PMO - just more admin or key to effective project outcomes?
The Project Management Office (PMO) often divides opinion among leaders in business and the public sector. Some see it as a key factor in providing the business intelligence that enables tight control of projects and drives them to successful delivery. For others, it’s yet more admin, all of which could - and should - be automated and none of which adds value.
Both opinions are probably valid in that they reflect the experience of how well a particular PMO is working. If an organisation has the kind of PMO that collects reams of information, feeds very little of it back and produces plans that are not really worth bothering to read, then yes, it is probably a waste of space and the organisation will be better off employing another project manager.
However, organisations that have high-performing PMOs are well aware of the difference they can make. One of the things that a good PMO delivers is best practice. All project professionals are aware of the project loop whereby, at the end of a project, the project review collects lessons learned and the team reflects on what went well, what didn't and why. Some organisations have a very negative performance culture and spend enormous amounts of time on what went wrong. Obviously, while this is important, it's far less important than what went well.
Without a PMO, businesses are stuck at Groundhog Day
However making sure that the good practice and efficiencies that were observed during the project are fed back into business as usual can be something of a challenge. After all, at the end of the project, the project team is dispersed. Any contractors start looking for their next assignment, while those from the organisation return to their normal roles.
Although the project review may have captured much good practice and serious lessons to be learned, where is this intelligence to go? Without a PMO, there is nowhere to place it and it is usually lost to the organisation. The next project starts up with a fresh team and new contractors and it's Groundhog Day - because all the lessons previously gathered, have been lost.
However with a PMO, good practice can be absorbed into the way projects are managed and all of the learnings are ready to be applied to the next project as it starts up. Successful companies nearly always have this function on projects. They may not call it the PMO - they may call it “project control” or something similar. But learning organisations that take continuous improvement seriously, have to have a mechanism for the continuous improvement of projects. Because of the transitory nature of projects, that mechanism has to look something like a PMO.
A PMO can provide an objective reality check
Without a PMO, organisations are forced to rely upon the project manager to transmit information and because the project manager is the one responsible for progress, they may be reluctant to give bad news to the business.
A PMO doesn't have a vested interest in protecting reputations or covering up unwelcome news. It's there to provide an objective assessment of what is going on and to ensure that senior managers get a truthful picture of how much progress a project has made, and how much money it has spent.
Lastly, the PMO can also professionalise activities such as planning, using productivity tools that make the job far quicker. This allows for planning across programmes and portfolios rather than within individual projects. A common phenomenon is the project manager who spends the entire time on the plan and who is not managing the project - only managing the plan.
A professional PMO takes this work away from the project manager, leaving them free to get on with pushing the project forward, ensuring it stays within scope and budget and delivers the business outcomes that it's intended to.