scalable and reproducible, even if they only have funding to do them once, and entrepreneurs consider failure to be a valuable part of the learning process. Note that entrepreneurs will cheerfully establish more structured management processes, and bureaucrats will happily counsel ineffective managers; it’s just not their first choices.

        All of that aside, I suspect that the problems most organizations experience with governance is rooted in their politics. A PMO that can’t kill the boss’s execrable pet project won’t be effective in directing funds to support a potentially valuable project with a low-powered sponsor. And while you can certainly pretend to address the problem as an entrepreneur or bureaucrat might, all you’re going to do is reinforce the (correct) notion that your governance is a sham. Witness the low esteem we Americans have for our Congress, where entrepreneurs and bureaucrats have driven our annual “defense” expenditures to nearly a $USD trillion, as we continue to wage war against a largely unidentifiable antagonist, apparently comprised mostly of men in their twenties who generally don’t wear socks.

        The only correct politics is honesty, transparency, and equality. Get that wrong, and it doesn’t matter what you say, or how you say it.


        • Yes Dave, I should have mentioned it in my original post but assumed that this is an obvious observation (which obviously – is not).

          Interesting observation about the distinction between an entrepreneurial and bureaucratic leaders – not an intuitive observation to me. I fully agree with your comments regarding the attitude of entrepreneurs toward failure. This bode well with other evidence I have (observed in the context of reading about the state of start-up companies in Israel) where failure is taken as an asset rather than a liability because those who fail are more likely to develop the analytical perspective and forward thinking that encapsulates their failure into a long term successful initiative.

          “The only correct politics is honesty, transparency and equality” – couldn’t agree more.

          Cheers, Shim.


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