Project Practitioners > PMOs and Sisyphus

PMOs and Sisyphus

By Randy Englund

View efforts to create an engaged project based organization as a journey.  In my experience, the toughest part will be making any changes that have been implemented "stick." A project office is in an ideal location to drive required changes.  Over the course of time, a project office may change many times, perhaps moving from a project control office, then to a project management center of excellence, and perhaps onto a strategic project office.  How can we address the means to ensure the journey is productive?

The organization itself has probably also changed many times, perhaps becoming more centralized, and moving to decentralized, then maybe back to centralized again.  A chief project officer may have been appointed with power equal to the chief operating officer, thereby defining a matrix diamond form of organization structure.  The CEO may have changed, perhaps several times.  Several management fads have come and gone as people have moved from zero based budgeting, been through neutron jack downsizing, tried re-engineering and maybe even a balanced approach.

Does any of this sound familiar?  If the project office team has existed through all that change and has implemented new structures and processes, they may begin to feel that these changes have become permanent, that they have made a lasting change in the organization.  Would be that that were true.

Think of the organization as being like a large rubber band.  Adopting all the project management changes has caused people in the organization to twist, turn and stretch.  As long as the tension is maintained, the organization remains in the stretched position.  The moment the tension is released, the organization snaps back into its original position.

Most large organizational change processes become identified with one person or one group of people.  As long as those people remain in power in the organization, massive efforts are expended to power the change.  Meetings are held, conferences are attended, committees are formed, announcements are made in the annual report, all done as organizational members strive to show that they support the change.  However, on the day that the lead person leaves the organization, or perhaps the change agent team falls from power, everything stops.  Meetings on the change process are no longer held.  Committees are disbanded as everyone suddenly has higher priorities.  The announcement in the annual report is forgotten.  The visitor coming to the organization the day after the lead person has left would have difficulty finding any trace of activity indicating that the change had ever been considered.  The organization snaps back that fast.

The problem of maintaining the change after the change initiators leave means looking forward to a changed state so you start building the framework to achieve it.  Our greatest challenge in putting the concepts into action is to rewrite the myth of Sisyphus.


The Greek gods condemned Sisyphus to keep rolling a rock to the top of a mountain where it would fall back of its own weight.  Sisyphus abandons any illusion that he might succeed at the assigned task; he begins to view his ability to do the task again and again as a form of victory, much like trying to do too many projects with no hope of complete success.  The danger for project managers in current organizations is that they may adopt a “Sisyphus attitude”—they take pride in raising rocks (getting their work done), spurning the gods (upper managers), and viewing the struggle as a worthy purpose (get projects done without worrying about contributing to organizational goals).

Today’s organizations cannot afford futile and hopeless efforts.  Our rewrite consists of a new hero who sees the value of getting the rock up over the mountain.  The rewards, of both the destination and the journey, are clear, convincing, and compelling.  Passionate visionaries share their dreams and enlist a guiding coalition of supporters.  The dangers of the rock slipping back impact not just one person but the prosperity of the whole organization: the interconnected community.  The rock is carefully chosen while other pebbles are left as is; the portfolio is limited to a few, critical projects.  Resources are aligned on tasks that help to pull the rock up, brace it from falling back, and remove uphill obstacles.  Other players keep the lions, tigers, and bears from sidetracking progress.

The tipping point that allows the rock to reach the top and stay there is a project office with the right people employing efficient processes in an effective environment.  The program—both to create and operate the PO—is carefully planned, excellently executed, and nurtured once it reaches the top.  Because more mountains or opportunities can be seen from the new vantage point achieved by successful programs, the community realizes that the leadership, learning, means, and motivation it developed are the best means to tackle new challenges.

This material is adapted from Creating the Project Office:  a Manager’s Guide to Leading Organizational Change by Englund, Graham, and Dinsmore.  We will cover this book, along with discussions about Sisyphus and other metaphors, in more detail during the upcoming UCSC Extension course on “Project Management Office,” starting December 1st.

Randy Englund,

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