May 30, 2017

Common Problems of a PMO

Posted by Victor L. Allen | 0 Comments

Measure your PMO by what your customers care about and value.

Editor's Note: We welcome back guest blogger Victor Allen with some words of wisdom, gained though experience, on the challenges faced by PMOs. This is the third in our "Expert Series": You can read previous posts in the series here and here. For more on PMO challenges and trends, please download our latest research report, The State of the PMO 2016.

I have spent the past 15 years working in or leading a Project Management Office (PMO), so I am well aware that it’s not always sunshine and butterflies. For all the good a PMO does, it can experience its fair share of problems as well. Some of these problems seem to appear eventually in every PMO at some point during their existence.  Today I’ll discuss three of the most common issues.

I call the first common problem that I see “Identity Crisis” or in other words – “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  PMOs sometimes start up because an executive went to a conference, talked to a peer at another company or read something in a magazine and decided a PMO would be a great idea. PMOs also sometimes begin in response to a specific problem or project. Okay, but then … what happens when the problem no longer exists or the project is finished?

To avoid the identity crisis problem, you need to work at having an identity right from the beginning and be flexible enough to morph and adjust that identity as time goes on and conditions change. You should attack this in a very deliberate way, carefully thinking through what services you will offer to the organization and how you will deliver them. Will you be a reporting/policing PMO only? Or a full-service PMO with project managers and execution responsibility? You should develop a mission statement or guiding principles that can be used to stay the course when things get unclear – as well as maintain short- and long-term goals for the PMO.   

I call the second common problem “Staying Power,” or in other words – “How do I justify the existence of the PMO?”  Generally within 3 to 5 years of creation a PMO’s continued existence will be seriously questioned and challenged by their organization. This may occur if the real or perceived value that the PMO brings to the table is less than what the organization is expecting, if a financial crisis hits the organization or just because serious cost cutting is taking place. The loss of the original champion who prompted the creation of the PMO in the first place can also prove fatal to a PMO that has not fully established its organizational value.  Another source of trouble can be the PMO’s failure to change the project management culture within the organization.

It doesn’t matter so much why or what prompted the PMO to come under scrutiny, what matters is what can you do about it? The answer to this question would be a good topic for a book, but I need to answer it in this paragraph. To avoid the shutdown of your PMO your best defense is simple – be valuable and make your PMO show value. Make yourself indispensable. This must be your focus from Day One and every day. To do so, you must find out what is valuable to the people that you serve, not necessarily what you think is valuable. A few more tips:

  • Avoid the us versus them mentality; treat the people you serve as customers
  • Don’t let your customers feel like you’re doing something “to them”: rather, make them feel like you’re doing something for them
  • Go the extra mile adding services even when not requested
  • Perhaps most important, treat the project managers as customers – even if you’re in what I call a ‘reporting/policing’ role. If the project managers are against you, it won’t be long before everyone is against you.

I call the third common problem that I see “Cherry Picking” or in other words – “How do I operate at peak levels if the organization continually takes my top performing individuals”? Let’s begin by recognizing that this as a serious compliment to the PMO. If your PMO is hiring or developing talent to the extent that they are used as a feeder system to the organization, you should be very proud rather than very angry.

Not only are you providing a great service to the organization – you are adding value which is what we just talked about. In addition, by having PMO people disseminated throughout the organization, you are changing the culture of the organization! If some of these individuals are recruited to be project managers, which is often the case, the PMO has more project managers on their side. In short, “Cherry Picking” helps address many of the “Staying Power” concerns I raised. So, rather than fight against it, embrace it and put in place a process that allows you to continually bring in new talent, develop that talent and keep the cycle of life going.

In conclusion, PMO’s will face many problems throughout their existence. I shared three which I have seen first-hand throughout the years over and over again. There are other problems PMOs may face such as being understaffed, being viewed as the enemy, being viewed as too expensive, or being viewed as not adding value to the organization. These are real problems that can’t be ignored and need to be continually worked – alongside the project work and support you provide.

I will leave you with two final thoughts. First, don’t guess at what customers find valuable – go out and ask them what is valuable to them and see the work through their eyes rather than your own. Second, don’t measure your PMO by what you think you should be measured . Measure your PMO by what your customers care about and value. These are small tips, but should go a long way.

Wishing you all the best as you take on these challenges and may your challenges eventually become your rewards.


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