Colin D Ellis
Leadership | Culture | Success


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Your PMO Doesn't Suck, But Your PMO Manager Might...

I recently had a candid and energetic conversation with someone looking to bring me in to help change the way they deliver projects. This person talked at length about the PMO and what it wasn’t doing. The unit they described contained four people and its role is one of support, guidance and coaching – agile and waterfall – to those who have the responsibility to deliver.

Like most organisations at the minute, the PMO in question was implementing a new way of working and used words like agile, scrum, squads, stand ups and so on. All good words and approaches that are proven to work by organisations that are staffed by people with growth mindsets and a willingness to get things done in the right way.

This PMO is not that. It is beholden to its process. It doesn’t understand the mindset of getting things delivered. It pumps out reports that provide little value. It (collectively) sits at its desk with its headphones in and has no capacity for listening or evolution. And it is fighting progress every step of the way. In a word, my frustrated contact said, the PMO sucks.

I listened intently, made a few notes and then replied: ‘Your PMO doesn't suck, but your PMO manager might do.’

Like anything, implementing new ways of working in the wrong hands will very quickly become ‘existing ways of working with new names and job titles’.

PMOs (project/program management offices) became en vogue post-Y2K, when organisations were looking for consistency. At that time the PMO management community (of which I was part) learned the method du jour and duly created templates and guides for project managers telling them how to do their jobs.

Consistency became about application of a process rather than the behaviours and skills required to get projects delivered. It became about hundred page business cases to justify projects to ourselves. It became about filling in a plan document, but not creating it collaboratively and revising the estimates post-completion. And it became about sending everyone on a method course and expecting an immediate change.

In short, project management in the hands of the wrong person became about paperwork and bureaucracy, not leadership and culture.

The PMO was central to this and, in the right hands, great PMOs and the delivery functions they served flourished. The PMO anticipated changes in the way projects got delivered and were open to new ideas and behaviours.

They were implementing agile when it was still new (please note: it’s now 17 years old), provided development for project managers so they had a skill set fit for the future and ensured the support systems that were in place for those delivering projects were lean, fit for purpose and added value.

They didn’t engage in agile vs. waterfall type arguments or avoid performance management of people whose behaviours were at odds with the future ways of working. They recognised that on time/on budget delivery wasn’t as important as the service being provided or meeting customer expectations. And they understood that published was better than perfect when it came to delivering products.

These people are now in executive positions and are seen as role models for transformation. Unfortunately, they are few and far between.

There are still far too many PMO Managers who are beholden to their process, wedded to their templates and that don’t understand that theirs is a business of relationships, communication and getting things done.

They display old fashioned behaviours, get in the way of progress, engage in long-winded arguments of who’s right and who’s wrong and see any new ways of working as threats to their ‘power’ not opportunities for improvement.

They love nothing more than a method argument or to write War and Peace-style responses to LinkedIn articles that dare to suggest the PMO may finally have run its course.

Like any function in the business world, the PMO needs to change and evolve to meet the delivery needs of the business today. If it’s not going to do this, then it has no future and neither do the people leading them.

The PMO manager (or whatever it’s called) should be at the forefront of project management cultural evolution not stymying progress in the name of process consistency.

If your PMO manager isn’t doing that, then it’s not the PMO that sucks.

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