Has the Program Management Office (PMO) outlived its usefulness?

For years the Program Management Office, or PMO, has been a foundational element of well-run IT departments. Has this concept outlived its usefulness?

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The Program Management Office is a stalwart of many IT departments. Tasked with maintaining the company's policies and practices around project management, tracking the overall portfolio of IT and related projects, and often maintaining a pool of trained project managers, it has been the "gold standard" of how companies with multiple IT projects keep all the metaphorical trains running on time and on budget.

At its best, a well-run PMO alleviates the complexity and potential conflict of multiple IT projects competing for similar resources, whether it's a trained project manager or time with end-users in a particular department. However, many PMOs fall into a number of traps that make them administrative overhead at best, and a costly distraction at worst. Here's how to identify and avoid the common pitfalls.

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Keep the PMO results-focused

Managing multiple IT projects is certainly a complex undertaking; however, it can become an enterprise unto itself that becomes disconnected from the purpose it was originally meant to serve. At the end of the day, the PMO should focus on keeping the right projects running on-time and on budget. Everything else, from training managers to building PMO infrastructure to holding meetings, should be secondary concerns. Having the best-trained project managers, world-class portfolio management software, and a suite of projects that are tracking perfectly to a complex plan is meaningless if the portfolio of projects aren't the right ones and aren't going to deliver capabilities to the business that are timely and beneficial.

As IT leaders our primary job when interacting with the PMO should be to ensure its portfolio of projects is regularly evaluated against the expected benefits, and that the portfolio is regularly "groomed" and maintained. This responsibility should extend to the PMO, which is the "eyes and ears" that can identify early warning signs that seemingly well-running projects may be delivering the wrong outcome or are no longer relevant to the business.

The PMO is a supporting actor, not the director

The primary purpose of a PMO is to allow individual initiatives to maximize their success. A well-executed PMO provides just enough discipline and oversight, and the right amount of coordination with other initiatives, to let the individual projects be the stars of their show. This is a challenging task, especially since the PMO's role is complex, and it can be tempting to see the administration of the overall project portfolio as more pressing than the individual projects themselves.

This can manifest itself in a variety of ways, often with the PMO asserting an administrative authority that ultimately becomes more harmful than helpful. If you find your PMO debating management and reporting standards, creating endless status meetings, or focusing more on project management theatrics than actually executing the work of the project, it may become time to intervene.

Similarly, if your PMO is applying a "one-size-fits-all" approach to your organization's projects, it may be time for a rethink. A project to replace the water cooler does not require the same discipline, reporting, oversight, and tools as a post-merger integration.

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Replacing the PMO

If your PMO has fallen hopelessly into some combination of these traps, it may be time to disband it and start anew. Many organizations are adopting the concept of a "Results Management Office" that abandons the project management role of the PMO and focuses solely on monitoring and capturing the results of an overall project portfolio. This can dramatically clarify the role and focus of an overarching portfolio management organization, pushing operational decisions down to the project level while ensuring the collective portfolio of projects is meeting the company's goals.

Should you decide to move in this direction, realize that an RMO requires different skillsets than a PMO. You'll spend significantly less time focused on management methodologies and certification programs, and more time on financial modeling, identifying key metrics for each project in the portfolio and deciding when to adjust project funding in the context of the overall portfolio. This requires new skills on the RMO team, as well as an expectation that one of the core roles of a traditional PMO--providing project execution expertise--can be fulfilled without an organizational body providing oversight and guidance.

If you've been able to deliver projects that met their technical requirements and were delivered on time, but missed the mark on business adoption or realization of their business case, an RMO may be just the right recipe for success, bringing financial discipline to your organization's ability to deliver projects.

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By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a leading global professional services firm, where he helps companies rapidly invent and launch new businesses. He is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companio...