“We had everything to gain by planning and working closely together to advance the development and maturity of our new IT Project Office, but it seemed that every time we would take a step together in the right direction, one of us would sideswipe the accomplishment by acting irrationally or in what seemed like an irrational manner.”

Those were the words of my former manager in an IT Project Office (a predecessor to the modern PMO).  It is an often-repeated statement, but one which does not get much scrutiny from a root cause analysis format.

Here was the scenario:

A major energy company acquired the downstream assets of another energy company, and integrated the functional groups, including the Information Technology groups.  At the start of this scenario, I was a Project and Planning Consultant in the IT Planning Group.  The Information Technology group decided to form an IT Project Office (ITPO), and it hired an experienced manager from a major Fortune 500 Company whose expertise was in forming and maturing PMO-type organizations.  Prior to that point, each IT Applications Development, Systems, and Infrastructure Group had planned and executed projects within their own groups with limited collaboration across groups.

A major consulting firm had facilitated the merger of the two energy companies, and Management of the merged company strongly recommended that the Information Technology group use the consulting firm as a “guide” in forming the IT Project Office.  The consulting firm had an excellent reputation for internal project management capability, and it utilized a methodology which I will refer to here as “THE METHOD.”  So, Information Technology Management was pleased at the outset that they not only had an experienced PMO-type Manager, but also a strong consulting group direction.

The “vision” and directions given by the IT Project Office Management to the consulting firm were that the ITPO wanted to instill its own “trademark” and “business context” in the new project group. 

While the consulting firm heard this “firm” direction,” it internally recognized that the firm had made a great investment in “THE METHOD” and that it would exploit “THE METHOD” at every opportunity.

The IT Project Office utilized the SEI Capability Maturity Model as a framework for planning its path of evolution to a mature state.  However, whenever a new process or procedure was developed in concert with the consulting group, the outcome had a strong flavor of “THE METHOD.”  So, whenever the IT Project Office mapped its systems projects to follow the business processes with which it was trying to align, it conveniently left the consulting group out of the process until some redefinition of an omitted process was imminent.

This recurring pattern of behavior was subtle but highly visible to those of us living the daily ITPO experience.

This is an example of a “systems archetype” at work. 

Peter Senge has written extensively about organizational dynamics and behavior and systems archetypes identifiable from events and patterns of behavior.

William Braun has also written extensively about systems archetypes.  System Archetypes are highly effective tools for gaining insight into patterns of behavior, themselves reflective of the underlying “structure” of the system being studied. The archetypes can be applied in two ways – diagnostically and prospectively.

Diagnostically, archetypes help managers recognize patterns of behavior that are already present in their organizations. They serve as the means for gaining insight into the underlying systems structures from which the archetypal behavior emerges. This is the most common use of the archetype.

Archetypes are effective tools for beginning to answer the question, “Why do we keep seeing the same problems recur over time?”

Prospectively, archetypes are useful for planning. As managers formulate the means by which they expect to accomplish their organizational ends, the archetypes can be applied to test whether policies and structures under consideration may be altering the organizational structure in such manner as to produce the archetypal behavior. If managers find this to be the case, they can take remedial action before the changes are adopted and embedded in the organization’s structure. 

From my experience, archetypes can be highly effective when examining PMO and IT Project Office organizational structure.

The particular “systems archetype” described above is called “accidental adversaries” because it explains how groups of people who ought to be in partnership with each other, and who want to be in partnership with each other (or at least state that they do), end up bitterly opposed.  It applies to teams working across functions, to joint ventures between organizations, to union-management battles, to suppliers and manufacturers, to family disputes, and even to civil wars.

The classic case where this “accidental adversaries” structure was first articulated and  recognized was a scenario involving Procter and Gamble (P&G) and Walmart.  Both had the same goals–improving the effectiveness and profitability of their production/distribution system–but they each felt that the other was acting in self-serving ways that damaged the industry. 

Wal-Mart learned throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s that heavy discounting and price promotion of goods could boost market share, value, and improve profits.  But price promotions created extra costs and difficulties for distributors like P&G.  The Wal-Mart practice undermined P&G manufacturing, creating great swings in P&G’s manufacturing volumes.  The practices of each firm were intended to meet each firm’s internal objectives but, as a partnership, each was always pointing a finger at the other claiming undermining practices.  In responding more attentively to their internal objectives, the partnership fell short of optimizing its combined operational effectiveness.

While this pattern of behavior continued for years, attempts to reconcile and elaborate exactly what was happening was a difficult, if not impossible, order.

And so, this same pattern existed in the newly formed and maturing IT Project Office, among seemingly cooperative and optimization-oriented managers, who did not recognize the future implications of their antagonistic conduct.  It is often not easy to discern or to admit that these behaviors take place among rational and intelligent groups who join their efforts to make a better condition within their groups.

But, as William Braun has suggested, the potential exists for  archetypes to be applied to test whether the policies and structures under consideration may be altering the organizational structure in such manner as to produce the archetypal behavior. If PMO managers find this to be the case, they can take remedial action before the changes are adopted and embedded in the organization’s structure. 

Have you identified some recurring behaviors in relationships between your key PMO suppliers, vendors, partners, or other support groups which can be limiting your attainment of PMO Excellence?  

Here are some prescriptive actions and seven action steps from William Braun in case you find candidates for “Accidental Adversaries”:

Prescriptive Action

• Revisit the original opportunity that brought the PMO parties together into a collaborative relationship.

• Use the archetype to identify the origins of adversarial attitudes.

• Renew the Shared Vision of the collaborative effort and commit to Team Learning.

Seven Action Steps

• Reconstruct the conditions that were the catalyst for collaboration and PMO success.

• Review the original understandings and expected mutual benefits.

• Identify conflicting incentives that may be driving adversarial behavior.

• Map the unintended side effects of each party’s actions.

• Develop overarching PMO goals that align the efforts of the parties.

• Establish metrics to monitor collaborative behavior.

• Establish routine communication.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that this IT Project Office archetype produced a highly dysfunctional organization as it matured.  Over a two or three year period, the management of the IT Project Office and the consulting firm realized and recognized the internal objectives of the other party, and actually began to discuss how they could support their own internal objectives while creating the fully functional IT Project Office that everyone envisioned at the beginning.   Dialogue and continual realignment of values and vision were effective over time.

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