Developing a New Project-Centric Culture for Organizational Innovation

In our previous article, we explained why innovation is so important and why organizations, in general, are doing a fairly miserable job at it. We stated that the project office could be the perfect team to carry the C-suite’s dreams and goals to reality. In this article, we will explore this question: If there is currently this great need for change and innovation-focused skills within departments and if the Project Management Office (PMO) has the necessary skills, then why are departments not banging down the doors of the PMO asking for help? This article will show that in fact, the opposite is true, why that is, and how to remedy the situation. Finally, in our third and last article, we will use a real-life example based on best practice to go about driving innovation.

Addressing the Elephant in the Room – Departments often don’t trust the PMO

So first let us address the uncomfortable reality, that departments often do not trust the PMO. If you are reading this article, there is a good chance that you were in one of two positions. You have either worked with someone or a team from the PMO, or you have worked for the PMO as a project manager.

I have experienced both sides of the coin.  In the majority of cases, the PMO was not regarded as the heroes of the organization. I have been in certain circumstances where the department or group was openly hostile because I was the representative from the PMO, there to help them manage the project for a change. Although that was an extreme case, I can assure you that most departments do not regard the PMO favorably and this needs to be addressed. Research verifies my experience with department managers often giving their team members direct instruction to sabotage PMO efforts. (2)

The problem is one of perception and how the PMO often operates

The current model is that a team from the PMO comes in—with its authority rested in the PMO—to bring about change in that department. There are several problems with this approach. Firstly, the change team depends on the authority of the PMO. This authority has not been given by the department but enforced by the external PMO and that is significant. The departments see the PMO as a separate entity to themselves. Secondly, they believe that the PMO’s focus is wrong. They feel that the PMO is more worried about governance than implementing innovation or driving change. Thirdly, they are worried about the consequences of the PMO enforcing or aggressively making the required change happen and stepping on the department heads and their employee’s toes in the process. Department heads do not like losing their authority and feeling uncertain of what the change will entail and how it will affect their sphere of influence, they fight it.

The PMO is a temporary partner, it’s here for a short while, causes disruption and then packs up and leaves. In its wake, it has caused quite a bit of conflict and then managers have to deal with the frayed relationships. Research has shown that in these cases, managers will rather cling to the status quo than having to face the potential conflict that will arise from new ways of working

These problems are collated in a lack of trust. The PMO is seen as not having the department’s best interest at heart because they do not know and understand the situation of the department. They believe the PMO’s focus is implementing a project, process or innovation and not on bringing real value, and sadly they are often correct. The PMO often acts like that mother-in-law that comes around every now and again and tells you how to run your life without any idea of the day-to-day challenges you face. She just thinks she knows better.

Change the perception by changing the approach, and you will change the culture

The Project Management Office needs to show what it can bring to the table. It must convince the department that its team is not going to come in to disrupt but to become part of the team and boost productivity. Think of it in this way: countries often invite people for residency who they believe will bring their strengths; be that sporting talent, wealth or business ideas to them. The idea behind these types of ventures is always that the person being wooed will become a resident and not just a temporary visitor, as is often the case with the PMO. This approach has to change from a separate PMO to hybrid project-based-team consisting of members from the PMO and the department forming a new permanent team.

The new project-based-team strives on a day-by-day basis to understand their department’s challenges, emphasis on their—it’s a question of ownership. This is done by understanding their current pain points, and the current metrics they seek to achieve while fulfilling daily operational tasks. This new team or department becomes projectized or innovation-focused for the purpose to drive real value. The modus operandi has changed from stepping on toes to stepping into shoes and lending a helping hand.

The new team considers the following: Why are things the way they are? And what pain is this situation causing my fellow team members? How are its neighbouring departments or customers being caused pain through these ways of working? How does that negatively reflect on us? The current metrics that are being used to measure performance; does it contribute to the current situation we are in? The adage, “Show me how you measure me, and I will show you how I behave,” rings true. The new team knows that their fellow employees won’t behave in a certain way unless they are told to or have been given some type of reward. So, if we change the metrics what will change about our current situation? What this means is that a new culture starts to emerge. This culture is formed within the department by the new team and is embraced as its own. A culture of innovation driven by necessity. This agrees with the C-suite sentiment that they feel culture is the main antagonist in their need for innovation  (2), and not a lack of skills. This new approach deals with that problem.

Start small, while thinking big picture. Inject a change into the culture by working on a relevant local project while looking at the bigger picture

Empowered by their new project management skills and mindset, the new team starts by working on a small innovation that brings about benefits and change. Nothing earth-shattering, no game-changers but something that proves to themselves and their team members that they can do this, and from here it goes from strength to strength. The team owns its mistakes and revels in its glory, the department certainly does not need to share the glory with the old PMO as has been the case in the past. From then on, this team champions the culture change, through repeat wins and losses which is the foundation from which continuous innovation will be implemented and maintained.  Although this is only the first step, and there are a number of additional steps that need to happen, without the change in culture the journey  for innovation is set for failure.  

Ben Richardson

Ben Richardson

Ben Richardson runs Acuity Training, an IT training business offering classroom courses in London and Guildford, Surrey. A leading provider of MS Project training the UK, it offers a full range of Project courses, from introductory courses through to advanced. He blogs and can be contacted at Acuity’s blog

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