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Tips for fine-tuning a PMO

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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  1. Albert Bissember
    Albert Bissember 19 December 2013, 05:52 PM

    Excellent point, however it's seldom the solution. Projects continue to fail.There are suitations where the PMO is staffed with inexperienced PMs/experienced PMs that unwilling to address the issue due to politics etc..You can have the best Methodology  & PMO Framework inplace, however Stakeholders politics still governs the deliverables. With 22 years experience  within all levels of Project Managent, I have seen it all with no expectations for change.

  2. Adrian Hepworth
    Adrian Hepworth 06 April 2013, 10:44 AM

    Hi LainI am currently conducting a research study into PPM & PMO decision making, can i ask yourself and any fellow practitioners to participate? the link is below.Many thanksAdrian https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/ZJ5QPS7-PPM  

  3. Adrian Hepworth
    Adrian Hepworth 06 April 2013, 09:14 AM

    Hi Lain PPM compared to project management is still in its infancy and there is still lots to learn, although there are still many organizations out there that have not grasped project management as a core competency or moved through a transitional stage to keep up technology, market and emerging market trends (Lampel, 2001). Organizations that have plunged into the style of transformational leadership and management have come through the other side unscathed, but leaner more efficient and leaders with the competitive edge and advantage over other organizations. It is a natural transitional lifecycle that has happened in the past and will happen again in the future. Organizations that are considering adopting PPM or want to upgrade efficiency of an existing system should look at lessons learned and benchmarking from other organizations that have moved through the transition. Knowledge is already out there its a case of researching and adopting some best practices already in place, not mirroring another organization but building a model from many or a few that have sustainable best practices in place, one such best practice as I suggest, the weekly/monthly/milestone reviewing process that can be adapted for singular or multiple project reviews, Kerzner, (2010) supports this theory.  I agree with you theory on the reviewing process as a whole for the portfolio to manage impacts to other projects. In addition single projects should go through the milestone review process that is supported by the PMO, the PMO and the project can then make necessary changes from lessons learned during the project lifecycle.     Further to the PPM knowledge area, project management, PPM & the PMO have all been tried and tested by organizations that have the investment and want the competitive edge in the market, such as IBM, COMAU and PETROFAC, the common amenity is adopting project management as the core organizational competence and platform for all organizational processes (Kerzner, 2010). Crovasce, (2010) the corporate PMO manager at COMAU, suggests that standardization of process across all the business units, fostering knowledge transfer, the implementation of the project program based on leadership traits, tailored specifically to improve project teams within COMAU and foster a positive attitude that is the driving among all employees. Furthermore organizations need to create the vision and the strategic roadmap that all employees share in and bolster achievements. Changes at any level is better supported by senior/mid management, this reduces resistance throughout the layers and improves implementation, better still change is accepted more when resources are involved and engaged in the planning and process of the change, and thus, making the difference is engaging the resources that the change will affect and impact. Please review the article by (Smet, Lavoie & Hioe, 2012), the article discusses change leadership and agents for best practices. Let me know if you have problems finding the article, I can email it over to you. Further thoughts? Adrian References Crovasce, V. (2010) 'Common Ground', PM Network, 24 (1), pp.28-29, EBSCOhost, [Online]. Available from: http://ehis.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.liv.ac.uk/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=3&sid=d0de051f-ccc3-4200-a902 -73ff0e62e0b6%40sessionmgr111&hid=115 (Accessed: 6 April 2013).Kerzner, H. (2010) Project management best practices: achieving global excellence. 2nd ed. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley.  Lampel, J. (2001) 'The core competencies of effective project execution: the challenge of diversity', International Journal of Project Management, 19 (8), pp.471483, ScienceDirect, EBSCOhost, [Online]. Available from: http://www.sciencedirect.com.ezproxy.liv.ac.uk/science/article/pii/S0263786301000424? (Accessed: 6 April 2013).Smet, A., Lavoie, J. & Hioe, E. (2012) 'Developing better change leaders', Mckinsey Quarterly, 2, pp.98-104, Business Source Premier, EBSCO Host,[Online]. Available from: http://ehis.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.liv.ac.uk/eds/detail?vid=2&sid=1cb9f007-9796-4fc8-ae1b-9a32f36513b6%40sessionmgr15&hid=2&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmUmc2NvcGU9c2l0ZQ%3d%3d#db=bth&AN=74756221 (Accessed: 11 March 2013).

  4. Lain Burgos-Lovece
    Lain Burgos-Lovece 05 April 2013, 02:57 PM

    Hi Adrian,Thanks for the long comment.  When you say that Lessons learned and benchmarking are best implemented with the commitment and support from top management and senior leadership I would agree, but I argue that it is possible to make changes at the sharp end without involving top management.  If we are talking about large organisations, then only big strategic changes are appropriate from the top.  Even then, they require a long period of focused changes at the sharp end to be embedded.  Im all for top management support, but Ive seen many good PMOs wasting valuable time trying to make a case instead of making a difference.  Just my personal bias, I admit.Re the Portfolio Reviews, it sounds like youve got a good practice going.  In my presentation I had argued for going beyond the BAU evaluation of in-flight projects, to a look at the patterns emerging from the portfolio as a whole. Doesnt take away from the good work you are doing, though.Thanks again,Lain.-

  5. Lain Burgos-Lovece
    Lain Burgos-Lovece 05 April 2013, 02:54 PM

    Hi Adrian,Thanks for your comment.  I was really intrigued by your idea of a BoK (equivalent) for PMO.  I have been involved in Handbooks in the past, but if I understand you right, you are suggesting that the discipline now merits an organised view of its knowledge as it applies professionally.  Say more: what would you expect to find in such a BoK? Thanks again,Lain.- 

  6. Adrian Hepworth
    Adrian Hepworth 30 March 2013, 05:40 PM

    Hi Lain,A great post, I read with interest and I would like to further elaborate and add some more depth. From my own experience in the multiple project environments and having been expatriate for 20 years in the civil infrastructure and oil & gas sector and I have additionally researched PPM and the PMO for a journal. Lessons learned and benchmarking are best implemented with the commitment and support from top management and senior leadership, enlightening the vision that benchmarked changes improve processes and are the fundamental need of the organization(Andersen, Henriksen & Aarseth, 2007). Lessons learned are effectively changes that many see as trend of the time that may go away and all will revert back to the old routine. We learn lessons from in-house and from other organization that have achieved success by doing something different or in a certain way, from my own experience and suggest is to plan the lessons learned for implementation, seek the support needed, identify impacts the changes will make positive and negative (Davies, Gann & Douglas, 2009).I thoroughly support your approach for the management of dependencies and critical allocation of resources that improves performance across the portfolio and reduces conflict for resources.     We conduct regular two weekly/monthly portfolio reviews for discussion on the allocation or changes of resources, without the approval of the review board no resources are moved onto other projects or activities, this reduces ad hoc decision making. Furthermore organizations not accepting project management as a core competence may lose the competitive edge over other organizations, and maturity may be a long way down the road (Brown, 2007; OGC, 2012). In addition my viewpoint is lessons learned are easier to implement into a new or existing project where the benefits can be clearly seen from mistakes that have been made earlier, or processes streamlined to improve performances, however the PMO works more efficiently when enacting as a unit and collaborating across the portfolio.   A little long winded, I look forward to your thoughtsBest wishes Adrian References:Andersen, B., Henriksen, B. & Aarseth, W. (2007) 'Benchmarking of project management office establishment: Extracting best practices', Journal of Management in Engineering, 23 (2), pp.97-104, Scopus, EBSCO Host, [Online]. DOI: 10.1061/(ASCE)0742-597X(2007)23:2(97) (Accessed: 30 March 2013). Brown, C.J. (2007) 'Sustaining the Competitive Edge of Project Management', SAM Advanced Management Journal (07497075), 72 (1), pp.22-43, EBSCO Host, [Online]. Available from: http://ehis.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.liv.ac.uk/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=2&sid=d1bca1df-b61e-455f-9d39-798e0db68427%40sessionmgr4&hid=2 (Accessed: 30 March 2013).Davies, A., Gann, D. & Douglas, T. (2009) Innovation in megaprojects: systems integration at London Heathrow Terminal 5, California Management Review, 51 (2), pp.101-125, EBSCO Host, [Online]. Available from: http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.liv.ac.uk/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edswss&AN=000264295600005&site=eds-live&scope=site (Accessed: 30 March 2013). Office of Government Commerce, (2012) Portfolio, Programme and Project Management Maturity Model [Online] Available from: http://www.p3m3-officialsite.com/P3M3Model/P3M3Model.aspxf (Accessed: 30 March 2013).

  7. Lain Burgos-Lovece
    Lain Burgos-Lovece 13 March 2013, 11:33 AM

    ... and can you say more about your approach?  I'm intrigued by the community development bit.  Thanks!

  8. Ben Brownlee
    Ben Brownlee 06 March 2013, 03:49 PM

    Great article Lain; we're using a similar approach at the BBC plus a bit more on community development