The role of the PMO in the agile world

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What is the role of a project management office (PMO) in the context of an agile organization? In this article I address a deep reflection on the future of the PMO in an increasingly uncertain, changing and dynamic world.

What is the role of a Project Management Office?

The PMO is an organizational structure. However, there may be only one and it may be totally centralized, or there may be several in the same organization distributed in different areas. PMOs, for better or worse, have a specific domain in projects - and some of them look a bit further into strategy with conceptual instruments called programs or portfolios.

Thus, PMOs exist to help orchestrate, coordinate and, in some cases, direct projects within the organization or area. They provide structure and meaning to the project lifecycle, and offer visibility into the status of projects.

When an organization has project experience or, for example, is a project driven organization (e.g. an architectural firm or an event management agency) it is possible that the PMO plays a crucial role in the operation and strategic decision making of the organization. In these situations, where the PMO is close to the executive levels (C-Level) we can find the term Enterprise PMO or EPMO.

How does the PMO relate to the projects and the operation?

In a dichotomous world, or a world divided into two opposing poles, the organisation is split in two. On one side we have the strategy and its projects - as instruments of change and materialization of the strategy. On the other side, we have the operation and its daily life, with its productivity and results indicators. In this type of vision, deeply rooted in the culture of project management, the PMO only plays on one side and often ignores the reality of the operation and its impact on the progress of strategic plans.

The vision of an agile PMO

In an agile world, this dichotomy between projects and operations dissolves. Both poles are unified and, even better, subordinated to the "work teams".

Does it look tangled? It's not!

The agile PMO has the same purpose as any PMO, to increase the chances that all (or the most important) strategic objectives are met. And in this sense, it is the people, organized in work teams, who have to complete the tasks, develop the products and offer the services.

A concept that has come to the fore in recent years is Value Streams - which for me is difficult to translate accurately. If people are organized into teams, these teams almost always serve Value Streams. Teams work to support a line of business or the development and operation of a product. In this context, we have operational activities and some other activities dedicated to incorporate changes and improvements - such as projects.

And then what about the projects and the operation?

Both concepts continue to exist, but teams focus more on the value generated by the activities they perform against a product or service. Conceptual project structures will continue to exist, some independently and others diluted with operational activities. The agile PMO then is the one who sees the big picture.

The relationship of the project manager and the agile PMO

What is the value of the PMO to the project manager?

From the perspective of the project leader, whether they are appointed directors, managers, administrators or project coordinators, the PMO provides a primary service: support management decision making through expert advice, access to information and data from other projects.

If we agree, for the purposes of this article, that a project manager's fundamental goal is to complete the assigned project in accordance with its tactical objectives, meeting expectations and delivering good resultsWe have no choice but to accept that the PMO has as its main purpose to main goal empowering the work of the project manager.

Anachronistic PMOs whose sole purpose has been to define strict processes and formats are obsolete and doomed to extinction. In my opinion, these PMO's were designed to turn the most enthusiastic project managers into automatons, people with no criteria, dedicated to taking notes, taking minutes and generating reports.. Nothing could be further from agile thinking, values and principles.

PMOs whose sole purpose has been to define processes and formats are obsolete and doomed to extinction.

In the world of organizational agility, the PMO can play an important role and become a center of excellence where the skills of managers, SM and Coaches are enhanced. It can also be a center of experimentation to validate practices or support change management processes.

All project managers face challenges in the exercise of our management activities, and having a group within the organization that allows us to reflect on the challenges we face or share experiences that strengthen our judgment and, ultimately, the decisions we make for the benefit of the strategy and projects, can be a real competitive advantage.

The relationship of the organization and the agile PMO

Digital Transformation and the PMO

With the flourishing of agility in organizations also comes changes in the structures themselves. I have seen complete PMOs disappear in banks, government entities and real sector companies. With them, also the departure of capable people, experienced leaders who without understanding well what happened, are replaced by inexperienced people in management that their greatest merit in management has been to be certified as Scrum Master.

And I don't mean by this that an experienced project manager cannot be a good SM or that a novice SM can become a great manager and/or facilitator. I just want to highlight the fact that in the equation above we subtract "experience".

What if we end PMOs?

Some years ago, during a project committee of a large corporation where I was a consultant - actually it was more of a project program - we had a moment of chaos, discussions, people talking in time, side conversations looking for culprits and reasons for delays and cost overruns. At one point, the president came up to me and said in my ear something along the lines of "....Do you think that if I fired all these project managers and ended the PMO we would be worse off? Not so long ago we were doing projects and we didn't have PMO". I, I was at a loss for words, I didn't know what to say. I was not part of the PMO, I was not part of the corporation, I was a consultant for a specific component.

I reflected on what is the value of a PMO. Is he still right, were we not able to execute projects before?

The PMO is not there to eliminate problems. Project managers are not magicians who make bad things not happen. Their role is to improve management. Strengthen our capabilities to deal with these bad moments, and thus, enhance the organization's decision making.

If management is chaotic, the slightest benefit of a PMO disappears.

Benefits of an agile PMO for the organization

Agile or not, organizations seek the same thing, to be born, grow, flourish and never die - well not all, some have exit strategies, but you get my point. Here is a list of the benefits that the PMO should offer to the organization.

  1. For the organization, the PMO should be first and foremost a lighthouse, a place to go to for evidence of performance itself, of our reality against our strategic plans. What good is all the execution data, budget, progress and hours invested, if I can't improve tactical and strategic decision making.
  2. In addition to being a lighthouse, the PMO can strengthen our project execution capabilities, and with it, improve our ability to "deliver" the strategy - to make our plans happen.

What does it mean to strengthen project implementation capacities? Well, here's a list of things that can positively impact an organization's ability to execute successful projects:

  • Develop leaders' competencies and skills through coaching and training programs - which today can be online, remote and asynchronous.
  • Provide support and coaching to leaders. Help leaders develop as coaches of their own teams.
  • Establish metrics and assist leaders in performance measurement. Work closely with leaders to identify results and strengthen the continuous improvement process.
  • Evaluate and adjust the processes according to the needs of the projects - favour and strengthen the processes of tailoring over the compliance.

PMO and Benefits Management

Finally, a topic that I can't leave out is the profit management. Although it is something that has been there for some years, the evolution of thinking towards agile values in many organizations forces us to rethink benefits management in a continuous way and not as the conquest of some milestones. Through the concept of Business Value Flow, agility has been climbing up the strategic ladder of the organization and today we have agile portfolio management practices like Lean Portfolio Management.

Again, the role of the agile PMO expands beyond the execution of the projects and enters the realm of the actual operation of the products and services developed by those projects. Otherwise it would not be able to measure the value of the perceived benefit.

What other functions does the PMO perform?

This question is very broad and surely the answer - like any good consultant - will depend on the organization and the nature of your business. However, I would like to hear in the comments, what good and/or bad experiences you have had with PMOs and what functions they performed.

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Alberto Dominguez

Leading teams from theory to real and sustainable delivery of innovative IT products and services.

Articles: 35

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