Organizational alignment is something that businesses strive for: The knowledge that your teams are all working effectively together to achieve a strategic aim. The PMO isn’t just the vehicle for making sure that projects align to strategy; it can also contribute to making sure that the organization as a whole is working together in the best way possible.
What Is Alignment?
Firstly we should consider what we mean by ‘alignment’. It’s one of those words that the strategists throw out, and you’ll probably have head it a lot recently in the context of delivering strategy, which is a timely topic in project management right now.
It’s probably easier to explain what we mean by describing what the business looks like when you don’t have it. There are silos of knowledge and people, decisions that seem to have been taken in a vacuum, and bureaucracy that no one really understands.
If your organization has any or all of these then you’ll probably recognize that ‘alignment’ isn’t there.
Alignment happens when all parts of the organization are pulling in the same direction for a common goal, using a defined set of processes. There is structure (but it isn’t an excessive overhead). People know who to talk to when they want to get something done. Roles and responsibilities are clear and there isn’t overlap between teams that people would consider a waste if they knew it existed.
Organizational alignment makes it easier to achieve your company’s strategic objectives faster and more successfully.
The Alignment Challenge
The big challenges – and the areas where the PMO can most competently contribute – are:
- Managing organizational politics
- Dealing with a lack of strategic direction
- Disconnected priorities
- Handling uncontrolled demand on project resources.
Let’s look at each of those in turn.
Managing organizational politics: Let’s not pretend that politics isn’t alive and well in your organization. However, playing politics is only a bad thing when it forces inappropriate decisions. For example – and this happens often – projects are worked on based on who shouts the loudest, not in any priority order. This frequently puts a director’s favorite project to the top of the list for resources and time, despite it being unaligned to the strategic direction of the company overall. Resources would be better placed being deployed on other initiatives, but politics makes that difficult.
The PMO can help by managing an impartial prioritisation process and ensuring resources are allocated fairly, by providing appropriate challenge as required.
Dealing with a lack of strategic direction: The PMO can’t magic a strategy out of thin air but mature PMOs act as a strategic advisor to the board. The PMO team have the data to notice if projects are failing to meet the existing strategic direction, or if there isn’t one, because they have the whole picture of the project portfolio across the company. It’s possible to identify that one division is focusing on something quite different, because the PMO can categorize and rank projects.
Noticing the problem is one thing; fixing it is something else entirely. The resolution may only be to flag the issues to the board.
Disconnected priorities: When one department is focusing on launching software to support a sales channel, and another department is launching another sales channel to replace that old one, you can say that the business’ priorities are disconnected. What is more important: supporting an existing channel with new solutions or providing new channels to market? Of course, they might both still have a place, but they can’t both be the top sales priority.
The PMO’s role prioritizing initiatives can help flag disconnects like this, enabling managers to make better decisions, and aligning projects to the true priorities.
Handling uncontrolled demand on project resources: When you don’t really know what’s the most important, or who should be given priority, managing the demand on project teams becomes almost impossible. The result is stressed team managers, unhappy staff members and long To Do lists that never seem to end.
PMOs have a huge role to play in resource allocation. They know the skills of the individuals available, have links into the rest of the business for subject matter experts, and they can map the current project timelines against resource availability to be able to predict when each person can take on new work. That gives you the possibility of forecasting when you can pick up new projects and consequently, when demands on project resources are going to be at their highest.
Contributing to Better Alignment
As well as being well-placed to deal with some of the difficulties of working without strategic alignment, the PMO can proactively contribute to creating alignment.
Through managing change: A clear change management process, with the associated prioritization mechanism, makes it easy for people to put forward their ideas and have them considered fairly. Understanding the impact of change on this project and others lets managers see what effect the change would have overall.
Through co-ordinating decision makers: The PMO and the project teams working on initiatives within the PMO are in a great position to be able to see the bigger picture when it comes to decisions that affect multiple areas of the business.
If you think it’s appropriate to involve a wider group in a decision, then do so. Generally people will appreciate that the impact on their business area is being considered, even if it comes to nothing. They’ll like that you are looking out for them, and they’ll have confidence that if something similar comes up again, that you know enough about their area to understand if it is going to have an impact on them .
Creating ‘Light Bulb Moments’
The single biggest thing that the PMO can do to improve organizational alignment is to bring transparency to situations where previously there wasn’t any.
Throwing light on a problem allows other people to see issues that they might not have previously been aware of. Noticing a problem is the first step to fixing it, so transparency can have an immediate and positive effect.
Creating those ‘light bulb moments’ (when someone realizes the impact of something for the first time and you can almost see the spark in their eyes when they understand the issue) is simply about putting good quality data first and making it available in a way that your internal customers can understand.
What are you doing to create and maintain alignment in your organization?