PROJECT SPONSORSHIP AND RISK - A Better alternative to escalation by John Schlichter


PMI has adopted a new risk response strategy in the PMBOK Guide 6th Edition. That new response is "escalate." According to the PMBOK Guide 6th Edition, “Escalation is appropriate when the project team or the project sponsor agrees that a threat is outside the scope of the project or that the proposed response would exceed the project manager’s authority.”

But there's a better way to deal with the problem that risk responses exceed the project manager's authority, which I will explain below: a way to organize that obviates the need to abdicate through escalation, avoids inducing sponsors to micromanage, and eliminates the rampant misalignment between sponsors and project teams that disempowers those closest to the work to act wisely and with agility.

An essential role of the sponsor is to convey the project's risk appetite and risk tolerances and from this perspective to sign off on all severe risks and responses to those risks. By comparison, the project manager's role is to identify risks, develop risk responses, get approval from the sponsors for responses to severe risks, and to manage risk responses capably to resolution.

In most organizations, the sponsor is the project owner. Sponsorship is ownership. Sometimes this is delegated (or the sponsor is a proxy for the owner). Sponsors are benefactors, and as persons who provide or secure resources for projects they typically expect something in return, meaning they seek the benefits from the outputs of the projects.

As such, sponsors approve success criteria, performance baselines (schedule, budget, scope), change requests (CR's) pertaining to the aforementioned things, and risk response plans for severe risks that the project faces. In this context, they "own" the project. The owner has the power to continue the project or dispose of it. Without sponsorship, a project cannot continue.


As the project's benefactor, the sponsors implicitly approve that the project can proceed in the face of risks. While the project manager will manage those risks, the project manager cannot decide on the project's behalf the threshold distinguishing acceptable risks from unacceptable ones. This is why the project sponsor must "own" (approve) the risks that the project manager manages. In RACI terms for project risk management, the project manager is responsible, but the sponsor is accountable. If one wishes, one may further refine these roles by distinguishing different levels of sponsors and different levels of approval for different types of risks.


As benefactors for projects, sponsors typically seek benefits from projects in return. As such, sponsors provide a strategic perspective (linking project outputs to expected benefits), motivate the team to produce the outputs that will yield the expected benefits, and help to supply resources and dismantle issues that the team cannot dismantle themselves. To be successful in this role, sponsors must be engaged proactively in their projects, and project managers must make that easy for sponsors. 


By comparison to the sponsor role, the project manager owns management of the project, which includes schedule management, cost management, scope management, stakeholder management, integration management, resource management, quality management, communications management, and procurement management. All of these areas of management are inputs to risk management, which is a primary function of the project manager. Project managers should spend much of their time on risk management.

The project manager  must ensure the sponsor is aligned and agrees with the way risks have been identified, how they are articulated, agrees that risk statements correctly distinguish what the real risk is, and that the sponsor agrees that the correct responses have been formulated by the project manager or team.


Sponsors must be informed of risks and approve risk responses because the sponsor is accountable for risks in ways that a project manager simply cannot be. While the sponsor (and not the project manager) decides the organization's risk tolerance and threshold, the project manager is responsible for managing the risks. To be successful in management of the project, the project manager must enroll the sponsor(s) to distinguish how the project manager should manage the triple constraint (and the "true North" of those constraints) within an acceptable threshold of risks. This is a dialogue between the project manager and the sponsors, and it is ongoing. Sponsors typically sit on a Change Control Board (CCB) for the projects that they sponsor, which approves success criteria and performance baselines (schedule, budget, scope) at each stage of the project. Sponsors approve or decline change requests (CR's) pertaining to the aforementioned things, which may occur at any time. The role of approving success criteria and approving performance baselines and changes to these things is not the same thing as managing the triple constraint, which is project manager's role, i.e. to manage the delivery of project deliverables (specs, on time, on budget, on cost).


The triple constraint of a project (or the "Iron Triangle") is unforgiving. Changes in one of the three constraints of schedule, budget, or scope (delivered with quality) will always require a change to another of the constraints as a trade-off. However, as the organization increases its Organizational Project Management maturity, it will become more capable. When capabilities increase, it is possible to create more project outputs, to do so faster, at a lower cost, and with higher quality WITHOUT increasing risk.


It's natural for the persons who seek benefits from the outputs of projects to advocate that the project produce more of those outputs or do so faster or at a lower cost or with higher quality. Those imperatives, however, often increase risk. For example, we can speed up a project by taking work that is serial in nature and re-planning it so that tasks which were serial are done concurrently, i.e. "fast tracking." But this increases risk.

Requiring the sponsors to sign-off on risks and risk responses corrects imbalance between reward-seeking and risk-aversion. It ensures sponsors remain informed and aligned. It changes the dynamic of teamwork in positive ways. It discourages adversarial relationships, encourages partnerships, and cultivates servant leadership.


Because the sponsor, who secures resources on behalf of the project, is invested in the realization of benefits from the project (which occurs after the project is finished), it makes sense for a product manager to be a sponsor on New Product Development projects (assuming that the product manager owns the product life cycle).  Alternatively, a product manager may play the role of "Business Analyst," which facilitates the capturing, prioritization, and implementation of business requirements and functional requirements through the stages of the project life cycle.


While it is a de facto standard that the project owner is the project sponsor, we often see that projects have more than one sponsor. In many organizations the top priority projects have both a "sponsor" and an "executive sponsor." As these names imply, this is a distinction between levels of the vertical management hierarchy, where a "sponsor" plays the primary role we have discussed (acting as the project owner or proxy, accountable for benefit realization and governing risk tolerances), while an "executive sponsor" also plays this role but is naturally an escalation point.

In addition to having more than one sponsor, projects may have sponsors from different organizations. When there are multiple organizations involved in a project, whether those organizations are internal or external, we may see sponsors from each. If I.T.  undertook a project that required an extraordinary investment on the part of, say, Supply Chain, we would expect projects sponsors to include both someone from I.T.  and someone from Supply Chain. If Finance undertook a project that was composed largely of employees of a consulting firm contracted to help deliver Finance’s project, one would expect the project to have a sponsor from Finance and a sponsor from the consulting firm.


As benefactors of projects, sponsors are naturally persons who seek benefits from projects in return.  

Pro: Sonsors provide a strategic perspective, linking project outputs to expected benefits. Con:  One must distinguish between the motives of sponsors who are project owners and sponsors who represent supplier organizations.

Pro: Sponsors motivate the team to produce the outputs that will yield the expected benefits. Con: Organizations are notoriously bad at managing the link between project outputs and project benefits.

Pro: Expecting benefits, sponsors help to supply resources and dismantle issues that the team cannot dismantle themselves. Con:  Sponsor bandwidth is limited.

Project Managers own management of the Triple Constraint.

Pro: If sponsors set the project's goals and risk profile, project managers can manage timing, costs, and scope against risks. Con:  The project manager cannot decide on the project's behalf the threshold distinguishing acceptable risks from unacceptable ones

Pro: The project manager's role is to identify risks, develop risk responses, get approval from the sponsors for responses to severe risks, and to manage risk responses capably to resolution. Con:  Sponsors sometimes have difficulty understanding that those seeking benefits from the project must decide the project's risk appetite or tolerances, and that project managers cannot do this themselves.

Pro: Project managers can ensure the sponsor is aligned and agrees with the way risks have been identified. Con:  When projects are failing, sponsors may suffer from optimism bias, escalating commitment.

Pro: Project managers can ensure the sponsors approve how severe risks are articulated, and that they correctly distinguish what the real risk is. Con:  Sponsors sometimes fail to appreciate the importance of risk analysis and thus devote insufficient time to it. They say "That's the project managers job, and I don't need to be involved." This is, in effect, to abdicate.

Pro: Project managers can solicit sponsor approval that correct responses have been formulated by the project manager or team. Con:  Sponsors may be prone to "rubber stamp" their approval of risk responses.

Project owners are project sponsors, and project sponsors are project owners.

Pro: Persons who provide the resources necessary to enact a project (the owners) are appropriate persons to decide the project's risk appetite and tolerances. It's their investment at stake. Con:  Sometimes sponsors are unable to decide risk appetite and tolerance on their own, and coordinating these decisions is a cost.

Pro: Persons who provide the resources necessary for the project are appropriate persons to approve success criteria, performance baselines, change requests, and responses to risks to these things. Con:  When multiple organizations provide resources for a project, approvals for success criteria, performance baselines, change requests, and responses to risks to these things must be decided jointly.

Pro: Persons who sustain investment in the project are naturally the right people to distinguish acceptable risks from unacceptable ones. Con:  Sometimes project owners prefer to transfer risk-taking to others when that is not realistically an option. In effect, they wish to abdicate by not taking a position and to do so without repurcussion, which usually is not possible.

Pro: Project owners can approve risk-taking that project managers cannot approve unilaterally. Con:  Sponsor bandwidth is limited.

Sponsors are accountable for deciding the project's risk appetite and approving responses to severe risks.

Pro: This is a role that sponsors can play that project managers typically cannot. Con:  Sponsor bandwidth is limited.

Pro: Naturally balances reward-seeking with risk-taking. Con:  Typically equires a cultural shift.

Pro: Ensures sponsors remain informed and aligned. Con:  Typically requires a cultural shift.

Pro: Changes the dynamic of teamwork in positive ways. Con:  Typically requires a cultural shift.

Pro: Discourages adversarial relationships. Con: Typically requires a cultural shift.

Pro: Encourages partnerships. Con: Typically requires a cultural shift.

Pro: Cultivates servant leadership. Con: Typically requires a cultural shift.

Product Managers can be sponsors of projects, specifically New Product Development projects. 

Pro: It makes sense for a product manager to be a sponsor if that the product manager owns the product lifecycle.  Con:  If it's not true that the product manager owns the product life cycle, then it may be a mistake to assign them the role of sponsor based soley on their title.

Pro: Alternatively, a product manager may play the role of "Business Analyst." Con:  Assigning a Business Analyst does not necessarily help to identify the correct sponsors.

Projects may have multiple sponsors.

Pro: helps information processing through differentiation of the veritcal management hierarchy. Con: No two projects are ever the same, and how this is structured must be tailored to the project.

Pro: Projects may have sponsors from different organizations. Con:  One must distinguish between the motives of sponsors who are project owners and sponsors who represent supplier organizations.




A Thousand Twangling Instruments: the 3 Phases of Disaster-relief Programs by John Schlichter


by John Schlichter

The week after hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, we sailed down to the Caribbean and met with stakeholders across the region.  Programs that respond to disasters like these have three phases:

Phase 1:  Immediate disaster response.  Phase 1 occurs immediately after the occurrence of the disaster event, and has emphasis of emergency response activities such as saving lives; rescuing disaster victims in imminent danger; and getting emergency food, water and shelter to survivors.  Time is of the absolute essence in Phase 1.

Phase 2:  Disaster relief.  Phase 1 efforts will begin to transition to Phase 2 when the immediate danger has passed and activities turn to dealing with victims and refugees from the disaster.  Phase 2 involves managing sometimes large displaced populations, identifying temporary shelter, and making mid-term provisions for food, water, medical treatment and other necessities (e.g., sanitation activities to avoid or mitigate the spread of disease).  Cleanup activities begin in Phase 2, but only to enable disaster relief.

Phase 3:  Reconstruction.  Phase 3 involves the long-term efforts associated with restoration of society after the disaster, including, as necessary, restoration of political, economic, physical, and information infrastructures. 

The myriad of uncoordinated relief efforts is like Shakespeare’s thousand twangling instruments on an isle full of noises.

These phases are linked, and there is overlap between the phases. One key enabler of effective response is the availability of descriptive and prescriptive tools and frameworks that allow decision makers and organizers to characterize the current state of response efforts across the full range of the situation.

In the short term, one of the most difficult tasks (in addition to the response activities themselves) is getting a handle of what is actually going on in the response space.  What is the status of the effort?  Who is involved?  Where are they?  What are they doing?  What problems are being experienced?  Collecting, organizing, and distributing this information all pose serious problems.  In many cases, the information is available, but not structured and difficult to assemble or understand. The myriad of uncoordinated relief efforts is like Shakespeare's "thousand twangling instruments" on an isle full of noises.

In the current situation, news reports and particularly emerging media (e.g., social networking sites, Twitter, etc.) and other open-source data sources have played a role in getting information out about elements of the situation. These diverse and unstructured sources are particularly difficult to rationalize into a coherent picture, but mature capabilities exist to explore these varied information sources and, using technology such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) frameworks, build useful and responsive pictures of what is going on in space and time, including the discovery of relationships and networks between different organizations and activities.  Such capabilities can be put to work right away to start characterizing the status of current/ongoing response activities.  Once built, this picture can be used to build shared situational awareness and facilitate the discovery of challenges (e.g., hospital A is out of antibiotics) and solution alternatives (e.g., organizations/individuals who can help with hospital A’s problem).

In Phases 2 and 3, response organizations have more of an opportunity to design and/or grow the relief and reconstruction efforts – especially in Phase 3, which is usually the result of a deliberate planning effort.  That said, these phases can be extremely challenging due to the scale and diversity of partners involved (and the range of agenda/visions/missions that are present), the complexity and interrelatedness of the relief/reconstruction activities, and the lack of a unified “chain of command” among the participants. 

How do organizations that have the resources and sealift/engineering/logistics capabilities to respond to large scale disasters work with relief groups? Uncertainty – whether from an inability to gather and/or distribute information or from the rapid pace of change in the situation – places a premium on the ability to manage/influence the response effort (what we would call a complex endeavor).  Decision making must be enabled at appropriate times and organizational locations, supporting interaction and collaboration among participants in the endeavor, and ensuring information is distributed in ways that create shared awareness of the situation.

OPM Experts LLC has frameworks that can be applied both to characterize the “as-is” response effort as well as to prescribe actions or resources that would be most effective at increasing the efficacy of the response effort through enhanced coordination and collaboration among participating entities. Our models identify the key drivers that enable endeavors to move from one level of maturity to the next, and they have been applied in a range of real-world disaster-relief circumstances. Use of such frameworks helps to benchmark relief activities and guides leadership decisions about how to organize and manage/influence relief/response work. This is especially appropriate for Phases 2 and 3 but could be of great value during Phase 1 to help identify low-hanging fruit that could pay disproportionate dividends in an extremely austere environment, e.g., the use of 802.16-based technology to establish a temporary information infrastructure quickly to de-conflict and then coordinate activities.

All the people whom we have met on our tour of the region are either eager to help or eager to be helped. While many have moved to Phase 2 (disaster relief) and Phase 3 (reconstruction), some continue to grapple with Phase 1 (immediate disaster response).

“The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; but, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.”
― William Shakespeare, The Tempest

Naked in the Desert by John Schlichter

My flight landed in Jeddah, the largest port of the Red Sea, where I was scheduled to meet early the next morning with the mayor to begin assessing the ability of the local government to enact its strategies through billion dollar construction projects. It was the height of the Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage by Muslims to Mecca, which is located just outside the city. I had done this trip before and was confident things would go smoothly despite the fantastic surge of people.

In previous visits, when I had been performing a similar project management maturity assessment for the Ministry of Interior, I had been escorted through customs in seconds. It turns out that part of the Ministry's purview is border control, one of the perks being VIP treatment at customs. But this time, I had no such luck. It took five hours! And on leaving customs I learned that my luggage had been lost!

By the time I got to my hotel, it was the middle of the night, and I had nothing to wear to my meeting first thing in the morning. I might as well have been naked in the desert. But then it dawned on me that Middle Eastern cultures are nocturnal. A simple inquiry at the front desk revealed there was a market just one block from the hotel. And sure enough, it was open despite the late hour. It was worth a shot, right?

Beyond rows of wares, nestled in a back corner of that market, lo and behold there was one rack of clothes. And at the end of that one rack there was an Italian suit! And miracle of miracles, it was my size! Just like that I was wearing a new suit and speeding off for my meeting with the mayor. What incredible luck! I swore to myself that next time I would bring a change of clothes in a carry-on bag. Like the Arabian proverb says, "Trust God, but tie your camel."

How many of us have found ourselves the victim of optimism bias, virtually naked in the desert as we set out upon a new project? It is easy to believe we are at lesser risk of experiencing a negative event compared to others, and this cognitive bias is quite common, trascending gender, race, age, and nationality. That's why it is good to trust one's capabilities but always better to verify you have them.

Ratings for Healthcare Innovation: Can Maturity Assessments Improve Health Outcomes? by John Schlichter

by John Schlichter

As the US Senate debates revisions to the Affordable Care Act this week, people on both sides of the aisle are asking how to improve the healthcare industry. Faced with the reality that the major political parties are entrenched opponents, one wonders whether social collaboration to improve healthcare could emerge in other ways. It is a question I had taken up before, when I asked myself whether organizations across the healthcare value chain could be incentivized by transparancy and reputation to optimize healthcare outcomes. Would leaders reform their organizations if they were graded publicly? From song rankings on the Billboard Charts to credit scores by Moody's or Standard and Poor's, we can see that ratings matter. Could the rating of healthcare organizations change behavior?

Specifically, could maturity assessments improve outcomes? In other words, could a health system innovation maturity model be created that motivates healthcare organizations to develop and use capabilities that improve population health, population healthcare, and the innovation of both? Buoyed by this question, four years ago I waded into the deep waters of US healthcare reform through a multi-million dollar grant proposal to establish a Congressional award based on maturity assessments (Figure 1). My idea was that a highly esteemed national award based on detailed assessments and summarized as scores or ratings could "pull" innovation from organizations to improve outcomes in creative and unpredictable ways that nobody could "push" or require organizations to innovate.


Figure 1: A Plan to Foment Innovation Across the Healthcare Industry. From CMS Health Care Innovation Awards, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, 2013.

Figure 1: A Plan to Foment Innovation Across the Healthcare Industry. From CMS Health Care Innovation Awards, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, 2013.

Measurement is known to change behavior. Evaluation frameworks are self-fulfilling because they shape institutional designs and management practices as well as social norms and expectations about behavior, thereby creating the behavior that they predict (Ferraro, Pfeffer, Sutton, 2005; Biggs, Bearman, Hedstrom, 2009). For evaluations of healthcare organizations to inspire change, they would need to be based on standards endorsed by the major stakeholders. We proposed to establish standards focused on population health outcomes endorsed by Medicare and Medicaid.

Specifically, we proposed to encourage helping the following:

o Age groups: prenatal to age 2, ages 2 -12, young adults (13-19), adults ( 20-64), and seniors (65+)

o Population insurance status: Uninsured; Commercially Insured; Medicaid/CHIP; Medicaid; Other.

That's everybody.

The mechanism is to develop and support dialogue and actions aimed at population health management goals, namely improved health, improved healthcare, cost savings (for the patient – not utilization-based cost savings), better access, and patient satisfaction.

If healthcare organizations were assessed on their ability to innovate population healthcare and improve population health in ways that enact these goals, what kinds of innovations might they conceive? Healthcare innovation projects could take the form of vouchers and privatization that decentralizes the system and removes unnecessary burdens from business. Innovation projects that enable out-of-pocket payment (OPP) by consumers for routine medical care could transform the system from one dominated by third party payers toward a model that would put consumers in charge of their healthcare dollars, unleashing market disciplines into the equation for the first time. Public-private partnership projects could work to reform licensing requirements for medical schools, hospitals, pharmacies, and medical doctors and other health-care personnel, causing prices to fall and a greater variety of healthcare services to appear on the market. Or insurance products could be developed to protect against events over whose outcome the insured possesses no control; a big problem in health insurance is if you are on your own or part of a very small group, you have no leverage for prices, and if someone gets very sick, then you don’t have the protection of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people sharing the risk, but employers could band together in associations that let individuals join to buy health insurance as a group to cover high risks or even pre-existing conditions. Alternatively, innovation could address the production and sale of pharmaceutical products and medical devices. Whatever the innovations may be, the organizations responsible would be assessed and scored for innovation directed at improving population health and healthcare. Innovations would be evaluated for efficacy, and the ability of organizations to deliver the innovations would be characterized. Seeing clearly which organizations are actually working for the greater good (and whose good works are indeed working), consumers could make more discriminating healthcare choices.

Figure 2: Letter of Intent from Suffolk University's Office of Research and Sponsored Programs Naming John Schlichter as Principal, 2013.

Figure 2: Letter of Intent from Suffolk University's Office of Research and Sponsored Programs Naming John Schlichter as Principal, 2013.

I was lead scientist, research group leader, and the principal assessor and improvement consultant for participating healthcare organizations (Figure 2). Despite partnering with Emory University and Suffolk University and lobbying Tom Price (who has since become the US Secretary of Health and Human Services), we were unable to enroll the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid. Yet I remain convinced that something akin to the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award would be a creative and low-cost way to encourage providers to improve health outcomes for individuals. Payers, providers, producers, fiscal intermediaries, and accountable care organizations would be assessed, ranked, and awarded publicly, creating ratings with financial implications.

What do you think? Do you believe that reputation mechanisms like maturity assessments, awards, and ratings can motivate organizations across the healthcare value chain to improve outcomes (quality of life years or QALYs) for individuals? Do you believe the people running healthcare organizations could be motivated to collaborate on healthcare innovation across the value chain if their reputations were at stake?

ICYMI, here are some scientific breakthroughs that occurred this past week: by John Schlichter

Quantum materials were created that can conduct electricity at nearly the speed of light.

The world’s first fusion reactor created its first plasma; on track to produce clean energy by 2018.

Fungi in a toxic lake was discovered to produce a new antibiotic that kills super-bugs unlike anything before.

HIV infection has been eliminated in living animals through gene editing.

Researchers created the first synthetic retina out of soft tissue.

Scientists discovered how to extract ancient DNA from 240,000 year old dirt.

In this exponential future accelerating toward us, how can executives implement their strategies through projects successfully, consistently, and predictably? The answer is "SIMPLE," the "Strategy Implementation Maturity Protocol for Learning Enterprises." See

Aligning Projects to Business Strategy by John Schlichter

In a survey of 400 U.S. CEO's out this month, 65% said the next three years will be more critical than the past 50 years. Complexity, volatility, and uncertainty have been on the rise since the turn of the 21st century, making it more difficult for organizations to execute their business strategies through projects, especially those organizations that have not developed Organizational Project Management (OPM) capabilities. From the outset of the OPM3 program in 1998, we knew that organizations would need help for the foreseeable future to improve their ability to execute business strategies through projects in order to thrive in the exponential world accelerating toward us. This need has only increased over time.

That idea, that projects are the way to execute organizational strategies, was a game-changer for PMI standards, which had not been enlarged beyond addressing the management of individual projects to date. Midway through our development of the OPM3 standard in the year 2000, I asked our team to deploy a survey to gauge how well organizations align their projects to business strategy (such that projects are designed to achieve formulated strategy), the first time PMI sponsored such a survey.In that first survey, we engaged 10,000 professionals and found that only 66% of those surveyed said their organizations align projects to business strategy; and worse, only 25% said their organizations had well balanced portfolios (Schlichter John. PMI’s Organizational Project Management Maturity Model: Emerging Standards. PMI ’01 Annual Symposium, Nashville; 2001). Since 2003, PMI's whole focus has shifted to organizations and their ability to execute business strategies through projects, getting more business value from projects. In that time, we have seen many organizations dramatically improve their ability to execute business strategies through projects, but the opposite trend is also true.

In 2013, a decade after our first survey on project alignment to strategy, PMI started surveying project alignment to strategy annually, reporting that from 2013 to 2016 about half of organizations reported high alignment of projects to organizational strategy, which was slightly worse than our finding a decade earlier. And that metric dipped further from 54% in 2015 to 48% in 2016. In short, a significant number of organizations have not been aligning projects to business strategy, a phenomenon that some may say, on the whole, has not improved for nearly twenty years and appears to be getting worse gradually. What do you think accounts for this trend? Is it because the strategy is missing or outdated? Or because strategies formulated top down are not translated into projects? Or that emergent strategies developed bottom up are not aligned to formal strategies? Is it because projects created top down from strategy and projects proposed bottom up to advance strategic intent are not vetted capably? Is it a failure on the part of executives or on the part of middle management?

There are many questions, but beyond musing upon frequent causes of misalignment and well known opportunities to improve it, the more fundamental question is whether organizations actually are getting worse at this, as PMI suggests, or instead are they actually getting better but just not keeping pace with the exponential future accelerating toward us? This question may be one of the more important ones facing businesses today. As Darwin said, "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change."

Executing Strategy Through Organizational Project Management ™ by John Schlichter

As the saying goes, “good ideas are a-dime-a-dozen.” Having a good idea simply doesn’t mean much unless it can be translated into results in the real world. Strategic plans that can’t be executed are largely useless. Planning in and of itself has its own merits, yes, but ask yourself, as an executive, how meaningful your strategies are if you cannot translate them into projects designed to enact them or if the projects meant to deliver the strategy ultimately fail. The answer is that your strategic plans are largely worthless without capable translation into projects and without capable delivery of those projects (Charan and Colvin, 1999).

Strategies are decisions regarding where and how to compete. They are decisions regarding the scope of operations and the deployment of resources. To enact strategies, projects are formulated. These may be projects to create or change a business, create technology or upgrade products, to rethink and reshape delivery, to transform organization structures or processes, to innovate supply chains, services, or marketing through new profit models, channels, brands, or ways of engaging customers. These may be collaborative endeavors, incremental actions, breakthroughs or disruptive innovations. Whatever your strategies may be, they are enacted through portfolios of projects, and one must be able to evolve or adapt one’s projects and deliver them successfully, consistently, and predictably in a complex and changing landscape. Would you like to guarantee your organization’s ability to implement its business strategies through projects? A business standard named “OPM3” was created to help you do just that. 

Your organization's strategies or decisions regarding where and how to compete are enacted through evolving networks of projects.

To begin to understand OPM3, first you have to appreciate what it means to be a standard. Cast your imagination to the 2nd millennium B.C. and the vast grassland steppes of Asia that provided fertile grazing, water, and easy passage for caravans. Merchants traveled immense distances from the shores of the Pacific to Africa and deep into Europe to trade in one of the hottest commodities of the ancient world that became the namesake of this super highway: the Silk Road. Across the Archaemenid Empire of Persia’s Cyrus the Great and then the Greek Empire of Alexander the Great, the roads grew through the ages, through the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, Medieval China, and the Mongol Empire. These roads became de facto standards as the way that travel occurred, standards in reality by fact of widespread use. That is foremost what a standard is: the prevailing practice. Tacit knowledge of the paths taken by travelers on the Silk Road was translated into explicit knowledge in the form of maps that codified popular routes. That too is what a standard is: a paradigm or framework whose authority is asserted. The standard practices of traveling known routes were accompanied by rules or standards de jure (that is, officially or by law) like weights, measures, and coinage that enabled commerce. That is yet another way of understanding standards, i.e. as abstractions contrived to enable interaction.

With the onset of the Industrial Revolution and the need for high-precision machine tools and interchangeable parts, the implementation of standards in industry and commerce became highly important. For similar reasons, as projects proliferated and became the preferred method for implementing business strategies, the need for project management standards grew as well, as standards enabled people from different backgrounds and places to collaborate through shared vernaculars and methods even when they hailed from different organizations or had never met before, moving from one project to another seamlessly even though each project, by definition, produces something different or unique. Today a standard is an established norm or requirement in regard to technical systems or frameworks. For example, a framework, custom, convention, company product, or corporate standard may become generally accepted and dominant as a de facto standard. More often, a standard will take the form of a formal document that establishes uniform criteria, methods, processes, and practices de jure.  Standards may be developed privately or unilaterally, e.g. by a corporation, by a regulatory body, or by the military. Or they may be developed by trade unions or associations, or standards organizations that have emerged and solicit diverse input to develop standards voluntarily, by edict, or the formal consensus of experts.

We deployed surveys to over 30,000 professionals globally in order to define a global standard defining all of the elements of Organizational Project Management (OPM).

Against this backdrop, an international team came together in 1998, rallied by the following question I posed to them: “Can we develop a standard that helps organizations implement their strategies through projects?” By this time, standards for the management of individual projects were well known. But there was a need to meet the exponential interest in project management with a way to make project management capable in organizations. My thought was that our purpose should not be to improve project management in general but to improve the ability of organizations to enact their strategies, the raison d'être of organizations, and to improve their ability to do so through projects. To do this, we envisioned describing as a system the ways that organizations implement their strategies by integrating project, program, and portfolio management. To refer to this system, I coined the term “Organizational Project Management” or OPM. Our goal was to create a model that explained how to implement OPM or how to achieve excellence or maturity in OPM, i.e. an “Organizational Project Management Maturity Model” or “OPMMM,” a term which I rephrased as “OPM3” (indicating the three M’s in the name) simply because it was easier to say.  We deployed surveys to over 30,000 professionals globally in order to define a global standard defining all of the elements of OPM. Word-analysis software was applied to the data for affinity mapping in order to organize the data around the key concepts of OPM, and hundreds of experienced professionals poured over this material to distill it into actionable guidance.

Our large and highly experienced team (nearly 800 people across 35 countries) agreed that describing what constitutes all of the elements of Organizational Project Management was not enough. We needed to distinguish each element of OPM in terms of the steps to implement each element in an organization. For this reason, the team reverse-engineered all of the elements of OPM into their constituent parts. For example, if the respondents to our surveys to 30,000 people told us that one of the things necessary in an organization that delivers projects is highly capable sponsorship of projects, then the team decomposed that into the steps required for achieving highly capable sponsorship. The result was magnificent, including steps for establishing the strategic alignment of projects to organizational goals, steps for learning from other organizations who are implementing OPM, steps for implementing management systems and control systems, steps for ensuring projects have sponsors who are doing specific things, steps for adopting appropriate organization structures, implementing project management methods, practices, and specific techniques, steps for enacting resource allocation for OPM, steps for implementing competency management and individual performance appraisals, steps for knowledge management as well as steps for implementing a project management information system (PMIS) and establishing internal project management communities and more.

But as I looked at all of the data, I realized that it did not tell the essential story that reflected our original purpose, which was to elaborate Organizational Project Management as a system for implementing the strategies of organizations through projects. It occurred to me that to do that, we had to ensure we told one essential story that organized the wealth of insights we had collected, a story I summarized as “how to do the right projects the right way,” a slogan I announced to our team and watched ignite the imagination of hundreds of people. Today you can find this slogan in papers, articles, project management course descriptions, and book titles. That idea was that there are processes for translating strategies into projects, processes for project-portfolio and program management, and processes for initiating, planning, executing, controlling, and closing individual projects. These processes can be woven together as a system for doing the right projects the right way, recognizing that what is “right” is somewhat different for each organization but that general guidance can be represented in a way that is applicable to most organizations most of the time.

Strategy and project delivery processes can be made capable in ways that reflect your organization's strategic intent and organizational imperatives.

As our global team undertook the work of elaborating those processes for implementing business strategies through projects, in addition to leading the team I was managing a PMO that produced successful results for a private company that was subsequently sold for billions of dollars. In other words, I had been honing my craft in the corporate world. But more importantly to our agenda for OPM3, I was completing a Master’s degree in Business Administration at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, where my leadership of the development of OPM3 was reformed in classes by the likes of Robert Kazanjian who reformed my understanding of strategy implementation, Benn Konsynski who reformed my understanding of the role of frameworks to adapt to an uncertain world galloping toward us, and George Easton who fundamentally transformed my understanding of what is possible by institutionalizing process capabilities in organizations. In one of the classes of that program, Easton taught us the fundamentals of process management, based on the idea that it is possible to determine if a process can be expected to perform within specification limits, distinguishing how much natural variation a process experiences relative to its specification limits. The basic technique is called “Statistical Process Control” or SPC, a technique that evolved over many decades through use by thousands of professionals, proving its status as an industry standard.

George Easton had my attention because he had been one of the architects of the Malcolm Baldrige Award created by the U.S. Congress and had been teaching Six Sigma since before Motorola allegedly “invented” it and GE made it famous. I realized in George’s class that this was the key that was missing from the work our team was doing to elaborate a system for doing the right projects the right way. We could not only describe the processes for choosing and delivering projects, but we could describe how to make those processes perform successfully, consistently, and predictably through SPC. I realized that although the processes of translating business strategies into projects and delivering them successfully pertained not to manufacturing or operations but to temporary endeavors, this kind of activity-system for executing strategies through projects had become highly routine work throughout the world and that we could re-purpose the techniques applied to manufacturing to this new way that would characterize work for the foreseeable future. Indeed, the Malcolm Baldrige Award was one of the 20+ models our team had analyzed as background for the development of OPM3, and it was a great privilege to have my eyes opened by one of the preeminent minds to pioneer that quality framework as a standard.

I distilled that idea as fifteen steps organized into four maturity levels, and proposed this framework to our team, which they approved:

1. Establish process governance.

2. Document the process, i.e. project, program, and portfolio management processes.

3. Communicate the process to the necessary stakeholders.

4. Achieve consistent implementation of work methods.

5. Identify critical characteristics of the process.

6. Focus the process on the needs of the customer, and incorporate performance requirements of customers into process measures.

7. Measure the process's critical characteristics directly.

8. Identify measures upstream of the process, and ensure process users understand how other processes produce outputs that become inputs to the process.

9. Measure the critical inputs to the process.

10. Develop a process control plan.

11. Implement a system for maintaining control of the process.

12. Operate the process in a stable fashion, consistently within upper and lower control limits, and update process documentation accordingly.

13. Identify root causes of problems during operation of the process.

14. Execute continuous efforts with widespread participation directed at improving the process.

15. Integrate process improvements with systems that standardize improvements.

Today the Organizational Project Management Maturity Model (OPM3) is a standard that distinguishes the processes of project, program, and portfolio management, and applies these fifteen steps to those processes as a transformation or capability-development agenda. Supplementing this process transformation framework are nearly 200 other improvement options to implement a myriad of best practices associated with Organizational Project Management, improvement options distilled from surveys to 30,000 people and the work of hundreds of professionals who vetted that material.

Hundreds of people have applied this model in all manner of organizations.

Even though OPM was invented as the basis of OPM3, most people today are not aware that OPM3 defined the standard for OPM. They are not aware that OPM3 includes not only the system of OPM but all of the steps described above - steps that are known as "Capability Statements," including not only the 15 process improvement steps listed above and applied to all project, program, and portfolio management processes, but approximately 200 other steps distilled from surveys to 30,000 people. The reason why most people are not aware that OPM3 was primarily composed of these steps is that even though all of these steps are the essential component of OPM3, PMI made all of these steps for implementing OPM a separate commercial product that was expensive and which degraded adoption because it was expensive, which led to protests. And PMI promoted a misleading survey as a less expensive alternative to the commercial product, a survey so misleading that it effectively derailed OPM3 implementations. It is a case study in how not to manage industry standards. PMI recently announced that OPM3 shall be updated to its 4th edition and will include all of these steps for implementing OPM, which is good, but it's unclear whether PMI will remove the misleading survey when this occurs. It suffices to say a comedy of errors has been made in the management of the OPM3 standard.

In fact, now PMI is creating a separate standard they intend to name "The Standard for Organizational Project Management," which is both confusing and creates the risk of a conflict between standards, i.e. confusion between PMI's self-described "foundational standard" titled "The Organizational Project Management Maturity Model," which defined the standard for OPM in the first place based on surveys to 30,000 people, and "The Standard for Organizational Project Management," which is being created by far fewer people and without the extensive research that formed the basis of OPM3. There is a significant risk that these two standards will have non-identical definitions of OPM and non-aligned guidance for implementing OPM. But these kinds of problems are modus operandi in the development of PMI standards by committee. Do not lose sight of the forest for the trees.

Your organization's strategies or decisions regarding where and how to compete are enacted through evolving networks of projects that are adaptable, temporary, team-based problem solving processes that produce unique results, benefits, and learning, upgrading strategic planning recursively and cybernetically. In any organization with many projects, although control mechanisms are created explicitly and often in a centralized manner, the projects must adjust and adapt to each other, creating new systems and subsystems that exhibit a degree of self-organization.

The adoption of standards occurs as simple rules, customs, and rituals for project teams: simple rules that create the possibility of behavior that is independent in detail and governed by higher organizing principles, i.e. emergence. Rigid protocols in certain parts of the system create greater flexibility across the total system, enabling agility. Decision-making must occur capably to a degree that matches the demands of the environment. As performance is reported, resources are reallocated across the portfolio, project termination decisions may be made, and new projects may be initiated top-down or bottom up.

Strategy and project delivery processes can be made capable in ways that reflect your organization's strategic intent and organizational imperatives. Both the processes and the environment they occur within must be cultivated. These processes and the method for transforming both the processes and the environment that situates them have been codified as a standard, which distills prevailing practices within an authoritative paradigm or framework contrived to enable collaborative action-taking.

Hundreds of people have applied this model in all manner of organizations. Speaking for myself, I have implemented OPM3 in organizations like Automatic Data Processing, AECID, Alcatel-Lucent, Amana (Jeddah Municipality), Battelle Memorial Institute, CARICOM, Cooper University Hospital, Det Norske Veritas (DNV), European Union External Action Service (EEAS), FRTIB, Harris Corporation, Hong Kong SAR Government, Hyder, IBM, Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Johnson & Johnson, Kurdistan Regional Government, MARTA, Melco-Crown Entertainment (China), Microsoft, National Bank of Abu Dhabi, Nationwide Insurance, Northrop Grumman, Panasonic-Mobile, Pearson Education Measurement, Popular Financial, Prudential Financial, Quality Assurance Institute (India), R.L. Polk & Co., SAP, Saudi Arabian Ministry of Interior, Studiocom, T-Mobile, TATA, Valassis, Verint, WellPoint, WorleyParsons, Xerox, and many others. We have proven that the OPM3 standard is the standard defining what OPM is and how to implement it, and we have the benchmarking data to back that up. This coming Spring I will teach the science and art of OPM to the full-time Executive MBA students of Emory University, my alma mater.

The journey of implementing Organizational Project Management in your organization and making that system capable is rife with pitfalls and decorated with failures. But others have made this journey before you, leaving well-traveled roads for you to follow and even tools for you to use, including a map, i.e. the OPM3 Capability Statements. Unfortunately, new maps are under development that may conflict with the original, and even those equipped with the best map are not necessarily qualified to lead the journey. A sailor must learn to trim the sail before crossing the Pacific, and a mountaineer must learn to detect crevasses before scaling the Alps. Even the experienced can benefit from a guide who is an expert. Join us starting in the Spring 2017 as an Executive MBA student at Goizueta Business School for an intense and exclusive experience where you are assured to learn frameworks you will use for the rest of your professional life to thrive in the exponential future accelerating toward us.