You don’t want to go there, do you?

Many years ago, when I was still young enough to credibly do volunteer work for a youth organisation, I was driving to our annual gathering at Edale Youth Hostel in Derbyshire. It was late on a Friday evening, cold, dark and raining.  In those pre-satnav days, I had to stop to ask for directions several times.  On each occasion, the initial response was “you don’t really want to go there, do you?” and I really had to persist before getting any useful information out of the locals.  I was reminded of this experience by the coincidence of three events this week.

The first was an email from a reader of this blog (yes, some reader feedback!), a project manager who is currently feeling frustrated at the chaotic and conflicting priorities that he is facing. The second was a PMI UK Chapter event, with Dr Shan Rajegopal speaking on “Innovation Driven PPM: Tool for Agile Strategy Execution“.  And the third was also a PMI UK initiative: the inaugural meeting of the PMO Forum.

The link between the three works like this:

  • The project manager is frustrated because the project portfolio is not being managed
  • Shan Rajegopal showed us that innovative companies can draw a direct link from their vision and strategy to their project portfolio
  • Portfolio Management is one of the many possible responsibilities of a corporate PMO

When listening to Shan Rajegopal, I was struck by the simple and obvious truth that companies need to align their project portfolio to their corporate strategy, but I also observed that an audience of project managers are not the people that can do this.  PMs are on the receiving end.  They are usually appointed at the start of a project, and are tasked with delivery.  Generally, they don’t get to pick the project, and they don’t manage the portfolio.  That is some else’s job.  Theirs not to reason why,  Theirs but to do and die.

So was it a total waste of time explaining portfolio management to project managers?  No, not really.  The value is this: PMs should always understand the benefits of their project.  They do this by questioning their sponsors and senior executives.  After Shan’s session, I’m sure that the PMs will have spotted the most powerful question of all: “How does my project support our corporate strategy?”

If the PM gets a good answer to the “why are we doing this?” question, then it provides motivation, urgency and commitment.  In turn, the PM can communicate the benefits to the delivery team, and gain their emotional engagement.

And what if the PM doesn’t get a convincing answer?  What if the PM comes to the conclusion that the project is a waste of time?  What if the PM feels like responding “you don’t really want to go to Edale, do you?”  Then the challenge is to stay motivated.  I think the strategies available to a project manager in this situation are:

  • deliver as best you can, regardless, and take pride in yourself and your team and your ability to succeed in the face of adversity
  • keep asking questions, in the hope that your seniors will want to find some answers
  • make sure you know where the lifeboats are, as the ship might be sinking

Edale, by the way, is a wonderful place – even if the Youth Hostel is nestled into a valley that receives the minimum possible amount of direct sunlight.  Wrap up warmly.

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About Russell Whitworth (Q2 Associates Ltd)

In pursuit of PM Excellence
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