When I set up my first PMO in the early 2000s I didn’t really know where to start. We’d not long finished rolling out Y2K compliant systems (note millennials: despite what you might have read, this was totes not a conspiracy, those systems were defo going to fall over) and putting the finishing touches on bringing two businesses together as part of a merger.

What had served us well throughout the Y2K initiatives was the ability to build relationships quickly in order to build trust with the customer. We were then able to plan collaboratively, communicate effectively (including those tough conversations) and continually tweak the products we were installing to ensure the customer got the most value from the solution. This meant that we were able to deliver on our promises and leave behind systems that could be built upon in the future.

By 2004, we had fixes to apply and upgrade paths to follow and given that technology had moved on, we also needed to consider whether the roadmaps that we had were still viable. In short there were lots of projects to do and it was going to be hard to keep up with them.

Enter the requirement to set up a program management office (PMO) and enter PRINCE2, the government’s answer to failing IT projects. To cut a long story short, a method is not the answer, it’s only part of the answer (see Venn diagram below), however I put all of my eggs in that basket in 2004, even going as far as re-writing the PRINCE2 manual! Unsurprisingly it didn’t work, because I forgot to do the things that had served me well as project manager – build relationships, collaborate, communicate and deliver value.

The Complete Project Leader (Book)

Figure 1: What great delivery looks like

I recovered quickly and corrected those mistakes and have been working with organisations to create great PMOs ever since.

Unfortunately however, too many PMOs are still getting it wrong and more and more are paying the price. In Australasia, we saw a reduction in the number of PMOs being created in 2013 and the Project Management Institute (PMI) reported last year that the number of organisations with PMOs has remained static.

According to the PMI’s PMO Pulse of the Profession Report in 2014 the top three services provided by the PMOs they interviewed were as follows:

  1. Method Definition
  2. Process Development
  3. Metrics Definition

What project managers expect of PMOs

At a recent networking event that I run here in Melbourne, Australia I asked the 70 project managers (PMs) how much value they would derive from those services and most responded ‘very little’. What they are looking for from PMOs is quite different:

  1. The PMO should be led by a flexible, likeable person who knows how to get things done
  2. The PMO should demonstrate what good delivery looks like
  3. The PMO should develop a culture of innovation and collaboration
  4. The PMO should share knowledge immediately after it has access to it (don’t wait until the end)
  5. The PMO shouldn’t say ‘no’, but work with the project management to find a clear path to ‘yes’
  6. The PMO should measure the value it provides to the organisation
  7. The PMO should be the curator for the project management community
  8. The PMO should identify soft skills gaps and not just send people on method courses
  9. The PMO should be a coaching hub for project managers
  10. The PMO should ensure that the customer gets maximum value from the project management service

The PMO Model

So if this is the requirement from project managers (and there are likely to be more than that, including providing the support tools that PMs use), then where should a PMO start? A good place to start would be to ask the stakeholders where they feel the PMO is on the model below.

PMO Model

Figure 2: The PMO Model

The Apathetic PMO doesn’t set the standards for delivery excellence, instead allowing project managers to bring their own approaches, skills and tools to the job. These PMOs are the passengers asleep in the back of the car.

The Autocratic PMO doesn’t take no for an answer and insists that their way is the only way. From reporting to the way that people get managed, they like to control from the outside in. These PMOs keep grabbing the wheel of the car and telling you how to drive it.

The Bureaucratic PMO insists that you slavishly follow a method and leave your personality at home. When you ask them to quality check your documents, they focus on spelling, grammar and how completely you’ve filled in a template. These PMOs are the back seat drivers telling you how it should have been done.

The Democratic PMO has the organisations (not it’s own) best interest at heart and works with project managers to find the best way to do things. It’s not wedded to any one method and is led by someone with high emotional intelligence who knows what works well. These PMOs are the people that sense how you’re feeling and offer to take the wheel to give you a break.

Project managers that are supported by the PMOs who engage frequently and in the right way and who know how to get things done will generally get the job done. Those supported by PMOs who do everything by email and are focused on form filling, don’t.

So after 10 years, it’s now time for PMOs to step up and demonstrate their (tangible) worth to the organisation. As the saying goes, ‘what gets measured, gets done’ and if you can’t measure the value that your PMO adds, then maybe it’s done.

What is your PMO doing to set your organisation up for project success?

Colin Ellis runs a project management practice and believes that people are the catalysts for great project delivery. Unfortunately, as a profession we’ve let paperwork and bureaucracy get in the way of people delivering projects that matter.

Colin works with organisations to save them time and money by giving their project people the leadership skills they need and helping them develop the cultures necessary for their projects to succeed every time. Organisations don’t change, people do.