Establish a strategic top-down project portfolio culture at your Project Management Office.

PMO Success: Changing your employees’ mindset to change the company culture

Blog-PMOSuccess-ChangingCulturejpgHow well your Project Management Office (PMO) or Enterprise PMO (EPMO) functions is contingent on two things: the mindset of each of your employees and establishing a strategic top-down project portfolio culture.  

In my career, I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to play a key role in helping a Global 500 company make a positive shift toward a culture focused on portfolios of projects that align with company-wide strategies. My 25-year adventure with the company spanned roles from Project Manager to Sr. Director of IT overseeing strategy and our EPMO. While the specific challenges we faced were unique to the context of our business, the concepts of transformation and reinvention are universal in business these days. I was fortunate to learn many things that are applicable to any business leader or team aiming to improve company performance and drive better business outcomes, which I have laid out in this article and plan to cover in future articles as well. 

I wouldn’t trade my past career experience of helping build a PMO for anything and I'm filled with gratitude to have worked for what I believe is one of the greatest organizations in the world during a time of transformation. I'm eager to share my experience; paved with good intentions and stellar results. Here is my journey toward helping to change a company-wide mindset that transformed the culture of a multinational conglomerate.

Employee mindsets → company culture → performance

As a Project Manager, I practiced practicality — with a tactical and execution focus. The trouble was, our teams were repeating the same mistakes in our project delivery. Our vision for the solutions being implemented and how they would change our business was limited. In fact, successful implementation was based on hope rather than skillful planning and execution. Business cases and defined deliverables and benefits didn’t really exist. At times, it was virtually impossible to solve a problem because we didn’t grasp it fully. The result? Poor performance and failed projects. 

We thought we were project managers, but quickly realized we were simply coordinators with great ideas. Not everyone understood the value of project management and the different methodologies that could be used. We quickly realized this was going to be about more than just a mindset shift. It was also about establishing a standardized methodology to managing portfolios of projects; with the end goal of expanding these standards company-wide through a top-down approach with executive buy-in. The whole organization needed to be educated and trained, we needed governance, targets, and KPIs. There was a lot to do, that we didn’t even know about yet. So began our journey toward changing the mindset within the company, to standardize how we managed portfolios of projects, and to change the culture.

The challenges we faced 

One of our technology implementations took four-times longer than was planned and much of that was due to limited project management practices, in addition to not aligning our business processes.Blog-PMOSuccess-ChangingCulture-2

Over time, it became obvious that we didn’t have a clear understanding of project management, scope, and the triple constraints (Cost, Scope, Scheduling). Understanding the cost of each project was of most concern. But in general, we faced a few key challenges that would thwart our efforts. Two of the issues centered around how the company viewed projects and required immediate attention. It was time to roll up our sleeves and get to work to: 

  1. Change the company-wide mindset about project portfolios and roles. 
  2. Create a positive and focused projectized culture. 

Changing mindsets

Changing mindsets was the hardest part, especially when people had become accustomed to thinking one way for a long time. Within the company, mindsets about initiating projects and their relevance were centered around a simple two-word saying: “Hey buddy!” When we heard those words, we knew a special project was coming, a pet project that didn’t necessarily align with company-wide goals. 

Change naturally creates tension and resistance in any organization, and ours was no different. We saw resistance around:

  • Having an actual project manager on a project
  • Creating a drive to milestones and regular status updates
  • Transparent adherence to a budget
  • Pulling in the business people to say, “What are your requirements?”

Not only was there this resistance, but there was tension simply because we didn't understand the value of project management.

Changing mindsets starts with education and training

We recognized that employee and leadership education and training were essential, but changing mindsets wasn't going to be easy. We knew we had to reteach the organization. It started with one executive leader beginning to understand the value of project management, portfolio management, and what it meant to align strategy to a portfolio of projects.

Our goal was to help everyone understand the value that they were adding to the overall strategy. We spent time sending groups of people to training to increase their awareness of organizational change management. The hope was that they would see change as a positive thing when they were enabled to manage it. 

Changing the culture starts at the top

We were an organization that grew up without a solid understanding of projects, portfolios, sponsorship, or strategic alignment. Most people believed that operations were going to drive the company toward strategy instead of our portfolio of projects – so initially, the reaction was, “Yeah, this will never work because we're very siloed.”

Changing this culture meant everyone in the company, starting with leaders, needed to first understand the value of project management and then of portfolio management. This started with defining project portfolio management (PPM) for our organization, laying out our strategies, and aligning on how to drive toward those strategies for success. We needed to get to that point where we were looking at portfolios of projects that would help drive the organization to success and to see the advantages in this approach.

Some senior leaders knew we needed a project-focused organization to drive our strategy. By having key executive support, we were able to take the organization through a strategic adjustment journey. We took a step back and said, “What's working and what's not working?” This helped us realize we needed a good strategy or vision to get where we needed to be. We agreed on the steps to change our culture to view project management, and ultimately portfolio management, as the keystone.

The initial results - Two steps forward

We established our initial Project Management Office (PMO) focused on standardizing an execution methodology. Considering the IT organization was already used to delivering solutions— and had limited project managers to drive delivery—our initial focus was working with them on delivery, timelines, and requirements.

I wish I could say that we won people over quickly, the reality was that progress was slow. Despite spending time training people about organizational change management, communication and alignment didn’t go well at first and skepticism was high. The sentiment was, “Nothing is going to change.” Some leaders started to recognize this, and we all took a step back and said, “This isn't about being trained, this isn't about saying we're now going to do things a certain way, it's about transforming people’s understanding of their role in this new approach.” This helped us break down barriers and enable individuals who wanted to adopt this mindset to become a part of our portfolio of project activities.

We hired some skilled project managers who started to create budgets and track the hours that IT resources spent on those projects. We were able to determine the cost for each resource so we could perfect our forecasting and projections of the entire portfolio of projects. Our new project managers were helping us learn new things about our organization and discovered our first strategic ‘aha’ moment, which was that we regularly over-promised on delivery timeline estimates. We continued to perfect the process until we developed a “mini business case” for each project, with the cost and timeline approved by leadership. While this may sound basic, depending on the maturity of your PMO, this felt like quantum leaps organizationally. Keep in mind, we hadn’t begun to discuss the value or the benefits at the time — this came much later in the process. We had to crawl before we could walk. 

Corrective actions

As our project-focus matured, we set our new focus on establishing a better understanding of our organization’s portfolio. We gathered a list of hundreds of projects, which seemed like way too many for the organization to be successful. As we vetted data, we were able to trim the list to less than 100 projects, which was a more manageable number for our organization’s size. We then defined a framework to determine the strategic value of those projects based on a series of simple, but important questions:

  • Is this really a project?
  • Is there a project charter that defines the problem statement and benefits?
  • Was there a business case to show the value of this project? 
  • Do the executives know what the project is about? (That one was a scary question).  

The projects that remained were examined more closely, including each business case and whether the benefits of the project are tied to corporate strategy to deliver value. However, we didn’t have a way to measure this alignment. To do this, we focused on developing strategic key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure our alignment success across the entire organization.

As functional and leadership teams across the company became familiar with company strategy and the KPIs that would be used to measure success, building business cases became second nature. As the IT PMO matured our focus would shift, which you’ll find was a consistent theme in our journey. At this point our focus shifted to constant management of project portfolios across the organization. When there was a project on the list that had not started, and the sponsor could not show benefits that delivered value, it was removed. If a project was underway and the team could not justify the benefit or value, it was stopped. This was a HUGE task.

Improving communication became a large part of correcting the issues with alignment across our organization. Regular meetings and discussions about projects and programs became more frequent across the board. Eventually, we developed five core work streams for strategy development that drove our strategic PMO success across the entire organization.

The work streams helped establish: 

  1. A Professional Project Management Organization: Career training and coaching, PPM training and certifications, executive sponsorships.
  2. Governance: using the right tools and processes.
  3. Links to our financial targets.
  4. Links to strategic KPIs to portfolios and projects.
  5. KPI tracking against operational and data management. 

Patience – The long game wins in the end

Our executives started to take notice that the IT PMO demonstrated value by delivering on time and within a defined budget. IT continued growing the PMO discipline to establish stricter processes in project management that continued to drive positive business outcomes and bottom-line growth. The executives involved in those projects were growing increasingly pleased with project success.

Looking back, it’s clear to me that having a sponsor and a good relationship between project managers and sponsors also contributed to the success of the IT projects. We found that this relationship meant the solutions were better received into the business as the process of implementation took a top-down approach.

In the end, this journey was successful due to executive buy-in and the top-down approach to strong enterprise portfolio management principles. The executive buy-in took a lot of education and patience, which was the biggest hill to climb. The rest fell into place naturally because it just made sense and had become embedded in the culture. Truth is, this transformation to a project or portfolio management discipline can be initiated from anywhere in the organization. For us, it started in IT, which helped prove to other leaders that with proper project management, projects can be delivered on-time and on-budget to show value. 

Now, IT oversees the EPMO. On account of us establishing a collaborative partnership across the organization, we were able to find success with strategic portfolio management. 

Universal Takeaways

My story is unique to the organization I was in. So, you might be wondering how this applies to you because we all know that no two organizations are exactly alike. If you are trying to establish a similar mindset and culture at your company, there are a few important lessons to take away from this journey no matter the role you currently play or the organization you support:

  • Top-Down: Success in enterprise portfolio management comes with executive buy-in, support, and evangelism.
  • Patience: Our journey was a long one, think in terms of years. The larger the organization, the longer it will take. This is okay and is natural. 
  • Be the Spark: The journey can begin anywhere – ours just so happened to begin in IT. These principles can be established for the first time and grow from any team – as long as executives are bought-in. 

While this was just a taste of my learnings and adventure, I look forward to diving into this experience in more specific detail in future articles. Stay tuned! If you haven’t yet read my fellow Changepoint Practitioner colleague Greg Stellflue’s article, "Focus on Portfolios, Not Projects, in PPM," you can read it here today


Debra 5-1

Debra Aizikovitz joined Changepoint in February 2020 as a Solution Architect after spending over 30 years at thyssenKrupp Elevator. She was most recently the IT Senior Director for Strategy, EPMO and Compliance where she partnered with the CIO in providing technology portfolio vision and direction for the enterprise. Overall, Debra has more than 35 years of experience in management, with an emphasis on IT management and project portfolio management and holds a master’s degree from Villanova University in IT/IS Project Management. Her background includes IT Senior Director, Strategy, EPMO and Compliance at thyssenKrupp Elevator. Additional roles at thyssenKrupp included: IT PMO Director, Senior IT Project Manager, IT Project Manager, Branch Business Manager, Corporate Collection Manager; Corporate Credit Manager at James Hardie Irrigation, Inc; and Credit Manager at Scott Machinery.

Changepoint practitioner's series

Debra Aizikovitz

Article by Debra Aizikovitz

Debra joined Changepoint in February 2020 as the Strategic Portfolio Management Solution Architect after spending over 30 years at ...

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