What Does a Project Management Office Look Like?

Someone recently asked me about a one-day seminar on building a Project Management Office (PMO).  I told them that there could be no greater waste of time than to get an individual to stand in front of them for one day to tell them how to build the PMO.  And if they did, I guaranteed them that that office would be closed within a few years.

When talking about the PMO, I love to say that at last count, there are 2,456 variations on the theme.  My point is that no project office will be the same in any organization and nor should it.  And no one individual or training organization has the answer.

Years ago, the PMO became the ‘FAD’ across many industries but especially within IT, and many organizations launched their first Project Management Office.  I was running ProjectWorld Canada at the time, where we ran many sessions hearing from organizations about how they developed their PMO. It was all good news.  But then a funny thing happened: 4-5 years later, those same organizations were quietly admitting that those original PMO’s had closed.

Why?  Because they were built for the wrong reasons, for the wrong people and by the wrong people.

I talk about leadership most of the time. Is this discussion about leadership? I certainly think it is.  You see, leadership does not have to come from just people, but it can come from vehicles or organizations that we create. In this case, the PMO is a perfect leadership tool. In my mind, its role is to lead the project management community in any way that it is asked to do. These last words are the key to the successful PMO: ”that it is asked to do”. 

I’ve seen many versions of the PMO over the years:

  • The virtual PMO whose job it is to set standards, create guidelines and advise when necessary. This version is run by contributions from multiple parts of a department or organization.
  • The PMO that directly employs 20 to 30 people with a Director-level lead, a budget and a performance requirement. This group is typically opening and closing large projects and often directly managing the largest, most mission-critical projects. Much more hands-on and a lot more responsibility.
  • And in the middle as I have said, there are 2000+ variations of these models.

So what’s the right answer? I don’t have it and no one should profess to have the answer for you either.  The key to success lies in the same method you would use to create a new custom software program or build a new product: you need to ask the customer.

If you know me, you might know that I had been in very involved in the creation and the history of the International Institute for Business Analysis.  Now don’t leave me.  This is not a pitch for the IIBA.  But it is a pitch for the role of the business analyst.  Whether professionally trained and certified or ‘winging it’, someone needs to play the role of the business analyst.  Before anyone talks about the virtual PMO, hiring employees or creating roles and responsibilities, we need to step back and do a full needs analysis with the customer and all stakeholders.  We need to model any potential solutions back to the customer to be sure we are heading in the right direction. We need to make everyone aware of the costs, risks and rewards to a potential solution to their needs. In the end we need to make sure that every stakeholder is aware of what is to be built and what is involved in doing so.  And we need to get everyone’s buy-in not only in supporting the build but supporting the new product going into the future.

If you ever wondered what the business analyst does, this is the perfect description. I like to tell BAs and project management communities that the role of the BA is to be sure that when it is built, it is built right – the first time. I like to say that the BA’s role is to make sure that there aren’t eight revisions because the audience wasn’t properly involved.

What does a Project Management Office look like?   I can show you examples and models. But like the final look of your new kitchen, I can’t give you the answer quite yet. I need time to figure out what you really want, what you can afford and what you can support. Then I can tell you what your Project Management Office might look like.


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