Why COVID-19 is a Golden Opportunity for Project Managers

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In this episode, we discuss why COVID-19 is a golden opportunity for Project Managers with founder and CEO of PMO Strategies Laura Barnard.


Laura is best-known as “The PMO Lady” and she helps organizations to use the PMO construct to drive business transformation and deliver high-impact outcomes across their strategic initiative portfolio.

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Watch the interview here:

Highlights from Episode 121: “Why COVID-19 is a Golden Opportunity for Project Managers?” with Laura Barnard

Tell us a little about how you came into the PMO space.

That is a fun story. My background is actually, believe it or not, in computer science and technology. Behind me, on the wall, I have a computer science degree. I was one of four women in my graduating class and I loved technology and math and science and solving problems. As I was working as a technologist I was able to be a part of some really big transformational changes from way early in my career.

Being a part of those changes I was able to see that there was a role where a person would bring everyone together to solve the problems and I immediately fell in love. I learned that it was called project management. That is what I am supposed to do with my life. That it is! ‘Cause I am the one that will grab the whiteboard marker, go to the whiteboard and start facilitating, solving problems and asking people to come together to make cool things happen. I loved really big cool things, I loved making cool transformational stuff happen and I loved project management.

And then, here we are maybe two or three big transformational changes in and it is .com craziness of the late 90s. And I was working in an e-commerce organization that was building e-commerce sites for bricks and mortar stores. After being a project manager there for a while they tapped me on the shoulder and said ok, we need you to put all of this together. We need a big-picture perspective of all the projects we are running. We need to figure out how to streamline and optimize what we were doing and need to figure out how to get the project managers the support they need. We need a process, we need structure we need to move fast. By the way, the minute we signed the contract, we were behind because our clients are all saying “Ok, it takes a day to get a website up and running for me, right?” This is back when it actually took a lot longer than that.

So, I was asked to build and run my first PMO in 1999 and then spent 15 years inside our organizations, building and running PMOs and transformation organizations. I really got a chance to be a part of a really big fun cool change, and I just loved it. Along the way, back in 1999, you couldn’t just Google “how to set up a PMO” and get answers. That wasn’t out there yet. Now, if you do it, you will get 8 or 9 million results and most of it is confusing as a hack or it won’t really help you. Over the years, I kind of learned, when I do the stuff that books are telling me to do, when I do the stuff that is based on the theory, it doesn’t work and my business leaders get very unhappy.

When I started doing what actually made sense and learned a lot of those lessons I realized that I understand what it takes to build a PMO that drives a big impact on the organization. And my business leaders were begging for us to be involved and begging for us to be a part of it and to be a part of the solution. So, now, since leaving the big employee insight organizations in the role of PMO leader, seven years ago I started the PMO strategies because time and time again I would hear myself saying “I wish I had me when I was you.”

You were ahead of the curve at that time because it really is in the last 25 years or so that PMO on project management is recognized as the science in the discipline in its own right. There are many stakeholders around the table as well so from your project manager right through to the head of PMO. We are all on the same side of the table, but what is the best way to get your project manager to the organization’s strategy table?

That is a good one. Interestingly, way back when I first started doing professional speaking the first panel I ever spoke publicly, I was scared to death. I was so worried I would say the wrong things. And then somebody in the audience asked me a question. They said, why is it that I don’t have my seat at the table? Why is it that they don’t understand that project managers belong here? And that is all it took. I said, “Give me that microphone and let me tell you something”.

All my butterflies immediately went into “Oh no, no, no that is not how it works.” See, the challenge we have is that a lot of project leaders and PMO leaders, we feel that because we have the information, which we do, that the business leaders should just invite us to have a seat at the table and that we just belong there. But I think there is so much more that we need to do to earn that right to sit at that table and it requires us to maybe shift a little bit about the way we think about the work we do and how we talk about the work we do. You see, we really have an opportunity and that is why I call my community “impact drivers”.

PMO and project leaders really have an opportunity to drive their impact on the organization and in fact, in times of chaos and stress and ultimate VUCA – volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, project leaders and the project management profession and PMO leaders are the best well-positioned in the organization to drive change, to lead people through the chaos and get to the other side of it. But, we have got to start thinking and acting and talking like business leaders if we want to be seen as business leaders and being invited into that conversation. Which means, no more project management speak to people, no more putting template tools in process in front of solutions outcomes and return on investment. There is absolutely a path but we have to really shift the way we think about the role and talk about the work we do if you want to be invited into those conversations.

You mention chaos and right now, we are in the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic. So, our topic today is why COVID-19 is a golden opportunity for project managers?

Sure. I know this year has been incredibly tough for people and personally my family, my friends, we have been directly impacted by this pandemic, very personally. So, I do not short change the negative side of all of this. It is very real and it is something that is affecting a lot of us. When we have our business hats on, when we have our project and PMO leaders hats on and we are in the office, I know many of us when all of this started, went into panic mode. Not just us, our business leaders did, too. All of a sudden businesses were being turned upside down and changes were happening overnight and a lot of PMO and project leaders kept saying “What do I do”? We all went into a little bit of a panic mode. That is totally fair and we also have an opportunity to move past that and step into a role sitting at that table with our leadership team to help them answer and address the information, the questions, and what are scenarios that are all dealing with? Business leaders had to completely change their direction, their strategy, their priorities, they had to look at resource changes, they had to look at how we are going to enable our team to work remotely overnight, literally.

Across every industry and around the globe, we were immediately affected by what happened. When things get VUCA – volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity there is no one better positioned than someone who has been trained to manage the chaos. That is what I was telling my students in my audience when all this was happening, I said listen “What project have you ever run that didn’t have volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. This is the space that we live in, not only do we live there, we know how to take that chaos to manage it, and turn it into a well-oiled machine that is creating greater outcomes for the organization, called projects”. So, this is what we are good at. So, the first thing I told them is to take a step back, take a deep breath, and remember, we have got this. This is what we do.

So, as project managers and PMO leaders, we forget that we actually hold the keys to the castle because we have the data and the questions business leaders were asking were things like “What if we have to put these products on hold? What if we have to shift our resources here? What if we have to cut some of our contingent workforces?” All of these “what if” questions were happening and I can tell you, I know first-hand because a lot of my students were thriving this year and they were just killing it because they had earned the seat at the table by being prepared to answer those questions the minute they were asked.

They were getting a tap on the shoulder to do things like putting a COVID testing center up in 3 days for one of the largest medical health systems in the country in the US. They were asked to help redefine how educational programs were going to work because of a sudden there was no in-person learning. So, those are the kind of things, those that earned the right to sit at the table or had kind of built that credibility in the organization of somebody that can help lead through the chaos. Those real scenarios have been happening for folks that are prepared to step into that leadership role and say “I got you, I have got the data, I have got the information you are looking for, I can give it to you in a streamlined fashion.

I am not going to throw 10 templates in front of you to answer your questions, right.” By the way, no executive will ever come to you and say “No, no, hold on, come back when you have 5 more templates for me to fill out, then you can start talking”. That is never going to happen. We have to make it easy to answer the questions, we have to go to make it easy for them to ask the questions and we have got the keys. We can tell them what they need to know so that they can make educated well-informed decisions quickly and keep moving the organization forward.

So, we have got that opportunity to earn them the seat at the table for those who didn’t already have it, and for those of us that did have it, those PMOs and project leaders are phenomenal. The careers are skyrocketing because they are helping them not just get through the initial chaos but now to figure out “How do we move into this new normal, in a more prepared way for the next chaotic experience?” This is just one of many things that can impact an organization and we absolutely are perfectly positioned to answer that call.

Are we wrong to overly focus on the three pillars of the Golden Triangle (time, scope, and cost) or should we keep focusing on them?

Absolutely, knowing your schedule, your scope, your cost, your budget, your constraints are important. They are important inputs to the process of achieving not just a bunch of outputs but of achieving outcomes. I think the challenge we have is that we, especially if you are certified in PRINCE2 and PMP, and whatever your certification is, there is a huge emphasis in project management on creating outputs. For example, if you get your PMP like we have our PMP training program, inputs, outputs, tools, and techniques. That is what we’re taught, that is what we were prepared for, right?

So, it is no fault of our own that that is what our strengths are. And our business leaders do not think in terms of outputs, they think in terms of outcomes. So, they are thinking not just “Is it on time and on the scope and on a budget?” They are thinking about “Will it helps me achieve the return on investment whatever that return is, it is not always financial, but is it worth it to do this project in the first place?” So, the challenge we have with the Golden Triangle and by the way, here are my favorites, Earned Value Management (EVM), do you know the one thing it doesn’t measure? Value!

It does not actually tell us anything about value. It says do we spend the money we thought we would spend and therefore we are going to assume that we have accomplished the scope we said we were going to accomplish. But even that, even if we assume that we have accomplished that scope, it still doesn’t address whether or not that scope actually is going to help us achieve if it’s gonna be worth it. So, you absolutely want to know the time, scope, and cost, and you want to make sure that you can measure the outputs you are creating. And if you do not also measure the outcomes that are helping you achieve and if you do not measure “Is this project worth continuing, is it worth doing, will it help us achieve the business objectives we are intending to achieve?”

And if you can’t also answer those questions then that is what will get back to you. We are speaking in a project management deliverables language and we are totally missing the opportunity to speak as business leaders or as I called “impact drivers” helping your organization actually move the ball down the field from delivering on their strategy, they are not delivering projects, they are delivering investments.

Why is calculating EVM not enough in the project?

It is not enough because when you think in terms of what it tells you it is performance, past performance, and expected performance in spending the money and using the time and using resources. Assumably, that you are also creating that amount of scope. But let’s look at it this way. Let’s imagine, you are running a project, you are on time, you are on scope, you are on a budget because you locked down that scope so tightly that you got a triple constraint. The project team is off, celebrating their success because they had the perfect Golden Triangle, they had the perfect EVM calculations and because you control the scope so tightly when the market shifted and a business leader said “We really need to add these three things to the scope or we probably should not do the project anyway” and you were so busy controlling and making impossible for those changes to get done then you completely missed the ball.

You are off celebrating your perfect “Golden Triangle” and your business leaders see the project as a failure. They are waiting for phase two now to try and catch up to the market because it has taken them so long and now they are missing the opportunity to truly achieve their return on investment that made that project worth doing in the first place right. We have to step back and look at why we’re doing the work we’re doing and is it helping the organization achieve its outcomes? It is not just cost, when I say the return on investment I don’t mean that it is only dollars, absolutely you are investing dollars for projects. It’s an investment in time, energy, resources, focus, the cost of not doing other projects that could have achieved more. There are so many other things that the business leaders are considering. So, your business leaders look at it as an investment, whether or not it is all about money.

A lot of return on investment or worth factor has to do with employee satisfaction, customer engagement, brand awareness. Not all projects are “if we spend this money, we better get this much money back” but every single decision we make all day long as individuals, as humans, is about “Is it worth it to do this or not?” We decide is it worth it to listen to this podcast episode, is it going to be worth my time? Is it worth it to have coffee with my colleague when I am really behind on other things I need to do? We make worth it factor decisions all day long. And so when we take a step back and just apply common sense and put that common sense in the common practice, then we start thinking like our business leaders are thinking. At the end of the day, if your retirement investment plan was perfectly on time, on scope, on budget and you did not make a dollar for all that money you were throwing in, it would be a big failure in your eyes. It’s a matter of shifting our perspective a bit.

Show Notes

Connect with Laura Barnard on LinkedIn.
Find out more about PMO Strategies, the company founded by Laura Barnard, here, or follow PMO Strategies on Twitter here.
Cora Systems is one of the sponsors of the PMO Impact Summit a free virtual conference, hosted by Laura Barnard, that runs from September 14th to 26th 2020

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