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The reasons that Project Management Offices were formed were based on a few variables for the most part. The first was in reaction to something that did not go well. Companies often times would plan these great opportunity projects that were strategized for a good deal of time before they were finally kicked off, only for the project to fail. The response to project failure is not always answered by creating a PMO. Project Remediation is an art in Project Management, and the answer is not always to stick another level of control over an already out of control process. Remember the old saying, failing to plan is planning to fail. When a project fails all aspects of the plan and strategy should be reviewed. In the early days this process was referred to as a post mortem lessons learned. Once the project was dead beyond recovery every strategy and plan was analyzed for failures and unrecognized risks. At one time I was actually on a team whose general purpose was to do just exactly this sort of intense scrutiny in the hopes that this would be a shining example of what never to do again. And then a light bulb flashed on and someone said, “I know… let’s stand up a PMO.” If only.

Another reason that Project Management Offices were created was to foster and share processes that did go well. Creating teams of Type A personality Project Managers to collaborate and share ideas, formulate some semblance of calm among the chaos seemed like a good plan but somehow that did not always translate well. I’ve worked in some PMO environments where this process became more of a competition than collaboration session. I’ve known a lot of Project Managers and we seem to have a common thread for the most part, we subscribe to this old adage, “The most valuable and least used phrase in a project manager’s vocabulary is “I don’t know.” While I agree it is important to share project management information, too much of a good thing can also be bad. Sometimes newbie Project Managers learn their best lessons by experiencing their own mistakes. Often times these new PMs are not willing to take advice because after all refer to my quote above. I think more seasoned Project Managers are more willing to accept advice, maybe having lived through a disaster or two makes you more receptive to avoiding one. In any case sometimes the best intentions of creating a PMO may not be in the best interests of your portfolios overall success. I think Machiavelli’s caution fits here, what is new is not always what is best.

Machiavelli’s caution for Project Managers

“And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”
Nicolo Machiavelli c.1505 (trans. W. K. Marriott)

And the final reason for creating a Project Management Office is to apply control over the project management process. Instead of a fostering and mentoring environment this type of PMO is meant to limit, stifle and control the project management process. I’d like to spend a bit more time on this type of PMO to help explain why this is one of the biggest mistakes made in Project Management. To open, most project managers did not go to school to learn how to manage projects, at least in my generation. As a matter of fact, there were little to no classes aligned with Project Management during my college years. There was a lot technology classes, some functional application and business process classes, but really nothing like PMing 101. PMBOK, the Project Management Body of Knowledge or the ‘everything you’d ever want to know about project management guidebook’ wasn’t even published until 1996 for the first time. By then, I like many other old timers had been managing IT projects for over 10 years.  Off the shelf software was not readily available as it is today or even was two decades ago. I think the first real solution that spanned the entire technology sector was Lotus 123, which quickly became the end all solution for personal computers around 1983. However, for the most part if you wanted a solution specific to a process in your business; that offered functionality more personalized than a spreadsheet or notepad document, in came the development teams and so then followed, the Project Managers.

Imagine, in those early days every software project started out with a build or buy phase. We spent a great deal of time searching for the elusive product only to discover it was too expensive, not robust enough or just did not meet the needs of the requirements to be a viable solution. Hence in the early years of Project Management the answer was most often, build. So there we were in a smoke filled room with glass windows and low desks, me and four guys with pocket protectors and three inch thick coding guides to all the popular computer languages on the market. I tell you all of this to emphasize the fact that before the first Project Management Office was ever created there were many years of trial and error which led the Project Managers of this era, to learn to solution. Thinking out of the box was an asset to GSD (get stuff done) with no boundaries except those items that will impact a project: cost, schedule or quality. No one at the time knew how to conduct a work decomposition or build a work plan. We developed those things along the way. What worked well went into the toolbox, what didn’t got zapped into hyperspace and never heard from again.  So when we refer to a Controlling PMO type, you give some important things up; creativity and ingenuity and sometimes those skills are worth more than all the Charters in China.

Someone once said to me, “All of your PMs are different. None of them do things consistently.” Well the quickest way to deliver a team of administrative dysfunctional personal secretaries controlling technology projects is to lock your project managers into this control box in my humble opinion.

Now more than three decades later we have narrowed the PMO organizations down to three different types with three different objectives. The official definition of a Project Management Office is an organizational structure that standardizes the project related governance processes and facilitates the sharing of resources, methodologies, tools and techniques to produce repeatable, successful projects.

The Supportive PMO is more of a consultant to departmental people or individuals acting as a lead role in a project. In the Supportive PMO project managers are not actually responsible to manage the project hands on. They are meant to act as a consultant and provide professional tools by way of Project Artifact templates, training, assisting in making sure best project management guidelines are followed. They often facilitate sessions such as requirements gathering and lessons learned. However, in a Supportive PMO environment the actual delivery of the project is wholly the responsibility of the assigned team members who are not Project Managers.

In a Controlling PMO project managers also provide consulting services however, they also have required framework artifacts that they must complete, activities that must be performed as part of the PMO Framework. Project Managers whether they are provided by the Controlling PMO or an outside individual assigned to fulfill the role of a project manager are required to complete a set of given tasks which are designed to ensure that the plan and execution are well thought out and ultimately produce a successful outcome. These PMO objectives are to create conformance to a project governance while assisting in the execution. Note this PMO will fail without proper executive support to also abide by the controls in place. I’ve seen this happen repeatedly where the projects that do fail here are typically the ones that failed to follow its’ own framework for the IT project portfolio. If the organization does not set the standards for all project participants this type of PMO will be the first to fail.

And finally, the Directive PMO has full control of the project management, including the resources which may be provided from technical teams. This type of PMO uses mandates and audits which are commonly referred to as Phase Gates to verify that the project manager has completed all the required artifacts and done so in a manner to ensure that the delivery is well thought out and executed according to the plan and schedule.

If your PMO is not producing as you expect read my full white paper called, The Dysfunctional PMO, on LinkedIn to understand how to complete an assessment and determine how it can be fixed.

 

Tell me your thoughts in the comments and let’s open a dialog. I would be excited to hear other opinions on this topic.

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Kim Curtis, PMP

Kim Curtis, PMP

Contributing Author

Kim Curtis has been a project manager for more than 30 years as both a permanent employee and an outside consultant. Her vast knowledge of Project Management practices and exposure to Project Management Offices in a diverse collection of business sectors gives her an edge to disseminate what needs to be done to improve your Project Management Office business processes and help you take your PMO to the next level PMOps™ a new design of PMO that will improve your project delivery from concept to close.

 

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Here are additional links to articles on this topic, both on our site and others.

  • 4 Types of PMO that Provide Value – Where does Your PMO Fit? – CLICK HERE
  • The Three Different Types of Project Management Offices – CLICK HERE

  • 4 Types of Project Management Offices That Deliver Value – CLICK HERE

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