Project Management Offices (PMOs) recently became a standard fixture of the corporate landscape. Corporations with them spend lavishly to keep their project managers up on the latest trends. Corporations without them spend lavishly to attract the regions best and brightest project managers to a promised land where project management holds sway. PMO members meet, discuss the heady topics of the day, then disperse to help the organization implement…something.

Like in the famous cartoon where a complex equation contains “and then a miracle occurs,” it’s that last “something” step which proves problematic. Taking the good ideas of project management, a discipline fundamentally about on-site change control, and translating them through the heady layers of executive management can prove difficult for even the most seasoned veteran. Isolating talented project managers into an office dedicated to their discipline then expecting them to somehow influence the performance of projects though the implementation of methodology proves even more problematic.

Occasionally clients ask me to review a project management office to see how it’s fairing. I generally refuse. However, here is the checklist I use when I enter a new client site to see how the project management office is “getting along.”

1. Do the project managers in the field use similar templates?

No, I do not really care if project managers all fill out the same enforced procedural paperwork. What I am interested in is if project managers across the lines of business all use similar documentation, records, and artifacts because they find them effective. Anyone can enforce audit rules. It takes rare talent as a teacher and communicator to develop enough shared awareness in diverse project managers for them to develop similar approaches to solving practical problems.

Enforced methodology is grand, but similar results indicate a deep commitment to shared principles, methods, and techniques.

2. Does anyone actually running a project feel comfortable calling anyone in the PMO?

Members of the PMO are not, despite how others treat them, generally unapproachable or unpleasant to speak with. They do not carry chips on their shoulders and as a rule maintain a professional approach with even the least pleasant supplicant.

That last word, though, is the rub. If the PMO project managers treat those who come to them for help as supplicants or as anything less than their fellow project managers, the office will quickly find itself marginalized outside of executive circles. It’s all well and good to hire the best and brightest but they do not do much good spending all of their time perfecting methodology.

3. Do the PMO project managers have any direct project responsibilities?

Does anyone in the PMO still manage projects or do they wile away their hours producing reports and talking with one another about how to manage projects? Do they circle like buzzards waiting for projects to fail or do they roll up their sleeves and get done in the trenches with the people out there making things happen?

Companies that hire a bunch of active project managers then lock them in a room might have more important issues than whether or not their PMO is properly funded.

4. Which does the PMO emphasize: adherence to procedure or the affect the procedure creates?  

Most major religious figures come out and state that empty adherence to a religion’s forms does nothing to improve one’s soul. The same truth holds in business today. Form is important, but the meaning behind the form matters more. In this case, we can use the old saw “by your actions you will know them” to judge the PMO’s performance. Does the PMO work hard to punish those who deviate from the path, or do they work with people to help them understand why particular actions are necessary for the greater good?

Obviously these four questions do not encompass every aspect of the PMOs shooting up all over the the corporate landscape. However, how people at different levels of the organization answer these questions helps me to understand the PMO’s role and often what will happen next as the organization evolves its project awareness.