Why Lean PMOs use CoPs not policemen

How do you improve project management in an organisation? The “classical” solution was to create a PMO (a project management office). The PMO published standards, then told everyone to use their new standards.

That approach often failed for two reasons. Firstly, the standards were heavy and impractical, written by PMO “experts”. And secondly, the PMO became the enforcer of standards. They became the Project Police.

There is a Lean alternative. The way forward is to use CoPs, not policemen.

Community of Practice

A CoP is a community of practice

A CoP is a community of practice. It brings together practitioners to share knowledge, problems and ideas. Many organisations in various areas (government, education, web content, …) have started to use communities of practice. They recognise that more and more people are knowledge workers; and that sharing knowledge adds value.

Knowledge is not centralised. It is spread around the organisation. Many people have knowledge, not just the “experts”. The community of practice brings together practitioners to harvest knowledge. The CoP is linked to a domain (such as Project Management). For example, at Stanford University, there are about 50 CoPs, each working on one domain.

Feedback from practitioners is new knowledge

The old top-down model for project management assumed that the PMO were the “experts”. The experts had a monopoly of knowledge, so they published the standards. In practice, the standards weren’t always great – they were too complex, and heavy to use in practice.

An organisation that values its knowledge workers uses a different approach. It uses a collaborative model, rather than a top-down model.

The CoP is the heart of this collaborative model. It creates a feedback loop on project management standards. The practitioners who work in real-world projects provide feedback (what works? what needs improvement?) Their feedback creates new knowledge. And when that knowledge is used to improve the standards, it adds value. The CoP becomes part of a value chain.

Iterate to improve

The modern organisation wants to be more agile. People now recognise that project management is a complex problem. Faced with such complexity, the agile approach is to discover the solution over a period of time, iteratively. There is no perfect solution that an expert can specify at their desk.

Finding a solution requires feedback: the early solution is tested in use, and then refined. The solution emerges iteratively, over a period of time.

The community of practice is the perfect tool for getting feedback. The CoP provides the feedback from project managers who are trying to use the standards.

In this context, the Lean PMO has a new role to play. They are no longer the “experts”. The PMO may propose some standards (draft versions or prototypes). But their key role is to stimulate iterative improvement, driven by the community. This results in practical, workable standards that project teams will use.

Create a community of practice (CoP) to drive improvements

The CoP must be focussed. It’s not a talking shop, to swap stories or moan about problems. The CoP engages project managers in the creation and evolution of standards. This ensures that the standards are practical and applicable to real-world projects.

The focus is on continuous improvement:

  • what works?
  • what is broken?
  • how can we improve things?

Here are some examples

  • A template that is too complex and hard to use
  • A reporting requirement that generates hours of work each week
  • A procedure that no longer works
  • A great new tool for tracking issues

To maintain focus, the PMO commits to listening to the CoP, and taking on board their ideas. It’s the feedback from the community of practice that drives the new versions of the standards and adds value.

How does the Lean PMO set up a community of practice?

  • Define your starting point. Pull together your current good practice into one place. Collate everything into a document or a website (your procedures, processes, tools, templates, etc.). This is your draft standard, version 0.1.
  • Find some good people. Find project management practitioners who want to get things done better.
  • Get your CoP moving. Set up a simple, light process for discussing and sharing. Add a simple tool (e.g. Slack or a micro-website).
  • Keep the CoP focussed. The focus is continual improvement. Keep things light and lean. Avoid long meetings – project managers are busy people.
  • Add value. Use the feedback from the CoP to improve your standards. Publish new versions of standards (templates version 2.0, procedures version 1.1, and so on).
  • Communicate. Tell everyone how that the CoP is driving improvement, and how the process is adding value.
  • Iterate. Keep going. Improvement is an ongoing, long-term process.

Other benefits of CoPs in the Project Management domain

The community of practice is especially useful in the project management domain

  • Many projects span organisational and geographic boundaries. In the same way, the CoP goes beyond the silo organisation. It is a community of project managers, regardless of organisational and geographic boundaries.
  • Many project managers start their careers as subject matter experts. As the years go by, they become project management experts. The CoP helps this transition. It boosts the visibility of the project management domain. Thereby, it helps professionalise project management.

Read more about CoPs here

CoPs not police

The bottom line is that if you are a PMO struggling to impose your standards, then stop trying to be a policeman. Think CoPs not police.

This blog is part of a series about the Lean PMO, which will form the basis of a new Lean3 book. Find out more at LeanPub

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Written by Jeff on January 15, 2021 in blog
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