PMO: how to manage unmanageable projects
Cristina Nevado Project Manager

PMO: how to manage unmanageable projects

One of the most difficult challenges that a Project Management Office (PMO) or a Project Manager can face, is starting to manage a new project comprising a team that is, a priori, “unmanageable”; reluctant to adapt to a work methodology or to share information.

In a company with opaque processes, with different interpretations between departments, and to top it off, an absent Management at the helm. As middle-managers, and simplifying it to the extreme, one PMO faces the challenge of controlling everything that takes place “below” and of conveniently informing all those “above”. Next, we will try to explain the characteristics of an “unmanageable” project in more detail.

Team-level characteristics

The characteristics of an “unmanageable” team are countless and varied, and I am sure that plenty have come to mind. Next, we will give some examples, all of which are present, though this list is far from exhaustive:

  • Resistance to change, as minute as it may be. It doesn’t matter if the change is delaying the daily coffee break by 10 minutes. It will be a problem. Not only that, but not changing the coffee break will also be a problem.

  • Mistrust of the PMO, seen as a controlling element and not as a guide towards good praxis. With even greater reluctance if they are external consultants. Take the hard-line approach with enemies.

  • Little or no alignment with the company values. Company culture is something people are aware of; they have heard about it. They don’t know what it is for.

  • Lack of knowledge about the project objectives and/or targets. I don’t know about them and I’m not interested. Don't bother me with trivialities.

  • Burn-out syndrome (feeling of professional and emotional exhaustion). This syndrome particularly affects development teams. I’m terribly busy, I don’t have time for anything.

  • Brown Dispatcher. This isn’t mine, it’s someone else’s. Although the deliverable should be signed by this person, it doesn’t matter, it will always be someone else's.

A work team of these characteristics is a risk against achieving the project targets, and, above all, for the emotional stability of the PMO, as it prevents effective management methodologies from being put into place. Government Models, operational project management indicators, or training in the organisation’s standard procedures, among others.

Management-level characteristics 

An “unmanageable” project would not be complete without Management chipping in. The PMO can also face the challenge of having unworkable Management.

  • A Project Manager with zero communication skills. Misinformation is his/her favourite hard currency.

  • Silos of knowledge and power. Most organisations are structured vertically, and even those that boast being a matrix have impressive “silo” matrices. For a cross-cutting project, getting information from different area managers can equate to crossing Dante’s 9 circles of hell.

  • Lack of leadership. When there the project is not wanted at home (it has been imposed for legal reasons, CEO order, etc.) the best way of taking control of it is... Not taking control of it.

  • It’s all bad. I don’t care what you report. Even though it is data collected from the teams. Even though it is a copy-paste. Bad.

  • Barriers to information. The PMO may have access to all the project information. Management refuses to let you show more than 10%. Far be it that you mistakenly reveal the actual state.

Of course, these are just a few examples of (a lack of) management that may be heading an “unmanageable” project. But as our friend Murphy said: “[...] there will always be many things, and much worse, that can happen”.

Weathering he Strom 

To (attempt to) break through these barriers and in order to implement good management: patience. Accept the situation. Consider it a challenge to overcome.

Once internalised, a psychological technique known as ‘active listening’ can be used, which in the world of project management basically consists in holding informal talks, in a relaxed setting, to encourage people (the team and management) to feel freer to express their concerns without the fear of rejection or punishment. Find the leaders on each team, identify their needs and concerns when facing day to day project issues. It may be that instead of one-on-one talks, it could be a better idea to organise a Team Building activity (without the participants realising). If there are any inaccessible individuals, they may be more receptive in a group.

This technique helps effectively empathise with the team, strengthening the group’s perspective that the PMO is a facilitating element, who contributes value and solutions to project management, as well as being a point of union or dialogue with the project Management and vice versa.

This promotes a sense of project belonging, and in some cases simply being in the same area of the company helps strengthen this sensation of belonging to something bigger. Awarding a medal, a tiny flag, a teddy bear that reads ‘For your valuable work on this project’, at which point the person next to the receiver asks ‘Why haven’t I got one of those?’, can sometimes stimulate healthy competition, helping align teams better than holding 200 training sessions. If physical actions are not possible, creating a similar signature format in e-mails can work. The idea is for people to acknowledge those that participated in the project. And for those people to be proud of it.

This way, we can gradually mitigate one of the main project risks: Promoting the implication of all the project players. ‘All for one, and one for all”

90% of a PMO member’s job is communication. That’s the “easy” bit. The hard part is identifying the atmosphere, key figures and the channel. Winning the trust of drivers of change with whom you can start with small talk to end up defining the best way of presenting the breakthrough to the Sponsor.


Article jointly written by Cristina Nevado and Javier Moya.