PMOs Often Create More Problems Than They Solve

Companies create Project Management Offices (PMO) as a means of improving software project success rates and establishing best practices. Regrettably, many of these PMOs fail to offer anything constructive. They are often burdensome, costly and wasteful.

PMOs are a good idea, in principle. They can be enormously beneficial when done right. When done poorly – as is often the case – they create more problems than they solve.

Wikipedia offers a good definition of the PMO, “…group or department within a business, agency or enterprise that defines and maintains standards for project management within the organization. The PMO strives to standardize and introduce economies of repetition in the execution of projects. The PMO is the source of documentation, guidance and metrics on the practice of project management and execution.”

Any senior manager reading that definition is likely to want to know more and establish a PMO. Before doing so, there are a few things to consider.

The question that the project teams will ask is “What’s in it for us?”. They will be expected to provide information and conform to new rules. They have the right to expect something in return and this is where the problems begin.

The problems and pitfalls of implementing a PMO are many though they can be avoided using some common-sense leadership principles.

1) The first problem with PMOs is one of allegiance. They are generally viewed as an extension of senior management and thus aligned with them. They watch and wait, ready to pounce at the first sign of trouble. This causes project managers to hide problems for fear of being vilified.

The most effective way to improve any process is to engage those performing the activity in a meaningful dialogue. Projects in trouble need help and support, not condemnation. What good is a PMO if it can’t roll up its sleeves and help out?

A troubled project is a learning opportunity. A good PMO should step in to mentor and train both novice and experienced project teams. The goal is to improve project execution not shoot the messengers.

2) The second problem PMOs encounter is defining standard processes or best practices for all project teams to follow. Such standards simply don’t exist. Team size and experience as well as problem complexity and risk level should dictate the approach. There is no one size fits all project management technique.

The PMO should evaluate the project and the team prior to suggesting a project management approach. They should have multiple techniques available and be well versed in selecting the best approach for the situation.

Any PMO that hides behind a monolithic process model only adds cost and complexity. Small, low-budget projects should never be managed like large, big-budget endeavors. Project teams will find ways to offer the appearance of compliance while operating as they see fit.

3) The third PMO problem is lack of feedback. Many PMOs demand large amounts of numerical data and colorful charts but they offer nothing in return. No one wants to endlessly feed information into an amorphous business entity and never get anything back.

For example, what if your project report shows that 50% of the calendar time has elapsed and 60% of the budget has been spent. Is that great, terrible or average for similar projects?

That’s not a difficult question to answer yet it is rarely addressed. Project teams need to know how they stack up against other project teams and how the current project compares to others they’ve completed. Continuous improvement doesn’t just happen. You need to work at it!

4) Finally, just as PMOs track projects, management should track the PMO. If it’s doing its job well, project success rates should improve; project teams should be better trained; project risks should be mitigated; and documentation should be leaner and more targeted.

The PMO is a service organization not a compliance one. It should not be viewed as the project management police but rather as a group of subject matter experts available to help project teams and guide management in making strategic decisions.

Implementing a PMO well and deriving value from it is a complex undertaking. It takes experienced people, exceptional leadership and constant vigilance. Do it right or don’t do it at all.

photo credit: UN Women Gallery via photopin cc

Updated: October 11, 2012 — 10:09 pm