“People say a heart attack is a warning sign that you have to make changes,” my friend proclaimed.

Strange, I thought, isn’t a heart attack a sign that you’re moments from death and it’s only thanks to modern science that we have a hope of surviving?

He continued, “So I’ve ditched the drink, the bad foods, and now I exercise regularly.” He didn’t look as though he was particularly enjoying his new lifestyle though as he searched the pub menu for something with low carbs and a side salad, and sipped his Diet Coke.

“I’m glad to hear it. Nice that it took a near death experience to get you doing the things you were meant to be doing in the first place.” With that I finished my Guinness and offered to eat my mates chips. #SupportiveFriend

There’s nothing like a good scare to bring about positive change. And so it is with project management. Instead of breathlessness and circulation issues, our early warning signs come in the form of failed projects and warnings from Assurance. Instead of blocked arteries and grim reapers, our significant warning signs emerge from catastrophic failures, raging regulators and/or failed audits.

The reaction of leadership to audit failures is well intended desire to “do something”. If the audit makes recommendations then the path is easy – do whatever the audit says. If there are no clear recommendations then a new change framework and a rebranded PMO (likely accompanied by a new Head of PMO) will do the trick. The outcome is a desire to increase control – enhanced reporting in a new template, tracking deviations in targets and actuals for costs and timescales, greater governance for change control, better portfolio prioritisation (as in using a method based on merit rather than doing whatever lands on the desk), etc.

To begin with, much like our squat-thrusting heart attack survivor, the changes are embraced as the alternative is doom. But eventually resentment starts to appear. Complaints that too much bureaucracy is slowing down delivery start to be heard. Changes can’t be made swiftly enough because impact assessing and getting permissions from THE PEOPLE PAYING FOR THE PROJECT are inconvenient and time consuming. But a good PMO can keep all of this under control and maintain order.

That is until the leadership backslides by breaking the very rules they invested so much to install. And it won’t be a little thing that nobody would notice, like a couple of meetings without quorum. No, it’ll be a whopper – like ignoring the shiny new prioritisation tool to start a project that appeals to the CEO. Or a complete change to a critical programmes scope without impact assessment. Or when a key project runs into trouble, reports a need for help only to be told JFDI. Then any attempt to enforce the rules are met with accusations of hypocrisy and the whole business backslides to where it was before the audit.

The next time I saw my friend, he was drinking a beer and telling me how he intends to lead a healthy lifestyle but that he just doesn’t really have the time. I suspected the passage of time had quietened the terror of his near death experience and reduced his motivation. I’m sure he knows what he’s doing. Afterall, nearly every day I have colleagues giving excuse after excuse for why they’re too busy to do the right thing.

Oh well, what’s the worst that can happen…?

Written by Stuart Taylor

Born and raised in Walsall, West Midlands; currently living in Buckinghamshire; career in project management; runs a lot but isn't getting any slimmer...

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