Oct 13, 2011

PMO Packing List: A Letter to Myself

Credera Team

Credera Team

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Dear Anna Lubinsky,

For the next twenty-one months you will be working as a member of the Program Management Office for an industry leading client. You will be in charge of tracking over 20 million dollars and 75 employees on a strategic program composed of 8 projects. You will oversee the documentation and approval of 6 million dollars in change requests, coordinate with the client accounting department and project directors to update work plans through 2 budget cycles, create monthly executive reports composed of project status, challenges and responses, cost variance reports and ever evolving project org structures, administer the project time tracking, document management and support tools and manage final deliverables documentation. Piece of cake….at times a piece of humble pie.

I am going to give you ten things to keep in mind. Think of this list as what to pack in your bag as you begin your journey up the mountain. Your “supplies” and “weapons” that you will need as you face both inward and outward challenges. If you can draw on this advice as you climb, I guarantee you will find yourself 21 months later standing at the summit.

The Psychological & Emotional:

1. Punch Line Communication & Recommendation: as a member of the PMO team, you must live and breathe in the detail, the weeds, the nitty gritty. However, it is absolutely critical that you train yourself to deliver the punch line when communicating with your managers or client. As tempting as it might be to build your story from the bottom up, you must learn to be a top down thinker. Managers do not have time to run down rabbit trails with you, they need the high level facts and they need them quickly so they can make decisions. Also, you must grow in your confidence in making recommendations. Managers will depend on you to make informed recommendations based on financial, timeline and resource facts that will in turn allow them to make strategic decisions for the client.

 2. When in Doubt?: often you will find yourself working on deliverables where you need a second opinion or decision from your manager; however, managers are frequently tied up in client meetings and if a deadline is looming, you only have one choice: document your assumptions and move on. A manager once told me, “it is easier to course correct a boulder, then push it up a hill.” If you can defend your logic, then your tenacity will be appreciated and most likely your manager will agree with your judgment.

3. Hot Pockets and Fresh Air: as I have already stated, you must live and breathe the detail. You will often find yourself working through lunch, afraid to step away for fear of forgetting the minutiae of it all. I found myself scarfing down hot pockets so I could have one free hand to continue in maneuvering my way through spreadsheets. Sitting in a windowless room by yourself doesn’t help the cause. My manager started to notice my hermit like behavior and encouraged me to walk outside at least once each day. So stretch your legs, breathe in the fresh air, enjoy the sunshine, allow your mind to relax for a moment and count your blessings. Take your hot pocket outside if you must…I recommend the new Pretzel Bread varieties!

4. Informal Engagement and Quote Books: it is your job to manage resources but make it a goal to get to know the person not just their name or employee ID. This mentality has a multitude of benefits, one of which is to learn more about the technical interworkings of the engagement. Go to lunch, have coffee, talk at the water cooler and ask how things are going, what issues are they currently facing and how the team morale is. As a follow on activity, set up some time to have them walk you through the latest deliverable they are working on. You must expand your horizons and seek to understand the program or project from a holistic perspective. The more people you interact with the more interesting quotes you will hear, so do what you do best, document it! Make a book. Some of my favorite quotes: “It is our job to sculpt the fog”, “we pot and panned our way through the year”, “herd the cats”, “it’s like chipping away at granite with a plastic spoon” and “let’s continue to swirl the beakers.”

5. Being Liked vs. Being Respected: if you remember anything, remember this feedback that a seasoned manager once gave me, “It is important that you understand the difference between being liked versus being respected.” To many project team members, PMO stands for Please Move Over. They see project management requests as impeding their progress rather than helping their project stay on course. It is crucial that you do not take this sentiment personally; you are simply doing your job. Your stringent processes will ultimately be respected by your managers and the client because they are the means to getting the requested information. Stand by your processes, remain firm on your deadlines and continue to follow up. Keep your emotions in check and allow that skin to get a little thicker.

The Practical and Tactical:

1. Executive Reporting: the key to executive reporting is all about using reports as tools to engage with project sponsors. We created extensive monthly status books that the client would use in conversations with C-Level executives to highlight challenges and successes. The goal was to keep the executive informed on key decisions that were being made and ask for support on resolving critical issues. The reports were extensive in an effort to be transparent in all aspects of the project; however, we focused heavily on composing a summary status letter in the front of the book that the executive was encouraged to read after the meeting. The ability to leave behind material is critical from both a due diligence and documentation perspective.

2. Change Control: change is inevitable, especially on projects. It is important to manage against scope creep and have a formal process in place to document any deviations from the original plan. We used a standard document that project directors filled out to describe the business and technical justification of the change in addition to highlighting cost, timeline and resource impacts. It is also critical to define the approval timeline and cost allocation rules. Ideally a change request is created by a project director and presented to the client. The client will accept, reject or request modification of the change after a two to three day review period. In terms of cost allocation, it is imperative that cost category boundaries remain intact. Meaning a proposed hardware/software change cannot be absorbed within labor contingency. This muddles the tracking waters and in essence borrows against the future.

3. Documentation: it is the number one job of the PMO to document. Disseminate documentation templates and processes, administer the central documentation repository and manage the final deliverables documentation effort. This is crucial from both a historical perspective to be able to track progress, a legal perspective as the Statement of Work is a binding agreement and deliverable production is the means by which we can justify receipt of payment and from a transitional perspective in providing the client guidelines and resources to call upon in the future.

4. Time Tracking: time tracking is essential, but what is even more essential is having a well defined weekly process. You must hold all resources accountable for getting their timesheets turned in on time, with no exceptions. This allows for ease in reporting and reconciliation. Set up the system to send automatic reminders on the night timesheets are due. Remember, time reporting is no one’s favorite activity, so in an effort to hold resources accountable remember to keep it light, not lax. For example, my weekly reminder email was a poem, “I have decided to compose a rhyme in hopes that you will turn in your time, may ever second, minute and hour be fruitful rather than sour, this project will continue to prosper if healthy habits we make a point to foster….” Depending on the success of your weekly and monthly project processes you may have the opportunity to help re-define enterprise wide time tracking procedures.

5. Efficiency Tracking: similar to time tracking, the most important part about efficiency tracking is to define the weekly process. You must create a tool that will allow project directors to track resource efficiency and deliverable completion against what was originally scoped in the work plan. The tool we used focused on measuring efficiency by dividing what a project director felt like the resources “earned” (the earn is an objective measure) on deliverables and tasks and how many hours were “burned” or worked that week. For example if there were 100 hours budgeted for a work stream and 10 hours were worked in the first week the burn percentage is 1/10 or .10. So if a project director believes that his team was 100% efficient then his earn would equally be .10. This logic forces project directors to focus and be held accountable for hours versus dollars.

So be encouraged, this position will provide you so many opportunities to grow. Understanding and executing project management disciplines are essential to the success of any project. So pack the items on this list, your hot pockets and a sense of humor and start climbing….see you at the summit.


Anna Dickerson

[Readers don’t be fooled by the change in the last name; it is not an alias, I just happened to say “I do” during my PMO tenure.]

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