“What Can AC/DC Teach Us About Project Management?”

In this Project Management Paradise interview, Caitriona speaks to Joe Pusz, the founder and President of THE PMO SQUAD, a Phoenix, Arizona-based PMO and Project Management Consulting firm.

THE PMO SQUAD helps clients across the United States to improve the delivery of key strategic initiatives and improve the capabilities of their PMO. Joe hosts the Project Management Office Hours Radio Show and Podcast and he is also Co-Founder of VPMMA, the Veterans Project Manager Mentor Alliance, which is a 501c3 Non-Profit Organization assisting Veterans seeking to transition into a civilian Project Management career.

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Highlights from Episode 128: “What Can AC/DC Teach Us About Project Management?”

Joe, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into the PMO leadership sphere?

I grew up in the corporate ranks, like many of us do, and I was a project manager, I worked my way up to eventually becoming a manager of a PMO and then the director of the PMO. But, every time we looked for help within the industry from consultants, there were never any that were really project management consultants. They were, you know, general consultants and we would always have more experience than they would.

So, we would reach out for help and we pay them a lot of money to basically train them how to run a PMO. So, I decided to stop complaining about that problem and started the PMO squad and we’re a PMO, project management consulting firm. We help clients around the US and internationally to improve their ability to deliver projects and provide value to their organizations.

Can you tell us maybe a few of those little tips and hints or nuggets of information that any organization can apply very easily and quickly?

I think the first one that comes to mind for me is “Why does your PMO exist?” So, we’ve done a lot of research, we’ve worked with clients, we’ve talked with peers within our industry and we always seem to be fighting the challenge of PMO’s failing. And when we’ve done our research what we find is they always answer the question ”What are we going to do? And how are we going to do it?” before they answer the question “Why do we exist?”. So the challenge there then becomes is always fighting an uphill battle to have expectations aligned with the executives.

The PMO leader has one set of expectations and the executives have another. To bring those together is to start with asking “Why do we exist?” The executives say “You exist there to be able to deliver strategy for the organization and ensure that we’re going to be profitable.” The PMO leader may think “We’re here to ensure the project management process is followed.” And those two things could be the same but they certainly could be different and if you start with that expectation out of alignment, then you’re going to struggle to deliver for a PMO leader. And the other I would point to is value. The PMO organization delivers projects. And what are projects?

They are the strategic initiatives within an organization, right? We’ve defined them as a temporary endeavor. So, it’s already been reviewed. It’s been approved. We assigned money. We assigned resources. So, it has to produce, right? We’re not just doing it to do it. So, a PMO leader has to be focused on how do we provide strategic value back to the organization to ensure that we’re delivering. The last tip I’ll offer up for that question is organizations reward sales teams for selling, right?

They don’t ask “Hey, you just close that million dollar deal. But before we sign off on it, is the CRM system updated? We want to make sure we’ve checked all the boxes before we close the deal.” No, the executives would never ask that question. In the PMO world, we almost have that reversed. We always say “Did you check all the boxes before we deliver the project?” We have to change our mindset to get into a delivery mindset, a sales mindset. We sold the project for a reason. We now have to go deliver it. We can always go back after the fact if we need to check some checkboxes on a to-do list, but if we don’t deliver the project what good was it to start the project? Right? So we have to be delivery-minded, we have to think “provide value” and we have to know why we exist.

Tell us about some of the work you and the PMO squad do with organizations to help them to line up all of these various categories to deliver the project successfully.

What we’ve done is we’ve created our own proprietary framework to bring into an organization called “The Purpose Driven PMO”. And that starts with why we’re at the first if we think PMO, some parts and some organizations, some is a project management office, some it’s a portfolio management office, some it’s a program management office. As an industry, we can’t even agree on what to call ourselves. And if we think that people and leaders move frequently now between companies.

Nobody stays at the same place for 20 years. So, everybody is bringing their own definition from what they’re familiar with. So, we have this again, this lack of alignment. What we’ve done with the Purpose Driven PMO is we’ve changed PMO to equal “purpose, measure, optimize”. And no in regardless of your methodology, you could be agile, you can be traditional, it doesn’t matter because we’re a framework that sits on top of that. So, we start by asking the question I had mentioned earlier. “Why does your PMO exist? What is your purpose?”

Once you’ve defined your purpose, then you can build a playbook to help you go execute on that. After you execute on it, we then say “Empower your people” just like we empower a sales team to go make a sale we need to empower our teams, our PMs, and the project teams to go deliver on the project. We then measure to ensure we’re hitting our results of what we laid out in our purpose statement. And then we optimize. Too often PMO leaders and organizations stay stagnant.

They don’t make the changes necessary but their team and their skills and their tools and therefore they may have been good in year one. But as we found in 2020 with Covid, your purpose could completely change from year to year and if you haven’t adjusted your team and how you operate, you may not be successful in year two. So, “purpose, measure, optimize” is what we do when we bring into organizations to help them get a better handle on how they can deliver value to their organization.

Speaking of the maximum output, AC/DC, the band is well-known for high-octane songs that they have, you have a methodology yourself. You have got four different categories where you might align up some of AC/DC’s extensive playlist. Can you tell us a little about those categories and give us how a song title ties to those and tie that then in project management?

Yeah, I mean, we’re adults and everybody thinks we can’t have fun when we become adults. But you know, some of the best times of our lives is when we learn the most because when we’re younger. And how do we learn oftentimes? We learn through music or art or creativity some sort of fun interaction to be able to help us learn. So I grew up listening to AC/DC so I’m a high-voltage project manager, right? I want to turn the volume up and be able to help us deliver.

So, if we think of the project management profession as one category, we think of your career as a project manager, as a second category, the character that you need to have as a project manager because of that is not an easy job, as a third category and then the fourth category delivering on a project. So, the profession, your career, your character, and then how to deliver on a project. Those are the four categories that as a project manager, PM professional. We all have them. It’s all unique for each of us, regardless of our location or what our skill set is.

So when we think about those things, how do we describe them? Right? If I’m in Ireland or I’m in the United States, but we have this common profession, we speak a common project management language, why can’t we listen to a common project management song to understand where we’re at, right? So, when I think about careers, AC/DC has got this great song of course “Ain’t No Fun (Waiting Round to Be a Millionaire)”. There are lyrics of that song “And I got patches on the patches of my old blue jeans. Well, they used to be blue when they used to be new when they used to be clean.”

And you think as a project manager, you don’t start out running the largest projects in the organization, right? You may be a project coordinator, you then may get a junior project management role. Eventually, after four, five, six projects, a few years, you make it up into a project manager, then a senior project manager, and then maybe a PMO manager, maybe an executive, maybe a vice president of an enterprise PMO. But that takes a long time, there’s a lot of knocks that you’re going to have along the way. And, you know, it just as AC/DC sings about it’s a long time to make it to the top if you want to be a rock and roll band, it’s a long time to make it to the top If you want to be a project manager, as well as the PMO leader.

When we think about the character, that category of what does it take to be a project manager, I think about the song “If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)”, right? Then the project manager is sitting there saying “I’ve given you everything in my career to make sure you’ve delivered.” The only thing left was, you can’t get blood out of a stone, right? Well, as a project manager, it’s the same thing “How much more can I give you to be able to deliver on projects, to be able to show the character that I have, to be able to deliver for my organization.“

So, if you just think along with those same things or shot down in flame, right? The character of the project manager is – get ready for it, you’re going to lose a lot of projects and a lot of points during that project, it’s not going to go well. So, how are you going to be able to have the character, to be able to stand up for those moments when the project’s not going well and the team could be really demoralized. But you as the leader of that team have to be able to stand up and support that team and keep them going. So, those are a couple of examples, related to the character in career for the project manager.

You’ve written some of your own songs and you are an author of quite a few publications. Why did you go down that road, as well?

Well, you know, I think I’ll bring it back to the whole idea of incorporating AC/DC and high voltage into project management. I like to go on long walks, especially during Covid time. We’re listening to music and we get inspiration while we’re listening. The same thing again, I like AC/DC. I’ve got a playlist on, I’m listening to it, as they’re singing and I’m thinking about my company and our profession and all of a sudden the lyric clicks in your head and you say “Hey, that’s relatable to what we’re doing.”

And then you listen to the next AC/DC song and you think “Well, there’s something in there that’s relatable.” So, for me, taking the ordinary, the non-project management component of our life and being able to talk to it in those terms because leaders and other members within our organization don’t really understand project management just like I don’t understand engineering or manufacturing. If a manufacturer or engineer came and talked to me in the terminology that they use, I would have a hard time understanding what they’re saying. Well, when we talk project management to others, they have a hard time understanding what we’re saying.

So, if we write about project management in the sense of making a pizza in a recipe that you follow to make a pizza and then a recipe that you follow as a project manager to be able to help them understand “Okay, I get making a pizza. You have to make your dough, you have to get your sauce, you have to get your cheese. What are your toppings are going to be?” So, there’s your scope. And if you talk about scope in the sense, that way and not use project management terms, it helps people relate.

So, for me, all of the writing that I do, we try to bring it into non-project management terms, into terms that people can relate to, and then they can personalize it and put themselves in that experience. Help them relate to it better. So, just as we do in music, we can do with words, within a blog post or an article, or a contributing part to a page within books. And all of those things because ultimately if we don’t help people understand what we do as project managers, we’re always going to have an uphill battle, trying to make sure that we can justify our existence within organizations. So, that’s my whole purpose and journey on the writing I do, the listening I do, and how to help our industry.

I work a lot in training and development with other companies as well, not only in establishing PMO’s but also in helping them to establish processes and deliver new processes. Not everybody that I work with, and you mentioned it a few moments ago as well – you may start as an administrator and work your way through if you want to stay in the project management realm and that always is a huge bugbear for a lot of people because people are often doing the jobs – they are delivering the projects and then you get somebody coming in a big suit and using all the technical terminology and so it comes down to communication as well, doesn’t it? How you talk to people, how you bring them on board?

Yeah, absolutely. Everybody has a common language, for instance, of, say English. We all speak English, but the way we speak English in the UK could be very different than the way we speak English in the United States, and there could be phrases and terminology we don’t use even though we speak the same language. With the business is no different. We can all work within the same business and talk about our strategy, talk about our culture, talk about our objectives. But an engineering objective or discussion about those could be very different than a project discussion or very different than the sales discussion. So, I think knowing the nuances of our communication and the words we use and the language we use within our company is important. To understand the person who receives our communication has to understand what we’re trying to say, and if we don’t relate it and put it into terms that they use, we’re going to miss. And as we deliver projects really for all parts of an organization, we have to be able to speak all of those different languages to ensure that we can deliver in a way that they understand and to work with them the best we can. 

Give me a good AC/DC title for that.

Well, I think the one I love is “Show Business”, right. They’ve got this great song and you have to understand how that steering committee is going to work there, you know a collection of leaders, the C-Suite of the organization and you have to go in there. Some of the lyrics: 

“You pay the man,
You pay your dues,
When it’s all gone,
You sing the blues,”  

– that’s show business, right? 

You have to go in there, you’re going to execute your project, you’re going to be part of the team, but then when you have a stage and you have to be able to lead that project throughout the entire organization. It’s show business. You have to know how to do that in a way that’s very different than building a schedule and managing a budget. So, if a project manager can’t do both, they’re not going to be successful. 

They might be “Deep in the hole”!

Yeah, absolutely yes. 

It’s really interesting, to tie in all of the things that we do pretty much on a daily basis, and just to take it out of the box a little, you know, and take away the fear, sometimes of what we don’t know, but in project management, and we don’t always know everything and it’s kind of like what you was saying early on with paying the sales guy without checking all the boxes. We have to check all the boxes even though we don’t know what the boxes might contain either. Is there any good way to kind of tick all the boxes, without overusing that expression?

Well, I think the first part is to know the objective of the project and then have a recipe. And I talked about, you know, making your pizza. So, if we know we have to be able to have scope. we know we’re going to have to have a budget of some sort. We know those are going to change during the course of the project, ’cause what project stays the same? 

 And then we’re going to have team management, right? That’s going to require things, and we have a certain lifecycle that a project goes through, right? We define the problem, we design a solution, we build a solution, validate that solution, and implement that solution. Whether you’re agile or whether you’re your traditional, you still have to go through that lifecycle. 

So checking the boxes may not be as detailed as “which deliverables did we do”, but you can still build your recipe to check the boxes of  

“Is my stakeholder happy?”  

“Did we deliver on the scope that we needed to?” 

“Did we meet the objectives of the organization?” 

“Did we get our return on investment that we’re looking for?” 

So, I think knowing which boxes you need to check becomes more important than checking all of the boxes, because each project is going to be unique and maybe on some projects maybe we don’t need to check all the boxes. But you still need to check the important boxes, so I would say find the ones we need to check, ensure that we check those and ensure that we’ve got satisfaction, right? Ensure that the project is going to be successful. The last thing we want to do is go through all of that, energy, all of that time with our team, get everybody working on everything and then we don’t deliver right – that would be a failed project. Then we have a meltdown – right, another AC/DC song! We have a meltdown at that point where everybody did everything for it and then they fail, they don’t go through and they don’t execute. 

And how do we keep the band playing together all in tune?

Well, what we want to avoid, right? We want to avoid a “jailbreak”, right? 

“Heartbeats, they were racin’
Freedom, he was chasin’
Spotlights, sirens, rifles firin’
But he made it out
With a bullet in his back” 

– That’s the project manager; everybody go do their own thing right. It was a jailbreak; so we do have to get everybody on the same page. You can’t let people get out there. You can’t let them do their own thing. As much as we don’t want to have a, maybe everybody checking boxes, you still want to have a consistent process, right. You still want to get everybody united. On that one, you know, we’ve got the song, “Hail Caesar”, and ultimately what we’re trying to do is not get a stab in the back from somebody that didn’t like what you do. But how can we bring folks together? Sit down with your team, the PMO team, the leaders of the organization and work with them to come up with a process that’s going to help everybody be successful. 

Walk through that, build your recipe, build your model of consistency and know that if we empower our people, sometimes you’re going to steer away from what your consistent methodology is, but as long as you’re working towards success, where we want to have “Thunderstruck” at the end of the project, we want to have that celebration, song or for those about to rock, we salute you, right! At the end of the project the goal is to have a celebration and if we empower people to follow a consistent process, that we avoid the stab in the back, in the jailbreak, well then money talks, right? And then we get to have success. That’s the goal of what we’re trying to accomplish on all of our projects. 

When you stole my Thunder…struck there, Joe that I was going to say, Joe Pusz for those about to manage, we salute you. Joe, you have a podcast and all of your publications, we will include those in the show notes at the end for our listeners. Thank you so much for your time today and I’ll do a little mission control at this piece now, and I’m actually going to go back and dig up a few AC/DC tracks and listen to them with new ears.

Yeah, I think the last one I would say is you know they’ve got this great song. “Rock and roll ain’t noise pollution”. In the organization, the project management team is often that red-headed stepchild, right; It’s the one part of the organization that everybody wants to get rid of. But Project Management ain’t noise pollution, right? We are necessary to help organizations deliver. So go back, have a listen to your favorite AC/DC tunes and listen with the project management ear and see how all those thoughts fit into it. 

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