What’s wrong with the PMO these days?

While Program Management Offices (PMO’s) are standard features in today’s project management environment, the term covers a multitude of functions ranging from enterprise PMO’s, supporting an organization’s entire project portfolio, to more focused PMO’s supporting specific programs or large projects. 

In practice, the term ‘PMO’ conjures up many different images in peoples’ minds, some good, some not.  At their best, a well-designed and staffed PMO can be instrumental in the successful running of projects and programs. At their worst, however, they can be seen as bureaucracy personified – plenty of processes and data, but little value-add.

It is clear that, despite a common name, that not all PMO’s are created equal.  If they are so important and widely used, why do many PMO’s still fail to meet expectations and add value?  In our experience, the root cause of many problems may be found in the clarity of their intended scope and service expectations, which is the focus of this article.  Of course, other factors, including how they are configured, staffed and managed, are also important and will be addressed in future articles.

Our project portfolio delivery effectiveness best practice model, illustrated below, provides a framework for discussing potential elements of PMO scope.


The foundation of the model (and of delivery itself) is solid Project Management discipline and practice.  Every PMO has a role in establishing and ensuring the application of a consistent methodology and tools, and in establishing an authoritative set of project data to enable the other practices in the model.  These really are the minimum expectations of such a function and need to be executed flawlessly.  Too often there is limited effective project or program management capability or discipline. In addition there’s a tendency to start everything but an inability to complete it all.

The next layer of the model reflects the additional practices PMO’s most commonly support.  The most significant of these are portfolio management and governance. There is a lack of clarity around delivery accountabilities and leadership is often surprised that projects/programs fail to deliver.  Inconsistent governance-oversight and decision-making and the primary focus is on tracking at the expense of greater value-add such as real support and delivery assurance.

The third layer, comprising resource management and project-related financial management, is often overlooked in our experience. These practices are dependent on solid project estimating and forecasting and require significant additional effort and focus across organizational boundaries to operate effectively. Accurate resource estimating is difficult and there is limited knowledge of what capacity or capability exists. Typically there is inadequate financial and resource management and it’s difficult to balance resources between business-as-usual and project work.

In addition to the foregoing discussion on PMO scope, another important factor is the establishment of expectations in terms of pro-activity and value-add.  An “administrative” PMO would be concerned with ensuring that the control systems are updated on a regular basis, and regular reports and ad-hoc management information produced.  A “proactive” PMO would additionally be concerned with analyzing and interpreting the information, challenging plans and initiating action to address issues, and providing coaching and support.  The difference is a shift of emphasis from one of compliance and reporting, to one of enabling and assuring delivery.

The choices on scope and service expectations have a profound impact on the scale and nature of staffing for a PMO.  An administrative model can be implemented with a “lighter touch”, possibly using staff without much project experience.  This is unlikely to be the case with a more proactive model.

PMO’s need to be doing the simple important things well, getting the basics right and offering a value-adding service rather than a burdensome overhead to already busy people – the simply better PMO.

I will address the benefits of a simply better PMO in my next blog and how to get the basics right in a future blog.

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