Tips for fine-tuning a PMO

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I had the benefit of a good turnout and an engaged audience at the meeting of the North West Branch this week. I talked about PMO optimisation: how to create more value without waiting for more resource or tools. What I wanted to review here were the themes raised by the audience in reaction.

In a nutshell, my argument is that a PMO can help to raise the organisation's project management maturity without paying for more training or tools, by embedding lessons learned into existing organisational processes and in the lifecycle and standards for projects.

This highlights a number of questions, which I sought to clarify at the session, not least what we mean by “learned” in this context. I started by laying down some fundamental assumptions: that a PMO must be business oriented and not methodology oriented, and that the focus of a ‘mission’ for any given PMO must be tailored to their organisational environment but with a strong focus on governance. I also believe that by understanding intimately how each service contributes to governance, and which aspects of the service contribute the most, a PMO will be able to extract significant additional value from their existing catalogue of services.

In order to make the argument above, I picked three services that are fairly standard offerings in most established PMOs: lessons learned, dependency management and portfolio evaluation. I wanted to explore in some detail the journey that PMOs must make in order to add the most value from their catalogue of services.  That journey entails moving from a ‘tick-the-box’ approach, one largely centred on producing MI, to an approach that is massively action oriented. The PMO must aim to stir some debate with the decision support information they produce. The insights shared need to be compelling enough to motivate decision makers to act, and should give guidance as to where that action may be most effective.

The bulk of the session was a detailed exploration of how to make that journey from A to B, using examples applicable to each of the sample techniques.  I summarised with some purely pragmatic “advice from the trenches”:

  • Identify some quick wins: techniques your PMO is good at
  • Change the outputs of those techniques so that they feed each other
  • You don’t need to get more people or tools to make the time to do this: simply swap some pointless work for productive work on the quiet
  • Productive in this case means governance related with a bias for action
  • Pick a good customer for your new decision support information
  • Get them to fire up their stakeholder peers with their new story of PMO benefits

The feedback at the end of the session was invaluable to me, because I felt that the presentation was very well received. It's a great feeling, but always seeking to improve, I've been reflecting on the questions that encapsulated tips revealing where my explanations need to be sharper. I found that many of the questions on lessons learned, for instance, still revealed a mental model where a lesson waits in a repository to be unwrapped by a learner project manager. What I had argued for was a move away from that model, to one where the PMO unwraps the recorded lesson (not yet learned, only recorded) and proposes two things: what action needs to be taken to cause the improvement sought for all future projects, and who is the decision maker(s) best placed to bring about that change in the organisation. Then the PMO must make that case in the form of decision support information based on the recorded lessons and any other evidence. I should have said that clearly...

Similarly, I was extremely interested to hear doubts about dependency management couched in terms of the discipline not being in the BoK, or being something that project managers have to resolve one to one.  My view is that the BoK has evolved greatly from the days when it reflected the knowledge required to run the original ‘proper’ projects: big, new things, massive stuff to amaze us all. It still reflects more of what a firm whose core competence is project management does. However, most of us work in matrix organisations, big, medium and small, where project management is an auxiliary competence. In those environments I can assure you that managing the dependencies between different projects, programmes and portfolios is vital. Done well it is hugely productive and often adds directly to the bottom line through avoidance of delays and additional costs. I had not been clear about the context in which my pragmatic advice was grounded.

My greatest hope is that my kind audience learned as much as I did, and that (please, please, please...) many of them are able to put at least one thing they heard to actual good use.

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Posted by Lain Burgos-Lovece on 26th Feb 2013

About the Author
Lain Burgos-Lovece has over 20 years of management experience in the field of Project/Programme Management/Change Management, in IT and the Financial Services sector. He established Gate Pilot Ltd. in 2007 with the aim of helping clients to get the best out of the control environment for their projects & programmes, often through corporate centres of excellence known variously as PMO, P3O, PSO, etc. Although he has delivered many large projects and programmes during his career, the assurance (PMO) side of the profession is the thrust of the research and implementation carried out by Gate Pilot Ltd on behalf of clients. Lain is passionate about the difference a good PMO can make: “Having a suitable project control environment is like having a road to travel on, rather than carting your business hopes across swamps and forests every time.” He also holds the grade of Certificated Project Manager (awarded by APM in 2003).

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