How PMI's Next CEO Can Keep PMI Out Of The Ditch / by John Schlichter


by John Schlichter

Some people believe the Project Management Institute’s primary purpose should be to advocate the project management profession (the profession of the vast majority of its members) through standards applicable to all projects, certifications that denote competence in those standards, conferences pertaining to all aspects of projects, networking events that help project management practitioners associate with each other globally, and educational materials that increase knowledge regarding all aspects of project management. This view prioritizes institutionalizing project management in society. Alternatively, others may believe PMI’s primary purpose should be to ensure the growth of PMI through profitable commercial endeavors whereby PMI provides all manner of professional services. This view prioritizes scaling the institute. While the latter (scaling the institute) could certainly be used to support the former (institutionalizing project management), which takes priority? In either case, where do we draw the line between PMI’s nonprofit role to do charitable work in the interest of elevating the field of project management to the profession of project management and PMI’s commercial role to dominate profitable ventures to scale the institute. By offering professional services, does PMI undermine itself? By comparison, other trade associations like the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association largely eschew professional services from their menus. There are some exceptions, instances of professional services corresponding to the unique concerns of members, e.g. risk retention services or insurance. But trade associations largely limit their activities to the development of standards, the management of certifications, and the distribution of educational materials, which is why the AMA is not a healthcare provider and the ABA is not a law firm. This is a distinction that PMI’s incoming CEO would do well to make as PMI engages in the most fundamental question of strategy, namely deciding courageously what not to do, and as Jack Welch has said, doing that by focusing on differentiation and making your specialization(s) sticky, emphasizing strategy implementation (as opposed to strategy design) in a way that is transparent and honest (Video 1). To my mind this should begin by revisiting PMI’s values, starting with consideration of perceptions that past decisions fomented and the implications for redressing those perceptions by recasting PMI’s values. If PMI’s next CEO were to do that, the chief executive could expect to be celebrated like Alexander the Great upon cutting the Gordian Knot.

Video 1: Jack Welch, former CEO & Chairman during what were arguably GE’s best years, attributes his success to these keys. He emphasizes the wisdom for incoming CEO’s to get out of businesses they were saddled with which were outside their core business.

For example, I represent many people involved in the creation of PMI’s foundational standard called OPM3 (Appendix A). It is clear to me that significant differences abound between the facts of what transpired in the evolution of OPM3 and perceptions of those facts. Soon after OPM3’s publication, PMI removed the most valuable components of OPM3 from the standard and sold them at a price orders of magnitude higher than any PMI standard to date as software named ProductSuite, a database version of OPM3. Users were supposed to use ProductSuite to perform assessments of organizations and plan improvements based on those assessments. That is what happened, but what some people made it mean was that PMI valued revenue and control more than promoting goodwill and freedom. Though I doubt PMI believed such a trade-off had occurred, it is clear to me confusion about it resulted from different views of underlying values. But then PMI withdrew those components altogether, and as a result users could no longer use OPM3 to assess organizations accurately and improve their organizations’ capabilities in many ways that OPM3 was designed to help them improve their capability to implement strategies through projects successfully, consistently, and predictably. That is what happened, but what some people made it mean was that PMI failed to respect an implicit agreement with volunteers that the fruits of their labor would not be abandoned. PMI acquired its own consultancy as a subsidiary of PMI to provide assessments for hire using a proprietary model which was not OPM3. PMI viewed ProductSuite and this other new model as apples and oranges, not as a replacement of one by the other. That is what happened, but what some people made it mean was that PMI’s noble charter to institutionalize project management had been compromised and that PMI’s charitable functions had given way to profit motives that personified their fears. Eventually PMI decommissioned that acquisition, which brings us to the present. Looking back, PMI’s executives and PMI’s volunteers had shared the goal of supporting project managers and elevating the profession, but there was great division between different camps who envisioned accomplishing that shared goal in very different ways.

Personally I believe an organic sequence of events occurred, driven by a persistent logic that has dominated PMI for the better part of twenty years, a logic that confuses ideas in the minds of many stakeholders about what PMI should do (i.e., institutionalism) with ideas about what PMI can do (i.e., commercialism). I believe some of the people involved may not fully appreciate the distinction. Others may simply believe “institutionalism versus commercialism” is a false dichotomy. Whatever the case may be, different views about PMI’s values appear to have produced different ideas about how PMI should serve society. Recognizing the presence of a plurality of views regarding PMI’s values, we should create the possibility of discussing disagreements about these things publicly to cultivate empathy and alignment, which creates an internal consistency that produces strength, which is called integrity. That is one of many values relevant to PMI’s mission. I have imagined other values that are equally relevant. Discussing these values dispassionately could reduce division that amounts to a ditch PMI can avoid. I offer the following values written in my own words from my own biased perspective as food for thought. Would these values create better alignment among stakeholders to elevate the profession of project management?

  • Aspiration: PMI aspires to create a project management profession recognized globally as an indispensable practice for solving problems at all scales to meet the exponential future accelerating toward us. We believe the trade and field of project management becomes a profession through standards of technical capability and ethical action. Certifying people in those standards based on their knowledge, competence, and integrity to solve problems at all scales in an ethical manner inures to the benefit of both project management practitioners and project stakeholders alike.

  • Purpose: we create the possibility of a purpose-driven PMI organization by distinguishing the institute of project management from the institution of project management. The latter is the integration of project management practices throughout society based on project management capabilities perceived correctly as legitimate ways to solve problems ethically, successfully, consistently, and predictably. The purpose of PMI is to promote the institutionalization of project management through standards and certifications in those standards.

  • Pragmatism: we create the possibility of pragmatism by recognizing that keeping an open mind and listening to others is vital, that people can disagree reasonably, and that straight talk without fear of reprisals is critical to PMI’s success. Greater diversity of thought leads to less biased decision-making and greater collective intelligence. Conflicts are dismantled by helping individuals distinguish what happened from what they made it mean. Intentionally cultivating empathy and alignment has practical value that makes PMI more powerful and therefore more capable to achieve its purpose in pursuit of its aspirations.

  • Empathy: we create the possibility of empathy by creating an interpersonal climate that encourages a continuous influx of new ideas, new challenges, and critical thought. For that reason, we do not suppress, silence, ridicule, or intimidate PMI’s employees, members, or stakeholders. We believe courageous leaders create fearlessly virtuous organizations. Empathy is how we prioritize values, rally believers, identify fears, and enroll stakeholders to commit to our purpose.

  • Coherence: we create the possibility of the coherence of PMI’s purpose and actions by helping PMI’s employees and members to engage in constructive debate about what they feel PMI can do versus what they feel PMI should do. Leaders at every level of PMI’s management hierarchy must be capable of making this distinction individually, free from suppression, ridicule, or intimidation.

  • Wisdom – we create the possibility of practical wisdom by encouraging public discourse among PMI’s employees, volunteers, and stakeholders regarding the following questions: 1. Where are we going? 2. Who gains and who loses, and by which mechanisms of power? 3. Is this development desirable?  4. What, if anything, should we do about it?

  • Discernment – we create the possibility of discernment by cultivating practical wisdom. We believe that by engaging in public discourse about practical wisdom, we cultivate empathy and alignment regarding PMI’s purpose, values, and aspirations.

  • Clarity – we create the possibility of clarity through discernment based on pragmatism, empathy, and openness.

  • Accountability: we create the possibility of accountability by subjecting our leaders to the obligation to report, explain, and justify their actions. We believe that accountability is essential to trust, that trust is essential to empowerment, that empowerment is essential to effective collaboration, that collaboration requires diversity assured by the accountability we require of our leaders. These are essential to solving the problems and improving the systems intrinsic to institutionalizing project management throughout society.

  • Responsibility -  we create the possibility of responsibility by creating leaders who are capable of discerning practical wisdom, demonstrating accountability, and maintaining integrity based on the coherence of PMI’s purpose and aspirations.

  • Empowerment: we create the possibility of empowering PMI’s employees and volunteers by establishing trust. We believe in pushing power to the edge by authorizing the people closest to issues and systems to resolve and improve them. We believe PMI’s effectiveness stems from the self-synchronization of employees and volunteers based on shared awareness and shared intent. We encourage the transparent sharing of information among PMI’s employees, members, and stakeholders to create effective collaboration based on trust.

  • Usefulness: we create the possibility of usefulness by understanding stakeholder needs and empowering PMI’s employees and volunteers to address stakeholder needs through the creation of knowledge codified as standards that predicate certifications. We believe that what is useful to PMI’s stakeholders and what is useful to PMI are often the same but that differences arise in views about these things. We arbitrate those differences through accountability to our values.

  • Privacy: we create the possibility of privacy for all of PMI’s stakeholders by cherishing it because privacy prevents individualism, diversity, and freedom from being reduced to conformity, sameness, and tyranny. This is central to PMI’s purpose of enabling the voluntary association of individuals who rely on project management professionalism.  

  • Freedom: we create the possibility of enabling individuals and companies to associate with each other freely and to cooperate with each other in a community based on technical standards and ethical standards. We encourage the freedom of PMI’s stakeholders to use PMI standards however they wish. We encourage the freedom of PMI’s stakeholders to change PMI’s standards to suit their own needs. We encourage the freedom of PMI’s stakeholders to copy, modify, and distribute standards at no charge. PMI will not prioritize commercialism over these freedoms.

  • Prudence – we create the possibility of prudence by establishing our values as the basis of coherence between our capabilities and our aspirations. We believe this is fundamental to PMI’s integrity, which relies on clarity regarding what is included in PMI’s scope but more importantly clarity regarding what is excluded and why. PMI’s purposes and aspirations must always be governed by PMI’s values.

  • Integrity: we create the possibility of integrity by articulating our values clearly and ensuring our words and actions are consistent with our values. We believe PMI’s employees and PMI’s members form a whole greater than the sum of its parts and stronger through unity in diversity. We value goodwill more than revenue, people more than profits, and freedom more than control. Above all else, we value transforming the field of project management into the profession of project management. Our words and actions match these values by encouraging the free association of individuals through standards distributed without charge and without constraints.

  • Openness – we create the possibility of openness by maintaining coherence and integrity between PMI’s purpose, actions, and aspirations in the spirit of usefulness and prudence. By maintaining these, PMI’s employees can collaborate effectively with volunteers and stakeholders in ways that empower the influx of ideas and critical thinking without exposing PMI employees to harm.

  • Appreciation – we create the possibility of appreciation by cultivating empathy, openness, clarity, accountability, and responsibility for achieving usefulness in ways that embody our purpose with integrity.  

Figure 1: Values proposed by Schlichter suggest a sequence that may be the secret to PMI’s next CEO achieving an unprecedented transformation.

Figure 1: Values proposed by Schlichter suggest a sequence that may be the secret to PMI’s next CEO achieving an unprecedented transformation.

An order or sequence to developing these values is essential to the strategy of leading PMI to breakthrough performance in pursuit of its role in society, and PMI’s next CEO is wise to consider carefully the sequence for developing these values to overcome the burdens of logics that have engendered division within PMI (Figure 1). PMI’s leadership and PMI’s stakeholders could collaborate on elaboration of these values. Doing so could help PMI’s next CEO make an existential choice between two mutually exclusive alternatives: 1) either increase commercialization of the institute at the risk of trading PMI’s noblest aspiration of institutionalizing project management for more pedestrian ambitions, or 2) eschew commercialization of PMI to create the profession most essential to solving the wicked problems facing humanity as an exponential future accelerates toward us in the 21st century. Why is that so important? I am fond of answering that question by referencing “The Rule of Three” by Jagdish Sheth (who was one of my former professors at Emory’s Goi­­zueta Business School before I joined the adjunct faculty). A key message of this classic from Sheth and his co-author Rajendra Sisodia is that market specialists consistently destroy themselves if and when they try to evolve into “full-line generalists.” The company falls into what Sheth and Sisodia call “the ditch,” per Figure 2. The data on this phenomenon is quite clear. I recently met with Professor Sheth and asked how he would apply the “Rule of Three” to PMI, and he responded “PMI is a market specialist. So long as PMI keeps the individual members as the market segment it serves, PMI can add more services that target the future needs of those members. The idea is to gain more share of wallet from the target market (namely the practitioners of project management) and to increase PMI’s stickiness.” According to Jack Welch, the most celebrated CEO of GE, and Jag Sheth, who was recently lauded as India’s foremost thinker on competitive strategy by the Prime Minister of India (where project management is poised to grow more explosively than anywhere else on Earth), PMI’s winning strategy is to focus on its members (project managers) and how to get its members to stick to PMI for successive customer intimacy, i.e. by helping project managers (not their bosses, per se, bosses whose interests run the gambit perforce and tempt PMI into a ditch) to demonstrate their professionalism.

Figure 2: As PMI is lured away from its specialization of focusing on standards, certifications, conferences, networking events, and educational materials toward expanding professional services, it risks falling into the ditch.

Figure 2: As PMI is lured away from its specialization of focusing on standards, certifications, conferences, networking events, and educational materials toward expanding professional services, it risks falling into the ditch.

The persistence of different views about this across PMI’s ecosystem actually presents a problem as gnarly as the Gordian Knot greeting Alexander the Great on his way to glory. Belaboring those reasons may not resemble Alexander’s incisive solution. I believe we should “cut” to the chase by confirming PMI’s values. By taking a reflective and realistic view of things and having a positive attitude, PMI’s leaders can co-create the best version of PMI for the future of the profession (Video 2). That starts by taking a look in the mirror.

Video 2: Jack Welch, who 26 CEO’s of the Fortune 200 worked for, describes how incoming CEO’s create new visions and what it means for a CEO to take a positive attitude toward change.

In closing, I happened to come across a crossword puzzle today (Figure 3) that I had not known existed. The PMI themed puzzle was created to thank PMI’s outgoing CEO Mark Langley for his years of service and featured seventeen PMI VIP’s, including the founding five, some of the CEO’s, and Fellows. Mark Langley is 49 down, and I am 9 across. It is somehow poetic that Langley and I would be entangled in a puzzle, which pretty much sums up our professional relationship of the past two decades as we have endeavored respectively to elevate the profession. I join the puzzle’s creator in thanking Mark for his years of service and I wish him well in his retirement. Kierkegaard wrote that “purity of heart is to will one thing.” In pursuit of the best possible version of PMI, our hearts have been nothing if not pure.

Figure 3: A crossword published this month thanks 17 people instrumental to PMI’s growth, including both Langley and Schlichter. Here are the  answers  to this crossword puzzle.

Figure 3: A crossword published this month thanks 17 people instrumental to PMI’s growth, including both Langley and Schlichter. Here are the answers to this crossword puzzle.


"John Schlichter’s leadership and vision on a massive undertaking of the OPM3 initiative was exemplary and a true testament of his passion for the project management profession."

— Dr. Ashley Pereira, Senior Engineering Manager & Six Sigma BlackBelt, Honeywell Aerospace, was with another company when working with John at Project Management Institute

"John directed the original team that developed OPM3 for PMI, and I was the technical writer on the team. John demonstrated remarkable talents in this position, which I observed over several months. He is a brilliant strategist, a strong, decisive leader, and a creative, visionary thinker in his field."

— Paul Wesman, Owner, Wesman Corporate Communications, worked directly with John at Project Management Institute

"John was a detail oriented and very focused Director for PMI's OPM3 Product Development Initiative. …John is brilliant; he was highly intelligent; kept track of all details and high level management and reporting; very focused and hard working."

— Cynthia (Cindy) Berg, PMP, Volunteer/Member, Project Management Institute, managed John indirectly at Project Management Institute

"John demonstrated great leadership and visionary foresight as Program Manager of PMI's OPM3 development effort. Very knowledgeable of our specific subject-matter, John was able to motivate and inspire all of us to work towards our common objective. He was able to adeptly address specific issues at a granular, detail level, while at the same time not losing sight of our overall objective."

— Nik Kalantjakos, OPM3 Assessment Team Leader, Project Management Institute, reported to John at Project Management Institute

"OPM3 was a very complex program and involved volunteers from a variety of companies and industries in varying degrees of maturity. Under John's leadership, I served for two years as a contributor. To his credit, John was able to inspire, motivate and guide a large group into some of the most uncharted waters of the project management profession. I was most impressed with John's ability to listen, especially when you disagreed with him; he always gave a fair hearing. Without question, such integrity deserves respect and my recommendation."

— Michael Paul Ervick, Project Manager (PMO Staff), Nextlink, reported to John at Project Management Institute

"John has result oriented approach with open mind for ideas and out-of-box suggestions. His leadership is helpful to explore resolution to any issue of business challenges. Work with him on complex problems is highly enjoyable."

— Muhammad Mirza, President-PMI KPC, Project Management Institute, reported to John at Project Management Institute

"I worked with John as a member of his team to create the OPM3 standard of PMI. John was equally open to analyze all inputs or suggestions coming from all the parts of the world in a virtual team of about 200 people. It was a challenge and I am sure that thanks to John all team members are very positive about this experience."

— Thierry Soulard, Program Manager, Philips semiconductors, was with another company when working with John at Project Management Institute

"I worked with John on the OPM3 initiative at PMI and enjoyed his leadership. As Program Manager, John followed up with team members to ensure the project stayed on track and was meeting/exceeding expectations. He respected the inputs from the team members and recognized the contribution of each one. I would welcome the opportunity to work with John on another project."

— Yves Racine, President, Project Management Maturity Improvement Inc., worked directly with John at Project Management Institute

"Around 2000- 2002 I worked as a volunteer with many others on the Organisational Project Management Maturity Model (OPM3) being developed as a Project Management Institute project. John was director of this programme. His enthusiasm and approachability helped inspire a large team of us for every corner of the globe."

— Peter Goldsbury, Owner, Strategic Expertise Ltd, worked indirectly for John at Project Management Institute

"I was fortunate to work for John when the Project Management Institute was developing OPM3. John was a brilliant Project Manager leading a worldwide team of PM’s to develop a coherent, measurable Maturity Model around Project Management comparable to CMMI. This was a bold undertaking with a long list of challenges, but John was up to the task and produced an excellent product."

— George Kramer, Sr. IT Project Manager, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, was with another company when working with John at Project Management Institute

"I worked with John during his initial tenure as lead for the Project Management Institute's effort to develop its Organizational Project Management Maturity Model standard. His commitment and drive were significant contributors to the success of this effort. He demonstrated strong leadership skills in keeping a very diverse group of volunteers focused on creating a finished product that would benefit the project management community."

— David Violette, Project Manager, Duke Energy Corporation, worked directly with John at Project Management Institute

"I worked on the development of the Organizational Project Management Maturity Model (OPM3) for PMI, having John as the leader of a global team of project management experts as the overall Program Manager and subject matter expert. John did an excellent job building the team and managing to keep focused a diverse group of people. He is a proactive leader, truly an asset to every organization."

— Mauro Sotille, MBA, PMP, President, PMI-RS Chapter, worked indirectly for John at Project Management Institute

"I worked with John on the OPM3 Standards project sponsored by the PMI where he led a global team of project management experts as the overall Program Manager and the original architect of the organizational project management maturity model. John is a tremendous subject matter expert on Organizational Project Management, process improvement, and organizational development arena. He is a fantastic leader, and I learned a lot from him working on this ground breaking project and recommend him without any hesitations!"

— Lutfur Rabbani, Co-Lead of OPM3 Network Model, PMI - OPM3 Program, worked with John at Project Management Institute

"John was our first Leader of the OPM3. This was a new maturity model for Project Management initiated by PMI and John had the task of driving it. I was a Risk Management team member then, and I was amazed at his organizational and coordination skills leading a global program. It also demonstrated his knowledge of this new subject then, and his ability to build a team, share the thought process and work with the global team."

— Vivek Dixit, Voluntary work -- Knowledge Management, PMI (Project Management Institute), worked directly with John at Project Management Institute

"As PMI’s Program Manager for OPM3, John led the program and motivated the various sub-project teams while simultaneously sharing subject matter expertise on managing the interaction and relationships of an organizations projects, programs, and portfolios."

— David Evenson, Project Mgr Sr/Programme Mgr, EDS, worked indirectly for John at Project Management Institute

"As a pro-bono contributor to an Organizational Project Maturity Model that the Project Management Institute was developing, I viewed John's approach as very efficient and effective. We met our milestones with a high-quality product that exceeded virtually everyone's expectations. I think John demonstrated exceptional skills in coping with the usual bureaucratic challenges and technical obstacles associated with a very large virtual team."

— David Lanners, Executive Consultant, LCS International, Inc. LCSI, worked indirectly for John at Project Management Institute

"John has been an inspiration to many of us. He organized an effort whose extensive scope was singular, and mobilized hundreds of professionals. John is a leader."

— Luis Augusto dos Santos, MSc, PMP, President, Project Management Institute, Sao Paulo Brazil Chapter, worked indirectly for John at Project Management Institute