Creating the Project Office – Part One – cautionary tale

crossing a summit

Creating a project office may be the “in thing” to do.  It is also fraught with perils.  A goal may be to implement a project office as a vehicle for organizational change.  The first step, then, is to discover the processes necessary to lead organizational change and create the conditions that will enable change.  This time is akin to the preparation of a project plan.

Some will say the planning is a waste of time.  Some may press for quick results and eschew the entire planning idea.  Others may agitate to quicken the process and get to action sooner.  But project and program managers know better.  They know that planning is essential.  For those who insist on skipping this first phase and taking a shortcut, here is a cautionary tale:

In the spring of 1846 a group of immigrants set out from Illinois to make the 2000 mile journey to California.  They planned to use the well-known Oregon Trail.  One part of this group, the Donner party, was determined to reach California quickly and so decided to take a shortcut.  They traveled with a larger group until reaching the Little Sandy River.  At this point the larger party turned North, taking the longer route up through Oregon and then to California.  The Donner party headed South, taking an untried route known as Hasting’s Cutoff.  Since no one, including Hastings himself, had ever tried this cutoff, they had little idea of what to expect.  Their first barrier was the great Salt Lake Desert where they encountered conditions that they never imagined: searing heat by day and frigid winds at night.  A more formidable barrier was encountered in the Sierra.  Due to a severe winter storm, the party was forced to camp in makeshift cabins or tents just to the East of the pass which today bears their name.  The majority of these unfortunates spent a starving, frozen winter trapped in the mountains.  That winter of 1846-47 was to be the worst ever recorded in the Sierra.  Many of the party died and those who survived reached California long after the other members of the original Illinois group.

The Donner Party faced:
•         Little understanding of how difficult the journey would be
•         Inexperience, and traveling without a guide
•         The gamble of their lives
•         Route that was vague, untested, unexplored, unknown
•         Proposal that was unpractical
•         A road to disaster

A first conclusion for the project office team is that many have gone before you with a journey of organizational change.  Their collective experience forms the equivalent of the Oregon Trail, a process showing a known way to reach the desired goal.  Although this path may seem long, ignore it at your own peril.  Second, although the Oregon Trail was well-known and well traveled, it was not necessarily easy.  There were many difficulties along that trail and no doubt some people died even with taking the known route.  So taking the Oregon Trail is no guarantee of success but it seems to greatly increase the chances.  Third, taking a shortcut leads into unknown territory, like the Salt Lake Desert.  It may look good on the map, but the map is not the territory.

The best advice for project office planners considering a shortcut was given by Virginia Reed, a Donner party survivor, advising, “Remember, never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can.”

Adapted from Creating the Project Office:  a Manager’s Guide to Leading Organizational Change by Englund, Graham, and Dinsmore.
– Randy Englund,


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top