Last week I had an out of town meeting, about an hour away from my house. About 45 minutes out my car started making a funny noise and my dashboard flashed the low pressure tire sensor light. I found a place to pull over into a run down gas station. When I checked my tire out I saw that I had a 7 inch nail poking out of the tire. This was  highly inconvenient as I was dressed in business attire and the gas station did not seem to have any service that would help out. I looked at my watch and I still had some time before my meting. Luckily I had a t-shirt in the car which I changed into to prepare for replacing my flat tire. So I embarked upon an activity that I had done a couple of dozen times throughout my adult driving days. I popped the truck open in search of my replacement tire. I honestly had forgotten what the salesman told me when I bought the car but it all came rushing back. This car that I am driving does not come with a replacement tire. After a few minutes of panic I realized that the tire on the car was not really flat. It turns out it is a run-flat tire that is supposed to allow me to drive approximately 50 miles before it needed to be replaced. So I quickly got in the car, drove to the nearest service station in search of a solution, which ended up being a replacement tire that was 10 times as expensive as the normal tires on previous cars.

Now that this incident is a week old I can actually take a bit of time to reflect on it and compare it to our experiences in the workplace. What I experienced is often similar to what we see on projects. We start out projects with certain assumptions about the external environment, available technologies, team member allocation, or executive sponsor commitments. We put together plans based on these assumptions that sometimes turn out to be invalid or outdated. We then encounter risks that we anticipated but did not plan for properly. We simply did not understand that our own frame of reference was outdated or due to technological changes our mitigation strategies simply won’t work. Even with the seemingly best of plans we end up losing out or missing the mark because of the misalignment between assumptions and realities. The bottom line is we live in a very dynamic time and it is easy to lose track when we are too focused on day to day details as opposed to paying attention to the greater ecosystem of projects.

The question then is how do we address the need to focus both on the forest and the trees at the same time?

A few years ago I was leading the setup of a corporate PMO for a client. I had the opportunity to design the team structure and hand pick the team members. One of the discussion points with the executive sponsor was related to the role of the PMO leader versus the deputy PMO leader. My client asked why I was recommending a setup that included what appeared to be two duplicate roles. I explained that the PMO leader would focus on driving the overall PMO from a strategy and relationship perspective while the deputy would focus on managing day to day activities and detailed tasks. While the PMO leader was busy building executive buy-in and establishing relationships with the organization, the deputy would be responsible for developing the schedules and overseeing daily activities. Fortunately the client bought into this approach and pretty soon we had a high performing team. This approach provided a significant amount of flexibility in addressing both the big picture and the low level details. As a result we were much better prepared to identify risks early and determine if our mitigation plans made sense.

Having a dual approach enabled us to challenge our assumptions and ask the right questions long before we encountered unplanned risks. It was like having a driver and a navigator in the car rather than relying on the driver to perform both roles. A win-win strategy for the PMO…