Today, there are many chiefs in contemporary organizations. The top three chiefs are the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Chief Operation Officer (COO), and Chief Financial Officer (CFO). But there are many others such as CIO, CTO, CRO (risk), CMO (marketing), and even CDO (data). But is there a chief responsible for project execution? Yes, it is the Chief Project Officer (CPO).
Among project management professionals, the idea of the CPO has been around for well over 20 years, and yet there are very few of them. One company that has accomplished this successfully was Telstra, one of Australia’s largest telecommunications companies. In 2014, Telstra hired its very first Chief Project Officer, Alicia Aitken. Like other companies, Telstra anticipated linking strategy to execution. The strategic move contributed to having a ‘Voice of the Projects’ in the executive boardroom which also empowered the PMO and the project managers within the company. With organizations intensifying their project efforts, isn’t it time to re-affirm and perhaps even enhance the role of Chief Project Officer and other senior project executive roles? These enhancements can potentially include:
- Accountable for the strategic initiatives of the organizations, often manifest in enterprise projects, programs, and portfolios
- Champion culture change and shift the organization toward greater execution excellence
- Establishment of key processes including governance, risk management, implementation methodology, project talent management, and other strategic practices.
CPO In Action
For most of us, the top of the project management hierarchy is often the PMO, where “P” can stand for project, program or portfolio even though “Project Management Office” is by far the most common. Here for the sake of clarity, we will make the distinction between project (PMO), program (PgMO), and portfolio (PfMO) management office.
Many of us are either working in a PMO or working in conjunction with a PMO. The PMO is an organizational structure that standardizes the project-related governance processes and facilitates the sharing of resources, methodologies, tools, and techniques. The responsibilities of a PMO can range from the tactical to the strategic. For example, it can be a loose network dedicated to building skills. A tactical PMO’s responsibility ranges from providing essential project management support functions to the direct management of projects. There are variants, such as the PgMO, that is usually created to manage a large program, or the PfMO that oversees a collection of projects and programs. In the more complex and strategic project management environment, PfMO has focused and has specific responsibility for the centralized management and condition of the portfolio that lies within its domain. The responsibility of this office may range from providing portfolio support functions to managing the portfolio. (PMI, The Standards for Portfolio Management).
Reinhard Wagner, the Past President of IPMA and Chairman of the IPMA Council, says that the CPO is responsible for all project-oriented operations. The main responsibilities of the role are:
- Establish a governance system for projects, programs, and portfolios
- Direct all activities in the field of projects, programs, and portfolios
- Perform leadership for the project, program, portfolio managers and the PMO
- Support all other board members in chartering or sponsoring projects in their areas of responsibility
Enhancing the Role of CPO and Other Project Executives
In our view, the responsibilities above are still narrow. Organizations should invest in the creation of the Chief Project Officer (CPO) role for two primary reasons: 1) create a true Enterprise PMO responsible for the execution of a selective few enterprise projects and programs; and 2) achieve sustainable excellence in strategic business execution. Today, all organizations are confronted with the reality of limited resources and it is imperative to focus and execute strategies well. This argues for ruthless prioritization and dedication to working on the top 5 and maybe 7 enterprise programs simultaneously. Get the entire company excited and work the bonus structure into everyone’s compensation plan – even the employees who are not directly working on these enterprise programs. After all, their support can be crucial for adopting the project results and covering the people who are working on these projects. Studies have shown that in some organizations, senior managers are so disillusioned with project success that they do not even expect their projects to succeed. This sad mentality is contagious, infecting everyone in the organization. This is when the company needs a CPO to drive business execution by re-thinking the culture of the organization.
In practical cases, the CPO is higher in the organizational hierarchy than the PMO, PgMO, and PfMO executives or even higher than the Corporate PMO or Center of Excellence (COE). As the CPO, he or she is ultimately responsible for strategy execution and being a standing member of the Executive Board. In larger organizations with many PMOs (some of our clients have over 30 PMOs), the CPO role will directly manage the enterprise project, program, portfolio, and PMO management responsibilities with dotted lines to the other business unit, department, functional, or product oriented PMOs. Here are some important activities of CPO:
- Leadership in projects, programs and portfolios is shown by defining and communicating clear goals and clarifying the expectations for the management of project, program, and portfolio. (IPMA, OCB)
- Directing all activities in projects, programs, and portfolios means that the CPO is ultimately responsible for making the business case; for authorizing, changing, reporting, canceling, closing; and whether projects, programs and portfolios succeed or fail.
- Governance focuses on the alignment of projects, programs, and portfolios to organizational vision, mission and strategy, along with changes in the environment. Governance measures are necessary to keep the internal organizations capable of implementing change effectively. (IPMA, OCB)
- Spearhead the development of optimal project management approach and discipline for the organization, which can include specific methodologies, processes, and KPIs.
- Align the company’s strategic project objectives and goals with financial resourcing and business plans of individual business units.
- Support other project executives in chartering or sponsoring projects in their areas of responsibility. Although each project executives should sponsor projects within their organization, the CPO should provide guidance on how to effectively sponsor and govern the project. This similarly helps in enhancing the communication between the board executives, senior management and their project teams.
- Track similar projects and gathering lessons learned to benefit other business units. This provides a strong base for processes establishment.
- Enforce cross-organizational collaboration between business units across all organizations. The CPO should be the link between the different business units and encourage the knowledge exchange, teams’ collaboration in execution and processes enhancement brainstorming initiatives.
- Gather lessons learned from similar projects across different organizations within the company.
- Report to the CEO, board, and potentially other CxOs in support of strategic business execution
Being a board member, the CPO has the required power and authority to transform the organization, sponsor project management and impose methodology. The CPO will be the project’s advocate on the board, will participate in the development of the strategic goals and objectives, and will influence the critical decision making that usually impacts the existing and future projects, programs, and portfolios. On the other hand, the CPO will be able to support the other members of the board to execute their responsibilities towards the projects, programs, and portfolios and help them keep their focus on their primary responsibilities.
Pre-Requisites to Becoming a Project Executive
The road to becoming a CPO is not an easy one, and this fact is self-evident. For the past two decades, the environment should be ripe for the rise of CPO. Three dominant trends that should pave the way for the role of CPO are
- The rising popularity of projects as the dominant mechanism for organization change and growth,
- Increase in the complexity of projects and the importance of projects to organization success, and
- Growth of the project management professional. For example, the Project Management Professional (PMP) grew from a few hundred as late as the late 1990s to over 900,000 active certificate holders by early 2019.
Yet, the reality is sadly painful – there are very few CPOs, and in some ways, the popularity of the role is decreasing as shown by Google Trends.
While there must be many reasons, one important reason is skills and experiences. In this section examines the pre-requisite skills required for becoming a successful project executive, and the next section will suggest additional skills to develop.
From an examination of the literature, the following five skills are frequently cited even though it should be noted that not every project executive must have all of these experiences. But having a “critical mass” of the following is important.
- Project, program, portfolio management and/or PMO leadership – This may be stating the obvious, but understanding both the challenges and opportunities of project management including selection and application of various methodologies and tackling obstacles.
- Business acumen – Project executives must have proven strong business capabilities leading projects, managing resources, and delivering results. Projects at this level are rarely undertaken for the sake of projects themselves. They are generally a part of much larger business endeavor.
- P&L Responsibility – To deliver tangible results consistently requires the learning pain of failing and success, and there is practically no better learning environment than being accountable for profit and loss.
- Strategic Awareness – At this level of professional growth, “just do it” is only a part of the overall equation. Doing the right things, consistently, repeatedly, with ever growing teams and moving in the right strategic direction are all critical skills.
- Organizational Savviness – Develop an ability to work within political organizations are critical for success. Projects at the “chief level” are likely to be contentious, resource intense, and highly competitive for organizational attention. Achieving results will require a high degree of sensitivity toward an organization’s culture and its history, present condition, and the road ahead.
Preparing to Become a Project Executive
To become a Chief Project Officer or another Senior Project Executive role, individuals must command more than project and program management. Below are the top twenty topics according to our research.
|1||Art of an Effective Strategy||Developing good strategies are crucial for organizational success, but strategies alone cannot accomplish the goals. To realize value and achieve their objectives, sound implementation is as important and sometimes can be more important than having the right strategy. Organizations need a thoughtful, pragmatic, functional and powerful framework to work on achieving strategies. This requires a close alignment of various parts of the organization and strong collaboration between senior executives to transform ideas into actions and actions in to results.
|2||Enabling Strategic Business Execution||Leading effective execution is the main key in achieving results and reaching company goals. The execution planning must balance the needs and constraints of the organizations and utilize a multi-disciplinary approach to successfully execute on strategic initiatives. Failing to attain this can cause the business to fail to thrive and reach its objectives. Moreover, business leaders should work together with their teams on improving execution related disciplines and addressing any execution gaps. By finding the proper balance between rigor, discipline, and agility, organizations can achieve sustainable execution excellence.
|3||Designing Optimal Governance in Projects, Programs, and Portfolios||Governance is the discipline of making the optimal decisions of the organizations and ensuring their successful implementation. This requires a high degree of transparency and legitimacy, especially in political environment. Governance on projects, programs and portfolios are crucial for success, and it is usually the shared responsibilities of the executives to establish the right structure and processes. There should be dedicated efforts on maintaining acceptable levels of quality in governing projects. This will support in delivering world-class project delivery.
|4||Championing Change through Effective Project Leadership||A company’s leadership team is a significant indication of whether any company will succeed or fail. The change control process encloses the procedures to take whenever a change is required within a project. Supporting change through an effective project leadership team is done by following the process with strong management support in addition to maintaining project governance by following the company’s project management methodology.
|5||Managing Risks Across the Portfolios, Programs, and Projects||Some risks may be impossible to predict. However, we can always try to identify the potential risks, the risk level and try to work on some mitigation methods based on personal experience or lessons learned from the past similar projects. Identifying potential risks and opportunities at the beginning of any project is crucial in the project planning phase. This requires a mindset that focuses on possible future scenarios and their possible solutions. Keeping the customer informed of risks whether at the beginning of the project or any risk that may appear in the middle ensures transparency in the communication with the customer and empowers trust.
|6||Engaging Executive Stakeholders; Expectations & Communication||Project management relies on expectations; mainly those of the stakeholders. Grabbing the stakeholders’ trust from the beginning of the project and maintaining the right expectations leads to a high percentage of project success. Regular alignment on the project progress and the status of any issue that may occur increases the customer’s tolerance with any delays or miscommunications.|
|7||Building and Implementing a World Class PMO||A world-class PMO is built on establishing a strong project management methodology that contains defined processes, risk management techniques, documentation templates and communication, and reporting systems. Leadership support on executing projects using the built methodology is crucial in order to be able to enhance and empower the processes to become more realistic and feasible.
|8||Leading Benefits Realization Management||Benefits Realization Management is the continuous process of ensuring that the project is achieving the benefit required. It is maintained by identifying the expected benefit, ensuring that the project benefit is attained at execution and sustaining the benefits after the project is complete. The acceptance criteria for the benefits have to be identified and communicated to all stakeholders to sustain a common understanding. In addition to achieving the required benefits and making the customer happy, the benefits have to be aligned with the strategic business goals.
|9||Crafting Performance Metrics for Project Executives||KPIs and performance metrics are used to evaluate the performance of the employees and the quality of project delivery. Without these metrics, no one will be able to appraise or provide feedback that is definitely needed for improvement. In addition, KPIs are a motivational approach to help employees have a goal or a target to work for.
|10||Establishing a Balanced Scorecard for Project Environment||Communication is a vital key in any project. A project scorecard is a simple visual that provides a quick overview of the current status of the project. It contains the project activities, major milestones, and project timelines, pending action items or any other important project metric. Graphs and color coding are used to illustrate on the criticality and importance if needed.
|11||Managing Global Initiatives||Working in multinationals and competing in a broad market encourages senior management to tackle global initiatives worldwide. Global initiatives have unique challenges that includes cultural understanding, language barriers, time zone differences, distance as obstacles, and other difficult considerations. But for organizations to achieve global consistencies and economy of size and scope, managing global initiatives successful are essential.
|12||Understanding Essential Financial Management for Projects||Financials and budgeting are the core of project management. There is nothing more frustrating to any customer than asking him to pay more than agreed. Therefore, financial management is an essential factor in the success and failure of any project. Project management authorities within any organization should provide regular training and roundtables with professionals on financial management.
|13||Achieving Strategic Value Using Portfolio Management||Strategic Portfolio Management works on closing the gap between the strategy developed by the business executives and the actual results achieved at project delivery. The Portfolio Manager has the advantage of having an overview of the ongoing projects/programs. This provides a great privilege of being able to align with the executive level board on how they can better achieve the strategic goals by taking the correct decisions.
|14||Managing Complex Programs||Complex projects are intrinsically uncertain. Combined with previous bad experiences, demanding customer, incapable resource or a political situation, complex projects can be extremely challenging. In all cases, dealing with complex projects require a smart project leader along with the support of his management. Organizations must find the optimal balance between risk taking and finding workable solutions. Navigating uncertainties, facilitating escalations, and managing customer expectations are crucial skills for experienced project executives.
|15||Confronting Challenges in Project Management||Challenges always exist in any project. This is not strange. However, what is more important is how we deal with challenges. A skilled project manager identifies the problem, define solutions, assign tasks and manage their execution. Stress will most probably be a delaying factor affecting the whole team. Therefore, the project manager should always work on managing the team mood and providing support when needed.
|16||Leveraging Agile Approaches to Project Management||Agile project management principles embrace teamwork, collaboration, trust, good communication and response to change. Agile methodology influences continuous improvement. It is an iterative approach to project planning and applying project processes. It gives the benefit of having clear visibility on the project progress and increased project control. It also gives better ROI as the team is always aligned with the project outcomes.
|17||Championing Transformational Change||A transformational change is an extreme change in the company’s direction, culture, commonly used tool, and techniques or strategy. A strong, effective and cooperative leadership team is vital to be able to safely transform with the least consequences. Human nature naturally resists change. Therefore, the leadership team should be smart enough to understand how to deal with the situation. Transparency is one of the main keys to building trust with the employees.
|18||Motivating and Leading Diverse Teams||Diversity has been a trending direction in recent years. Corporates are promoting cultural diversity and working on creating a friendly diverse environment that provides a place for each and every one regardless of the color, religion or origin. But diversity also includes skills, training, technical backgrounds, and diverse educations. Consequently, the senior management is pushing for educating its employees on cultural diversity and how to be able to deal with people different than who you are and they are approaching for a larger diverse pool of candidates for recruitment on open positions.
|19||Instituting an Effective Project Management Information System||Instituting an Effective Project Management Information System depends on choosing the right tools and techniques for project managers to use. This depends on many factors such as the type of business and the projects accordingly, tool features against the project manager needs and how efficient the tool is in terms of time and cost.
|20||Creating a Culture to Sustain Execution Excellence||Having a process-oriented culture with defined methodologies based on experience and best practice is the first step to create a culture. The company has to clearly develop and communicate the company values, policies and goals for employees to fit in the environment. It establishes a culture of protocols and directions that teams are aware of and working upon. This helps in maintaining a minimum quality of delivery across the whole organization.
The CPO is still a new role to most organizations, and the awareness of this role is still in its infancy. But most organizations have equivalent or emerging senior project executive roles that may evolve and become CPOs. Today, organizations are strongly pushed towards project-oriented structures to adapt to the frequent changes obligated to the organizations as a result of a rapidly changing environment, new marketing challenges, or fast and new technology. It is expected that the CPO role will grow and become an influential leader in the coming years to help organizations in moving forward to achieve their strategic goals and objectives.
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- Organisational Competence Baseline: for Developing Competence in Managing by Projects. International Project Management Association, 2016.
- A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide). Sixth ed., Project Management Institute, 2017.
- The Standard for Program Management – Fourth Edition. Project Management Institute, 2017.
- The Standard for Portfolio Management – Fourth Edition. Project Management Institute, 2017.
- Wagner, Reinhard. “The Chief Project Officer (CPO) – a New Role for Project-Oriented Organisations.” IPMA International Project Management Association, 26 Jan. 2017, www.ipma.world/chief-project-officer-cpo-new-role-project-oriented-organisations.