Background

I recently saw a question on a LinkedIn discussion group asking: What is an Agile PMO? There are many people in the Agile community who might say that there is no role for a PMO in an Agile/Lean environment and that the whole concept of a PMO is inconsistent with Agile. That opinion is based on a stereotype that the role of the PMO is heavily associated with controlling and enforcing rigid, waterfall-style policies for selecting and managing the execution of projects and programs. In that kind of environment, a PMO might require:

  • Very thorough and detailed upfront planning to justify the ROI on projects to support rigorous project/product portfolio management decisions
  • Rigid control of project execution to ensure that projects meet their cost and schedule goals and deliver the expected ROI

There is no doubt that some PMO’s have played that kind of role to some extent in the past; however, it is a stereotype to believe that is the only possible role for a PMO to play.

Understanding the Truth About “Agile versus Waterfall”

The key to understanding this issue is to first understand that there isn’t a binary and mutually exclusive choice between an “Agile approach and what people sometimes refer to as “Waterfall”. It is better to think of this as a range of alternatives between heavily plan-driven at one extreme and heavily adaptive at the other extreme that looks something like this:

article image

And, the right approach is to fit the methodology to your projects and business environment rather than going in the other direction and attempting to force-fit your projects and business to some kind of canned approach whatever it might be (Agile or not).

What’s the General Role of a PMO in Any Organization?

The general role of any PMO is to align the selection and execution of projects and programs with the organization’s business goals which includes Project/Product Portfolio Management, providing oversight of project execution and the overall interface for management and reporting of projects and programs to senior management and the business, and finally to provide coordination, guidance, and training to project teams as needed in the organization’s methodologies and standards for project management.

Those general functions probably don’t change in an Agile/Lean project environment, but how a PMO performs those functions may change significantly depending on the organization’s overall strategy for implementing an Agile transformation.

  • Some organizations may choose to implement a relatively complete top-to-bottom Agile transformation for their business – Dean Leffingwell’s Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is an example of such a model. However, that can be a very ambitious and gut-wrenching change for many organizations and it also may not be the best solution.
  • I think it is a mistake to believe that you have to force a company to do an extensive, top-to-bottom Agile transformation in order to adopt an Agile process at the development level and there are many ways to adapt an agile development process to a company whose overall business may not be totally compatible with an agile approach at the enterprise level.

If you accept the notion that you need to tailor the approach to fit your business, it should be evident that the design of a PMO should be consistent with that approach and there isn’t a single “canned” solution for what an “Agile PMO” is. However, I think that there are some general guidelines that should be useful.

What Does a Traditional PMO Look Like?

A traditional PMO organization that is oriented around a heavily plan-driven approach might look something like this:

Article Image

In this kind of environment:

  • The PMO typically takes almost complete responsibility for the execution of projects on behalf of the business sponsors.
  • The emphasis in this kind of organization is typically on planning and control of projects.

This kind of organization would be consistent with a heavily plan-driven approach but how does that role change as an organization move towards more of an adaptive approach?

What Does a More Adaptive PMO Model Look Like

A more adaptive version of a PMO organization might look something like this:

Article Image

Cobb, Charles, “Making Sense of Agile Project Management”, Wiley, 2011

Here’s what I think some of the key differences might be as an organization moves towards more of an adaptive approach:

  • The role of the PMO becomes more of an advisory role and a consultative role rather than a controlling role. The function of the PMO should be to put in place well-trained people coupled with the right process and tools to make the process most effective and efficient and to keep it well-aligned with the company’s business.
  • The primary responsibility for providing direction to projects shifts more to the business side represented by the Product Owner in the projects and there is much more of a closer coupling with the business side to put more emphasis on providing business value rather than simply managing project costs and schedules.
  • The role of the functional organizations (Development, QA Testing, etc.) also changes to providing more of an advisory function as the resources are more committed to project teams and the project teams become more self-organizing.

This model can be a very big change for many businesses because:

  • It puts a lot more responsibility on the business side of the organization to provide direction to projects and the business organization may not be well-prepared to take on that responsibility.
  • It also relies much more heavily on self-organizing teams.

For those reasons and others, a totally adaptive approach may not be the right approach for all businesses and even if it is, it may take time to migrate an existing organization to that kind of approach. Fortunately, there are many ways to develop a hybrid approach to blend a traditional plan-driven approach with a more adaptive approach to fit a given business and project environment.

Hybrid Environments

The role of the PMO should be aligned with supporting whatever the overall strategy is which might be a hybrid of an Agile and traditional plan-driven approach. For example,

  • The PMO may still be the focal point for Project/Product Portfolio Management, but a more agile approach might be used to perform that function.
    • Instead of very rigorous upfront planning that might be required to analyze project ROI to support a more traditional, plan-driven project/product portfolio management approach,
    • A more dynamic decision-making process might be used at that level with a much more limited amount of upfront planning and less detailed ROI analysis.
  • In the other functions related to managing the execution of projects, the PMO would probably delegate more responsibility to project teams and play more of a facilitative and consultative role to support the project teams rather than playing a controlling role.

Overall Summary

In summary,

  • Agile certainly forces some rethinking of the role of a PMO but it doesn’t necessarily make the whole concept of a PMO obsolete and irrelevant.
  • There are a wide range of strategies an organization can choose for implementing an Agile transformation at an enterprise level and it isn’t necessarily a binary choice between a pure “Waterfall approach from top-to-bottom or a totally “Agile” approach from top-to-bottom. You have to choose the right approach to fit the business rather than attempting to force-fit the business to some kind of “textbook” approach.

The important thing to recognize is that this is not a “one size fits all” decision. What is the right approach for one company may not be the best approach for another.

 

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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Chuck Cobb

Chuck Cobb

Contributing Author

Chuck is the author of the book "The Project Manager's Guide to Mastering Agile" as well as four other books on Agile Project Management and Business Excellence.  He is passionate about closing the gap between Agile and traditional plan-driven project management and helping project managers see these two approaches in a much more integrated and fresh new perspective as complementary to each other rather than competitive.  To that end, he has developed a very complete Agile Project Management training curriculum with over 50,000 students that is designed to help project managers learn how to blend these two approaches in the right proportions to fit any given situation. 

  • He has a very pragmatic, "real world" approach to Agile that is based on over 20 years of hands-on program/project management experience in a broad range of industries and application areas,
  • He has been a featured speaker at a number of PMI Chapter events, agile groups, universities, and PMO workshops throughout the US, and
  • Many of his courses originated from a graduate-level Agile Project Management curriculum he originally developed as an Adjunct Professor for Boston University.

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