1. The core mission of a Project Management Office is to help organizations improve project outcomes and improving how projects are executed.
2. Trends towards organizations that embrace improvisation in dealing with uncertainties, information overload, and global competition require more decisions to be made by project managers.
3. Project managers need to leverage both their own experiences and knowledge assets so they know when to follow the rules and when to break them to achieve desired outcomes.
4. PMOs must adapt to help project managers navigate turbulence and reduced cycle times.
What Is a PMO Anyway?
It’s easy to lose sight of the reasons why organizations adapt a PMO. In many cases, the lifecycle of a PMO begins with an organization identifying a need for some group to take charge of a group of projects. The project office is formed in ensure management gets reports needed to make strategic and financial decision. When the projects are completed, the project office is disbanded. One of the casualties is the loss of knowledge gained by the project managers during their learning process.
PMOs that endure focus on institutionalizing project management as a business strategy. Senior management and Project Portfolio Managers (PPMs) are involved in strategic planning and determine what projects are necessary to achieve their business goals. Projects are charted and a project manager is assigned to get things done.
A PMO, in this structure, helps make sure that as many projects are successful. The PMO has several possible tools available. To name a few:
- Establish or adapt a methodology that reflects the organization’s philosophy on project management (e.g. OPM3, Prince2, proprietary methodologies);
- Consult with senior management, the PPMs and project managers;
- Train project managers to improve their skills, and train project team members so they can better perform within a project environment;
- Provide knowledge bases, processes, tools and samples to help project managers perform their duties faster and more consistently; and
- Act as a central pool of resources so that project managers and team members are efficiently assigned amongst all projects, based upon business priorities.
All of these activities can improve outcomes, and ultimately impact the project manager.
Project Managers – Leaders of the Flattened Organization
World War II had a large impact on both the military and business mindsets. As our worlds become more industrialized, economies of scale ruled both the battlefield and boardroom. Military units were organized for European-style army operations, and businesses created similar top-down organizations. Policy and procedures were created upstairs and brought down to the floor. Project management has its roots in both of these worlds.
Global communications allowed information to be shared faster and fostered greater interdependence between countries and businesses. Both the military and business saw that their top-down models no longer worked as the opposition became more nimble and hidden. John Clippinger’s book “A Crowd of One” suggests that as the information systems grow and become more socially connected, winners are determined by the ability to share accurate information with the exact person who is in the best position to act upon it at that time.
In the project management context, this means that organizations must do what they can to best equip project managers to run their projects. Strategy is still determined by senior management and the PPM team, and the PMO can help guide project managers by use of methodologies and policies, but these frameworks should not unduly encumber project managers from acting and helping the project team completing their missions.
Project managers are the focal point of communications for projects. They deal with management, sponsors, functional managers, resources, SMEs and vendors. They often deal with the customer, too. Armed with a lot of contextual information and on-the-job experience, they have a very good idea of what will work and what won’t. They also know what should be done, and what time is available. Their daily decisions are based upon all the constraints they face.
What project managers often do not have is enough time. Unfortunately, the area that fails first is the planning process. They are not as valued because the value they add is not immediately obvious. Later on, that time is spent scrambling, troubleshooting, and assuaging angry stakeholders and customers. The extent of that depends largely on the project manager’s tacit knowledge. They take actions that are obvious to themselves but when asked to explain their reasons, they attribute it to hunch. Looking at the hunch in more detail, there is some combination of the project manager’s competence including their knowledge of the project management discipline, their technical or business domain, information about their environment, and the tools at their disposal.
This tacit knowledge is used to improvise solutions, and is assumed to be an acceptable reason for reduced planning and documentation. This isn’t the case when combined newer project approaches like agile with the discipline of “stage-gate” processes. New project management approaches will see planning and execution converge, embracing improvisation when dealing with ambiguity, uncertainty and complexity (Leybourne, 2012). But they still need to plan first.
PMO and Servant Leadership
PMOs that attempt to force methodology and processes will not be sought by today’s project managers, which lead to the PMO’s eventual decommissioning. A good PMO:
- Helps establish Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that support business objectives;
- Utilizes all kinds of data in real time, especially the insights of project team members and customers;
- Relentlessly reports its observations and recommendations;
- Offers support in addressing problems with KPIs that impact multiple projects; and
- Is considered a partner rather than an enforcer or a judge.
Project managers are responsible for outcomes without formal authority and held accountable for schedule, cost performance, quality and customer satisfaction. PMO’s, including those managed by a third party such as Computer Aid’s Virtual Project Office, can save the project manager time by providing a fresh perspective or reminding them of common good practices or corporate policy. The project manager still calls the shots, but can do so with benefit of council rather than in isolation.
Thomas Swider, PMP
Tom’s interest in project management started while working at Primavera Systems in technical support for SureTrak Project Scheduler. Although mastering the intricacies of GANTT charts and resource leveling were challenging mental puzzles, Tom learned that there was a lot more to project management than the charts, and sought opportunities to work on and lead projects while working at Computer Sciences Corporation. He was able to act as project manager for both training and support desk projects.
He has been with Computer Aid, Inc. since 2004. His expertise in eLearning Project Management helped in the successful delivery of internal training courses and CAI University.
Tom holds a Master of Project Management degree from Keller Graduate School of Management, which was earned entirely as a virtual learner, completing his work while on buses, planes and hotel rooms. He earned his PMP credential in 2011, and is currently a consultant for CAI’s Project Office Plus (PO+) service offering.