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10 tips for PMO excellence

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Their winning entry says it all: “The Project Delivery & Improvement (PD&I) PMO operates within the national funding agency, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Over the last year we have transformed how we support UKRI, resulting in a 100% success rate in getting major project business cases approved first time, and a significant increase in P3M3 maturity.

“Alongside delivering over 300 projects and programmes, we have [adopted] a Portfolio Management approach, new tools, a centralised hub, and provided more than 250 hours of CPD.”

This year’s APM PMO of the Year impressed judges, who commended “a very effective and highly motivated PMO, ‘where work should be fun’”; “a terrific advert for apprenticeships”; and “a contribution to both the project management community and the wider organisation.”

Top tips

Project caught up with Nicola Canale, UKRI PD&I Deputy Director, and Mark Bradley, UKRI Head of Project Delivery Profession, to get their top tips for a world-class PMO.

1. Economies of scale work

PD&I was set up in 2019 to serve nine funding councils that had been merged to become UKRI in 2018. Bradley wanted a “more than the sum of the parts” approach to project management in the new body.

That meant structures to share capabilities as broadly as possible. Setting up a Business Case Hub, for example, enabled individual projects to access skills, expertise and connections with other agencies that massively boosted success rates while simultaneously enhancing those experts’ own capabilities.

2. (But) don’t fear tailoring

“Lots of people were feeling quite defensive,” says Bradley of UKRI’s first few months. “They wondered what it meant and how it was going to work. I have a mantra ‘as common as possible, as different as necessary’ — that really helped. With an organisation as diverse as ours, one size doesn’t always fit all.”

3. Dialogue and diplomacy

To uncover common approaches, the team spent a lot of time consulting. “It’s not about steaming in and telling people ‘that’s the way it has to be done’, it’s helping them see the benefits of doing things in a particular way,” says Canale. “We’ve not had a mandate for anything that we do, really, so it’s all been a case of getting people on board, helping them understand why we take a particular approach.” It takes a bit longer, but you get firmer buy-in and better results.

4. Have some humility

Bradley worried about establishing a ‘centre of excellence’ that might seem arrogant, undermining the collegiate culture. So Canale set up Specific Interest Groups instead. With a great sense of ownership by different teams, and more targeted ‘best practice’ from shared experience, buy-in was much better.

5. Get people together

PD&I has an active events calendar that ensures project professionals across the organisation can meet, share ideas, showcase wins, team-build, and inform the culture. “For example, we’ve just had our Learning Fortnight, a collaborative event for all the councils where you can meet people from across the profession,” says Canale.

“We need to make sure project managers feel part of a team back ‘at home’, that they know they’ve got peer-to-peer support.”

6. Carve out time to think and develop

Events help teams fulfil their CPD — 37 hours a year at PD&I. “When we allocate our pooled resource to projects, it’s part of the deal that they’re given headroom to do CPD,” says Canale. The team uses the government’s online skills tool to assess its capabilities against the Project Delivery Capability Framework. And at the organisational level, a culture of continuous improvement is backed by structured initiatives such as Lean Six Sigma.

7. Don’t dodge the hard conversations

When recent changes at UKRI required a reshaping of the PMO, leadership didn’t shy away from tough conversations. “We said ‘let’s tackle it early so we’re in control’,” says Bradley.

“Get the team involved. That helps build a clear vision — and shows that we care about all the individuals.” PD&I headcount peaked at over 80; post-review it’s down to the mid-50s, but by being proactive everyone was able to redeploy successfully.

8. Professionalism is the best governance

Government, the UKRI’s ultimate authority, has high expectations for effectiveness, efficiency — and accountability.

“We have formal reporting, with dashboards that go up to appropriate boards,” says Bradley. “But what we want is professionals with the right skills running projects, so any issues get escalated naturally, not necessarily through formal reporting.”

9. Have pride in project management

Bradley and Canale talk fondly about the more challenging projects PD&I has supported. “Great stories, where you can really see how the project profession is making a tangible difference, remind people why we do it,” says Bradley. “It’s not just writing risk registers or benefits cases.”

10. Maintain a clear vision

Bradley is a great believer in having a well-articulated long-term plan — rather than making expedient short-term decisions that can take you off course. That clarity of vision extends to the work environment. “Look after your people, because without the people you’re nothing,” Canale concludes.


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