PMO Effectiveness: Do You Know Where You Stand?

Insights | 04 July 2017

Here’s a business question shaped in the form of a riddle: What do most large firms have in their org chart whose value is regularly questioned?

Answer: The PMO, or Project Management Office.

“I think there always has been and there will always be politics around it,” says Professor Lynn Crawford, Director of the Project Management Program at The University of Sydney, Australia, and Visiting Professor at Cranfield University, School of Management (UK). “I’ve been around long enough to remember when they were first introduced and had to fight for their existence.”

PMOs today that are seen as delivering strong value are largely those managing expectations effectively.

“I think it’s that simple to say, but obviously not so simple to do,” Crawford says.

In many cases, the solution is for the heads of PMOs to be far more pragmatic and resourceful, she says. This can take on different forms in different companies and across different industries, but the most basic driver of success lands on understanding expectations. In other words, knowing exactly what you can deliver and managing so you are delivering more than expected.

“Figure out what’s going to deliver value,” Crawford says. “And do it.”

Is your PMO at risk?

How can you tell if your PMO is in this danger zone of mismatched expectations? Here are a few of the warning signs and what you can do about them:

  • Executives openly question the value of the PMO.
  • New leadership comes in to run the PMO, changes its focus and realignment is never achieved.
  • The PMO is seen as the ‘project police’ and people actively deconstruct projects or use “business as usual” as a tactic to stay under the radar.

Charting a better course

You can make smart changes. Here are five to consider.

1:  Be clear

Even if it requires taking a few steps back, be certain you have defined what the PMO will do, what it will not do, and how it can help people deliver projects, rather than imposing bureaucracy.

One missed opportunity is for the PMO to assert itself as a strong advocate of Agile practices across the business, says J. LeRoy Ward, a noted expert on project management who has authored nine books and more than 40 articles in project, program and portfolio management and who is currently the EVP of U.S.-based International Institute of Learning, Inc.

Everyone is talking about Agile, but business unit leaders need support to understand how it can help their bottom line. “PMOs should be promoting Agile and getting it underway through coaching…and getting the right resources to do it. This is one way they can show a lot of value very quickly.”

2:  Build relationships

Understanding the priorities and pain points of all key stakeholders is also crucial to PMO success. Use those relationships to influence and support not ‘direct and impose.’ Or as Ward says: “From my point of view and my experience, it’s who is in the PMO, not that there is a PMO. It’s the people running it. It’s how those people behave and interact with their stakeholders.”

The value exchange needs to be there. What has the PMO done for its stakeholders lately?

Ward recalled working with a global international construction firm whose PMO developed detailed risk assessment materials for all the PMs on the ground in the 90+ countries in which they operated. That type of standard-sharing was incredibly helpful to PMs on the ground, Ward says.

Ward’s experience that PMOs can do more to add more value is echoed by the research.

PMI’s 2017 “Pulse of the Profession”[1] found that despite the widespread ubiquity of PMOs, only 21 percent of organisations have standardised project management practices that are used company-wide. The survey is considered one of the more influential in project management, surveying a global audience of “3,234 project management professionals, 200 senior executives, and 510 PMO directors from a range of industries, and interviews with 10 corporate leaders and 7 PMO directors and directors of project management.”

3:  Frame the narrative

In many cases, the smart approach is to return to the basics — articulating the benefits and outcomes of portfolio/PMO approaches.

“Go back to first principles,” Crawford says. “What is it you are trying to do here? What is the best way to do this?”

4:  Get tactical

Good strategy needs strong tactics to make it work. Here’s what our internal PMO experts at PM-Partners[2] advise:

  • Understand choke points.
  • Help with resource capacity and capability matching.
  • Focus executives on areas that need attention and decision required (rather than a broad download of everything).
  • Ensure that highest priorities are focused on.
  • Define and advocate for an appropriate consistency of approach.

5:  Communicate effectively

When you believe you’ve done all you can to communicate effectively, the next step is to communicate some more.

And realise, to some degree, all this scepticism can be healthy, Ward says. It’s certainly not rare.

At his previous company, Ward says, their annual global survey of PMOs found the value of PMOs is consistently questioned throughout industries and countries — and not just by senior executives and business heads. Doubts can come from project and program managers themselves. They, too, have questions about the overall effectiveness of PMOs and the return on investment to the company.

“It’s questioned all the time, and it should be” he says. “It’s a significant investment”

What’s next

There are surely even more ways to promote the power of the PMO, but what underlies nearly all of this advice is that the PMO should focus on visibly delivering tangible value, however that is best defined by the business, industry or issues at hand.

And by focusing on setting the right expectations, getting the people portion right, and by stepping up communication, the next round of “What are we getting out of this, exactly?” can rightly skip beyond your PMO all together.

Our PMO services are designed to provide you with the necessary experience, advice and tools for every step of your PMO development ensuring your PMO is delivering maximum value. Contact us on 1300 70 13 14 for more information.

[2] /advise/pmo-services

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