Not Every Story Your PMO Tells Will Have a Happy Ending

I’m sure you’ve all seen them. Those Disney movies where life is happy and carefree in the beginning. Then, bad shit happens and there’s chaos, sadness, and destruction. The hero, or heroes, fight evil with help of their friends and in the end, triumph! Everyone is great again and life is grand. Happy Ending!!

As an adult, these movies definitely don’t have the same effect as when I was younger. Yeah, I’ll root for the villain. Not all stories need a happy ending.

So, what do Disney movies and PMO’s have in common? Funny you should ask!

While having coffee with a PMO director, he mentioned the PMO he’s leading is maturing at a good pace. We talked about the usual; portfolio prioritization, greater stakeholder engagement, better processes/tools, and change management.

But the one comment that stuck out was their ability to end projects mid-flight if they don’t add the value they did at kick-off. As he put it, “Not every story we tell in the PMO has to have a happy ending.” Though this happens less than 10% of the time, he noted it as a mature step by the PMO and company to terminate projects, and be OK with it!

If you think about it, every project is a story. You have:

  • A Main Character, or Hero, with a deep desire and vision to accomplish something – Sponsor/Champion/maybe an Exec Team/Client
  • Main plot around which the story is built – Project Scope/Deliverable
  • A funny and lovable cast of characters – Project Manager/Project Team
  • Conflict & Obstacles – within the team, with vendors, with scope creepers, with other inside and outside influences
  • Villain – those who try to increase scope, or a project saboteur
  • Resolution and Finale – project DONE and delivered! (or in this case, die)

A PMO manages a collection of stories, and each has characters in them. Each story is unique with its own struggles. And though we want every story to have a happy ending, sometimes they don’t! And what’s more, it’s OK they don’t. Below are common reasons why in-progress projects are terminated:

  • Change in Product Direction: The hero in our story sees an opportunity to create a new, shiny product that will revolutionize the market sector. Yeah! The cast of characters starts their work when WHAM!, there is no longer ROI, and the project is terminated. An example could be, what was thought to be a niche market, was suddenly commoditized by lower cost competitors. ROI gone! So is the project.
  • Change in Company Direction: I’ll give you a true story from early in the COVID days. A friend had a small company focused on wiring/networking of small office suites. Business was good until everyone started working from home. His business model changed from office suite to home & office wiring. Because of the pivot, a project he had to increase the efficiency of office networking as well as a potential partnership with a MSP ceased until COVID ended. To date those have not moved forward again.
  • Uncontrolled Scope Creep: These shouldn’t happen, especially if you spend the time up front to uncover what DONE looks like and good requirements. But it does…a lot. Villains enter the story and ask for more. Our cast of characters allow it. No heroes stop it! I won’t get into the reasons, but if scope creep is out of control and the expected ROI or margins will not be met, maybe it’s time to pull the plug. There will be sunk cost, but at least the PMO will mitigate any future financial bleeding.
  • Funding is Pulled: “We have to make some project decisions. Because of budgetary concerns, we have to stop 25% of internally focused IT projects.” It’s a conversation our PMO manager had to have with us. If the company or client has decided to pull funding as either a cost-saving measure or invest in other things, projects could end early. Would you rather stop one project or all future paychecks from this company? Should be an easy choice.
  • Revolving Door of Sponsors: Six months, six sponsors. Yeah, you read that right. That’s a lot of supposed heroes in our story. The client called this a “mission critical” project, but literally every month a new sponsor would show up with different ideas. Finally, I had to say ENOUGH!! I talked to my main contact, told them about the rotating sponsors, and recommended we stop until ownership and definition of done could be established. We did and turned out, the project wasn’t that important! It never started back up again.
  • People and Resources Moved to a Higher Priority: This one hurts and has happened to me and other peers. We have a project chugging along and suddenly, we’re told to stop and shift our people to another, higher priority project. Is this a temporary halt? Maybe. Is the project terminated? Maybe. If strategic priorities are set and portfolio agreed upon, this should be a rare occurrence based on extreme circumstances. Maybe it happens more than I know. In any case, the cast of characters are helping another hero win the day!

You may be saying, “Well, what about this? What about that?” Yeah, I’m sure those are relevant too. There’s probably 100 reasons projects end early, but I find these are the most common.

When the PMO kicks off a project, there is an expectation (coupled with a lot of hope) it will be a success story in the end. But sometimes, for a host of reasons, the project is terminated early. And that’s OK for a mature PMO.

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