The PMO – Enabler or Inhibitor?

There are two very different views of what a Project Management Office does for a company. One perspective is that it’s worse than the plague. Others may feel it’s the best thing since sliced bread. How it’s viewed in your organization has much to do with how well it is run. We’ll consider the pros and cons of setting up a PMO and how you can make it the best thing since sliced bread.

The company was young, growing by leaps and bounds, and disorganized. Each department was doing their own thing to the best of their abilities. Some duplication of effort occurred, but with fast growth, it was expected that departments would be tripping over each other.  The three major departments in the company (development, IT, and client services) all hired their own project managers and came up with their own homegrown versions of project management processes.

It was the perfect environment in which to implement a Project Management Office (PMO).

The problem was that nobody had done anything like this before. It was difficult to even remember what the acronym PMO stood for, let alone get one up and running from the ground up. So, they hired a new guy to come in and get the job done.

He had his work cut out for him, as there were two very distinct schools of thought when it came to implementing a PMO. Half the company viewed the PMO as an enabler of getting projects done. They were confident a PMO would allow for economies of scale, consistency of process, and accountability across the entire company. They relished the thought of setting up a framework for the company to work within.

The PMO – Enabler or Inhibitor?

The PMO – Enabler or Inhibitor?

The other camp took the position that the PMO was an inhibitor of progress. They felt a PMO would inflict unnecessary bureaucracy and paperwork into the process and slow down projects considerably. They also weren’t crazy about being accountable to someone else, or others looking over their shoulder. They liked having autonomy to do what they wanted to do when they wanted to do it.

The new PMO Director was up for the challenge. He was collaborative, decisive, and disciplined. He became aware of who loved having him around and who could do without him and took it all in good stride—the light-hearted mocking, goose steps, and salutes. He kept his eyes wide open, knowing there will always be the potential for serious downsides when implementing a PMO, but he also knew that the benefits outweighed the risks.

The Downsides of Implementing a PMO

There are certain downsides to implementing a PMO in any company. For example:

  • The PMO Could Slow Things Down – The essence of a project management office is to clear a consistent and predictable path for all projects to follow, as well as establish certain approvals and checkpoints that must be adhered to if a project is to move forward.Obviously, the benefits of checkpoints are that everyone can pause to take a breath, review work that has been done up to this point, ask questions, and give approval. These steps take time. Those who are used to being the judge, jury, and executioner when it comes to running their own projects will quickly call it to your attention that this process takes longer.
  • The PMO Forces Change – Somebody or some group has to change their ways if they want to come into line with how projects are going to be run by a PMO. In the earlier example, where a company had Development, IT, and Client Services, each department had implemented their own best practices. There were also things that each team was doing absolutely wrong.For example, the development team would change direction at their manager’s whim, impacting projects and their related timelines. However, they would never tell anyone, including the project manager, that a change had been made. Client services, on the other hand, had implemented an extremely tight process for managing change. It was agreed that the already established and proven process would be the way to go, which forced the development team to do things differently.It took the development manager about 30 seconds after the decision was made to tell the PMO director what he thought about this new best practice.
  • The PMO Can Be Used as a Weapon – I wouldn’t have believed it unless I had seen it with my own two eyes, but the PMO can be used as a weapon.The purpose of the PMO is to carry out the strategy of the organization for the benefit of the company, not to be wielded as a sword by one department against another.Case in point: a marketing department needed a routine change made to the website. It would require a little bit of development effort and a little bit of IT effort. No big deal at all.One problem—the marketing department VP had a terrible relationship with both IT and development. He had asked numerous times for this change to be made and it fell upon deaf ears. In frustration, the marketing manager turned what was a little snippet of work into a full blown project to be run through the PMO.As soon as it hit the PMO’s radar at the weekly executive review, the marketing VP began complaining that it was already a month overdue and that someone in development or IT needed to be held accountable for being so far behind.Not cool. That type of shenanigan only happened once as the PMO got wise to what this guy, and others, were trying to do.

It’s up to a PMO director to be savvy enough to recognize these concerns and make sure they don’t occur as a result of a PMO being implemented.

The Upside of Implementing a PMO

The benefits of implementing a PMO far outweigh any negative aspects. For example:

  • The PMO Introduces Consistency – Everyone in the company has to speak the same project management language. They all know how a project should be run and what it means that a project is in the initiation phase or in the closure phase. They understand there are certain steps that must be taken in order for a project to come to completion.The benefit of consistency is especially evident at weekly PMO meetings.One of the hardest things to capture and communicate as a project manager is a definition of ‘done.’  A development resource may believe that their part of a project is done, but since it hasn’t been verified by QA to actually work as expected, you, and more importantly the end user, don’t consider it done. This is one example of how getting everyone on the same page using consistent terminology makes everyone’s job easier.
  • The PMO Introduces Predictability – One of the things I like to hear when I’m doing my job as a project manager is “I knew you were going to say that,” or “I knew you would ask for that, so here’s the answer.” Predictability is one of the biggest favors you can give your resources. No one wants an unpredictable or erratic captain steering the boat.A properly implemented PMO takes this to the next level. Everyone on the project knows what needs to be done next. Since your team has been trained to implement the process, they aren’t surprised by what you ask for.
  • The PMO Introduces Objective Accountability – An individual department that runs its own project could fall into the category of the fox watching the hen house. They would never deliberately cover anything up, but it’s human nature for them to want to put their best foot forward.It’s easy to err on the side of optimism when asked how things are going on a project. “Just fine,” the project manager may tell the executive. The part he left off was “…as soon as we figure out why this one feature is not working.”A PMO transcends individual departments. There’s no need to understate, overstate, minimize, or maximize project status. They objectively report out on just the facts.

Consistency, predictability, and accountability are not just best practices. They are benefits of implementing a PMO, and in and of themselves are key to ensuring the new office is an enabler, not an inhibitor. Even goose stepping naysayers have had to finally admit that having a PMO and director deserves a respectful salute!

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