PMO Issues – Does a PMO Help or Hinder?

pmo issues

Written By Andrew Makar

Professional Cat Herder and an Agile Enthusiast with a keen interest in putting PM theory into actual practice.

In theory, project management offices and project managers work together to deliver value to the organization in a consistent manner. In practice, PMOs and project managers can step on each other’s toes in a clash between results and processes which create their own set of pmo issues. Here are five best practices for how the PMO can improve harmony, from the project manager perspective.

Do project management offices help or hinder the project managers in your organization? In theory, PMOs and project managers interact in a two-step tango that rivals the latest “Dancing with the Stars” reality show. In practice, PMOs and project managers can often step on each other’s toes and stumble all in the name of following project management process.

Different Project Management Perspectives

From the project manager viewpoint, the project manager’s role is to deliver results. The project management processes are tools for project managers to deliver work consistently. If a process is too overwhelming, the project manager will short cut the process to deliver the project. Does it really matter if the third approved at the tollgate didn’t sign off at the gate review but the project was delivered on time?

From a PMO perspective, all the projects should be delivering according to a common project management process. Ensuring project teams following consistent processes ensures repeatable results and uniform communication. The project needs to be delivered on time, but it also needs to follow the prescribed process.

5 Actions for PMOs to Help Project Managers

The two different perspectives of “project versus process” can often cause friction between the two groups. The PMO can quickly be perceived as non-value add overhead and project managers can be viewed as non-compliant and resisting process. Having worked in each group, I’ve found PMOs and project managers can achieve harmony, starting with these five practices.

1. Reuse project status reports

Don’t ask the project manager to fill out another form. Processes become overbearing when the same information is requested multiple times and needs to be populated in different formats. Status reporting is the frequent offender that causes project management friction. Each month, the PMO Governance function requires a status update for each project in the portfolio. Instead of reusing the project-level status report, the project manager is asked to fill out a summary form.

A simple solution is to adopt a common status-reporting format that accurately conveys status at the project level and can be rolled up into a portfolio summary. Organizations can develop scorecard templates that allow data to be extracted and integrated into a PMO-level summary report. If the organization doesn’t have the technical capability to roll up project data, a simpler process is to have the PMO review the status report and create the consolidate PMO-level status report.

2. Staff the PMO with experience

Effective PMOs are staffed with resources who are experts in both process and delivery. Rotating experienced project managers into PMO roles will help transfer PM experience across the organization. The PMO gains credibility with the delivery teams when members of the PMO have dealt with similar complex project experiences. Staffing the PMO with administrative resources to track documents only provides value in process audits instead of project delivery. Finding skilled project managers within the PMO who have real work experience is invaluable to novice project or program managers. The PMO should act as coach and guide to avoid project management disasters.

3. Actively participate in project delivery

A PMO doesn’t need to confine itself to staff roles. Financials, portfolio reviews, resource management and milestone tracking are administrative; however, the PMO adds more value to the project when it understands the projects within the portfolio. Inquiring why a project hasn’t launched within the company’s 180-day average when it launched in 182 days doesn’t add value; understanding a project’s key issues and risks and helping raise the visibility does.

An effective PMO that understands the project goals, impact to the business, and status within the portfolio is a useful resource. A PMO can provide better insight into available portfolio resources and can be a point of escalation for issue and risk management. The PMO doesn’t manage the project but provides the expertise to guide the project manager along.

4. Proactively respond to process requests

PMOs want project managers to follow process. Project managers are willing to follow the process as long as the process is responsive and timely. A PMO’s credibility is undermined when a form or request is submitted and the project manager has to wait weeks for the PMO’s response. If the PMO takes two to three weeks for a new project request to be processed, the process becomes a roadblock. The PMO cannot hinder project delivery. It needs to act as a catalyst for the project and respond effectively.

5. Champion a community of practice

PMOs have an excellent opportunity to improve the level of project management within an organization. The PMO is an independent and dedicated resource that can invest resources into project management improvement. Effective PMOs foster a learning environment for project management across the organization. One approach to developing a learning environment is to sponsor a community of practice. A community of practice is simply a group of project managers who share lessons learned and best practices. The best practices emerge from the people actually doing the work rather than a top-down process.

PMOs still need to implement process with a top-down approach. By incorporating the standards and practices into the community of practice, change management and process adoption become easier. Both the PMO and project managers are part of the solution to improve project delivery within the organization.

These five tips, from a project manager perspective, on how to improve PMO involvement in project delivery are just the start. As project managers and PMOs openly discuss better project management processes, additional best practices can and will be identified.

5 Actions for Project Managers to Help PMOs

Project management offices have administrative processes that can be misconstrued as overhead or potential roadblocks to project delivery. Effective PMOs are able to integrate these processes into the delivery cycle without causing bureaucratic drag. An effective PMO is a resource for project managers to leverage. But project managers need to understand the role of the PMO in portfolio governance, process quality assurance and project management coaching. The following five tips will help project managers improve their interaction with the PMO.

1. Support the PMO requests for information

Communications management and portfolio governance are key functions within a PMO. The project doesn’t operate in a vacuum and needs to report out across the portfolio. Project managers need to recognize the PMO’s obligation to communicate project status and performance for portfolio reviews. Both project managers and the PMO need to work together to avoid replicating project information in different formats. Aligning report expectations with the project artifacts produced by the project will minimize the burden to communicate repeatedly to various management levels.

2. Follow the process to deliver the project

Project teams need to follow an organization’s established project management procedures to ensure consistent results. The PMO’s role for process assurance is a quality management function. Project managers should recognize the PMO’s responsibility to audit project deliverables. The PMO isn’t a malicious entity bent on inhibiting project progress when a deliverable isn’t signed off. However, it is the PMO’s role to ensure process is followed.
Problems arise when the process becomes too cumbersome and the PMO doesn’t listen to project manager feedback. Process improvement is an ongoing activity with any organization and both groups need to work together to iteratively refine and improve the process.

3. Communicate key issues and risks to the PMO

Project managers should view the PMO as a project asset instead of a project liability. At the program level, the PMO is the central resource to monitor and track program level issues, risks and change requests. At the organization level, the PMO often reports directly to senior or executive management and can help communicate top-level issues across the portfolio. At the enterprise level, the enterprise PMO is a critical success factor for successful portfolio management. All of these roles require interaction and communication with the project teams.

Instead of creatively shaping a troubled project status to the PMO, the project manager should report the objective status and leverage the PMO to request assistance. The PMO wants to know the problems within the portfolio and may be able to provide additional resources or propose alternative solutions. Since the PMO monitors the portfolio, it has a broader perspective of all the projects and can help prioritize issues and problems accordingly.

4. Engage the PMO in the tollgate process

Since the PMO often inquires about status within the portfolio, involving them in the project’s gate review process is an effective approach to communicate status on a regular basis. In some organizations, PMOs manage the tollgate process for the project manager and proactively monitor approaching tollgates and help the project manager facilitate the approval process. Engaging the PMO in a tollgate will also provide an objective assessment of the project and provide additional insight into issues and risks not perceived by the project manager. Since the PMO is engaged in multiple projects, similar issues and lessons learned can be shared.

Project managers can view the tollgate as a low-value-add activity since scheduling a tollgate and maintaining the project schedule often conflict. Due to scheduling conflicts and required sign-offs, the project often progresses beyond the tollgate and resolves any issues once the tollgate has been conducted. The PMO can assist with this process by scheduling and coordinating the tollgate process while project manager can focus on project delivery.

5. Be an active participant in portfolio governance

A PMO cannot effectively support projects outside their visibility. Project managers need to communicate project start-up early and initiation requests through the PMO. Unstructured organizations often have projects initiate without sufficient resources or skills needed for the project success. The PMO can help assign resources and support the project, but it needs to know the project exists.

If the PMO is viewed as too bureaucratic, project managers may minimize the size of the project to the PMO. I’ve seen several projects that quickly lose control of scope and need to be rescued or cancelled all because they didn’t initiate the project correctly and assign appropriate resources. The PMO can be a champion for project success, but the PMO needs to know about the emerging projects in the portfolio. Project managers need to work with the PMO to ensure proper governance is in place.

An effective PMO is designed to help not hinder project development. PMOs need to be a catalyst for project success and project managers need to leverage the PMO as a tool for project delivery. The balance between PMO process requirements and project delivery can be difficult to maintain. Both groups need to view each other as a critical success factors to deliver the project for the customer and need to communicate their needs to refine the process.

During the project lifecycle, projects have enough of their own issues that PMO and project management alignment shouldn’t be one of them. Review these tips from both perspectives and share them to improve PMO and project management interaction!

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