Insight

The emerging role of Chief Project Officer

By David Jones

May 25, 2022

Organisations dependent on project outcomes for growth should consider appointing a Chief Project Officer to executively assure project, programme, and portfolio alignment to strategic goals.

Project, programme, and portfolio management (P3M) is essential to organisational growth. Yet many in the C-Suite have only a passing knowledge of P3M, despite their often-substantial project accountabilities.

So, as organisations build increasingly complex portfolios in the quest for improved performance, more are relying on project managers to oversee P3M-specific C-level tasks. Unfortunately, project managers may lack the authority to do this effectively and so there is a gap in organisational management. It is not sufficient to only change organisational structures at the mid and lower ranks to address this shortcoming, a rethink as to how strategies and organisational goals are managed and realised at the top is also needed. The C-level therefore needs a person to take organisational strategies and implement them, providing feedback on the feasibility, planning, and complexity of projects, programmes, and portfolios designed to deliver said strategies.

To ensure someone with the right authority and knowledge is overseeing the delivery of organisational strategy through the successful management of projects, programmes and portfolios, organisations should look to appoint a Chief Project Officer (CPO).

What’s the role of a Chief Project Officer?

The CPO is a senior manager who links all projects, programmes, and portfolios to strategic and operational business plans while overseeing the implementation of a common P3M approach. This ensures projects support the right business goals and each project has a qualified project professional leading it.

Ultimately, the CPO is accountable for the coordination of all P3M activities and the associated outcomes. They deliver value, measured through the realisation of benefits and organisational strategy, in a responsible and governed manner to achieve a desired future state.

Sitting at board level alongside the more traditional roles of COO, CFO, and CIO, CPOs report directly to the CEO and have the authority to:

  • navigate project, programme, and portfolio management direction
  • implement organisational governance and change
  • ensure projects align to strategic plans and financial business cases.

Commonly, the CPO will lead the implementation of organisational strategies through relevant projects, programmes, and portfolios, selecting, prioritising, and terminating them to achieve alignment.

While the title of Chief Project Officer is relatively new, there are similar senior project roles, such as Head of Projects, Director of the Portfolio Management Office, and Transformation Director. And existing members of the C-Suite often have some of the CPO responsibilities. However, whilst the CEO title came about to distinguish between names such as Managing Director, Chairman, and President, to make it clear who is ultimately responsible for an organisation, a CPO provides the overarching focus for an organisation’s projects and their successes and failures.

The CPO therefore represents projects, programmes, and portfolios, acting as the voice of P3M at the board level across an organisation. They help shape project-friendly cultures, improve the performance of projects, programmes, and portfolios, and maintain alignment to organisational strategies. They make it possible to measure and improve the P3M systems. They focus decision making on benefits and achieving strategic goals. And, most importantly, they enhance sustained organisational growth.

What are the responsibilities of a Chief Project Officer?

The CPO is responsible for the executive leadership and governance of projects, programmes, and portfolios, so needs a mix of technical and soft skills to effectively lead, motivate, and encourage others. They are the link between an organisation’s goals and the delivery of them through P3M-focussed leadership embracing knowledge, competency, and learning.

The CPO’s main responsibilities are to:

  • establish effective governance and support the chartering and sponsoring of projects
  • maintain strategic alignment of business objectives through projects, programmes, and portfolios
  • champion P3M and continuously improve P3M systems, ensuring the wider organisation is continuously learning.

This combination of responsibilities requires a set of skills that gives the CPO an opportunity to shape a project-friendly culture and support all people involved in delivering P3M.

Set out below, in more detail, are the key proposed responsibilities of a CPO.

Governance

To achieve alignment between an organisation’s goals and the realisation of them through the delivery of projects, programmes, and portfolios, governance is key. In many organisations, P3M occurs on an ad-hoc basis, performed with good intentions and through best endeavours. However, this lacks a centralised and co-ordinated approach to standardised reporting and management information that is crucial to decision-making and strategy formulation at the executive level. By having a CPO, this role ensures the importance and significance of P3M is promoted across the organisation, and appropriates the correct levels of authority, control, and governance across all projects, programmes, and portfolios. In so doing, the CPO is directly responsible for providing and implementing organisational and P3M governance, enabling consolidated views of P3M information to be reviewed and discussed.

Strategic alignment

One way of helping organisations brigade projects, programmes, and portfolios, embed consistency of P3M practices, and enable transparent visibility, governance, and management, is through a robust P3M methodology. The development, extent, and application of which would fall under the remit of the CPO who would have the required power and influence, both vertically and horizontally through an organisation, to initiate, implement, and continuously revise it, in line with emerging best-practices and new techniques.

Championing P3M

Another responsibility of the CPO is to act as the champion of P3M. Occasionally, large organisations, with multiple projects and programmes in flight, suffer from fragmentation where projects and programmes operate independently and with siloed practices. Consequently, conflict can occur as disparate project/programme managers adopt practices that best suit them and leave out tools and techniques they may find challenging (or unfamiliar). This is despite their project/programme’s importance to the success of achieving outcomes and maintaining alignment to strategy. Such behaviours can lead to a decline in the level of P3M maturity within an organisation. The CPO would be able to spot and correct this, on behalf of the organisation, acting as the sponsor for all P3M. This would ensure that all P3M practitioners within an organisation adopt a unified method and standardised tools, techniques, and processes, enabling the organisation to realise its strategic objectives.

What skills does a Chief Project Officer need?

The CPO needs to be competent in managing strategic change through P3M. They also need a clear vision of the level of effort required to manage and successfully deliver change.

So, CPOs need to have broad experience in:

  • project, programme, and portfolio tools, techniques, and methods such as enterprise-wide project management systems
  • strategic planning and cross-organisational delivery
  • transformation and change leadership.

Equally important will be a good reputation as a senior leader, as the CPO will work closely with the rest of the C-Suite. For example, both the COO and CIO will need to run projects across their estates, such as updating equipment or installing new software programmes, so will need to respect the authority and expertise of the CPO.

Why would an organisation need a Chief Project Officer?

By having a CPO, it raises the profile of P3M to an equal level of importance where it is no longer viewed as optional by functional leaders that, may in the past, have forged their own dis-jointed approaches to managing projects, programmes, and portfolios. A CPO makes it easier to now manage those initiatives coherently and in a standardised practice, reducing risk exposure, consolidating / lowering costs, and yielding better results through a more engaged project community.

A CPO would also highlight the importance of P3M in the evolving maturity of an organisation. Effective project delivery, and realising benefits through resourcing projects, programmes, and portfolios adequately is key in breaking certain cycles of business areas prioritising their needs above wider strategic goals. In this instance, a CPO would be able to address such an imbalance and correct any prioritisation in the interest of achieving organisational needs over business area wants.

Organisations that create a CPO role indicate that they are committed to aligning their projects, programmes, and portfolios to their organisational strategies and to delivering them effectively and efficiently. To achieve this, only someone at the very senior level will have the authority and oversight to align projects with strategic objectives. And only a CPO would have the influence and networking capability to reach horizontally across business areas to review costs, resource utilisation, schedules, and terminate projects and programmes that no longer remain aligned to strategy.

Transforming strategy into action

Current events such as the Covid-19 pandemic and recent economic decline has caused massive disruptions globally. Organisational success depends on close alignment between strategic business goals and project, programme, and portfolio delivery to realise them. As many organisations have pivoted to counter hardening economic climates, their success hinges on new projects, as opposed to concentrating on business as usual.

A CPO bridges the gap between an organisation meeting its goals through the strategic leadership and management of projects, programmes, and portfolios. But can we expect to see CPOs entering board rooms soon? On one hand, organisations have thrived without them but on the other, times are changing, and this demands a proactive stance. Perhaps the title is not important but a renewed focus on P3M is. Whatever title is used for the P3M focal person in an organisation, there is a hastening need to do things faster, cheaper, and better. Subsequently, corporate P3M capability will edge furthermore into the spotlight.

Perhaps, a CPO role makes sense in special circumstances then. Organisations that are global, multidisciplined, enterprise-orientated, and require execution of complex projects, programmes, and portfolios to profit. In such environments, a CPO would be required to nurture P3M to ensure effective delivery.

For most other organisations, as a continued shift from outdated silo managed practices to more agile and adaptive ones consisting of dynamic projects, programmes, and portfolios occurs, attention needs to focus on the top-tier of leadership to ensure that ongoing initiatives contribute significantly to sustained organisational growth.

About the authors

David Jones Defence and security expert David is a P3M specialist with experience in programme controls, management and transformation within the public and private sectors. His ability to relate with clients’ challenges, combined with knowledge in P3M, is a key and invaluable strength enabling him to lead delivery of the most complex programmes.

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