Opinion: Make a PMO that's beneficial, not bureaucratic

After last year's layoffs, many organizations are doing more with less. We all know this looks good on paper, but down in the trenches it can be a pressure cooker. So, when a project manager hears that a PMO (project management office) is going to be established, the first thought is "Great, more administrative work! That's all I need right now."

If a PMO creates work without value, then it's meaningless. If it's going to work, it needs to be a living, breathing system within your organization. Control and accountability are important outcomes, but not the whole story. For a team to embrace a PMO, it needs to understand how it will ultimately benefit them on the ground.

Let's look at what a PMO can do, what you can expect and how to get started.

Seven Things a PMO Can Do

  1. Improve project portfolio management. A PMO can help you select the mix of projects that will most effectively meet strategic objectives. IT leaders need to make sure that their IT projects are not in a silo, but connected to the company's larger objectives.
  2. Provide project support. A PMO can be a conduit for project management guidance to project managers in other business units. Think about the pockets of project management excellence that you have and how powerful it would be to spread the expertise around.
  3. Create a project management process and methodology. A PMO can develop and implement a consistent, standardized process so that you aren't constantly reinventing the wheel.
  4. Conduct training. A PMO can build training programs and develop a staff of program managers who can manage multiple projects across the enterprise. This is especially important for IT leaders in a world where technology is a critical part of an organization's efficiency.
  5. Establish a home base for project managers. A PMO can create a centralized office from which project managers operate as a cohesive team that works across the organization.
  6. Become internal consultants and mentors. A PMO becomes valuable when it can share best practices and help to educate managers throughout a company.
  7. Assess project management software tools. Part of a PMO's job is to select and maintain project management software that will be useful for the capabilities of the staff.

What Can You Expect?

Improved organization efficiency. PMOs can provide the structure needed to both standardize project management practices and improve project portfolio management. A PMO can help your organization determine methodologies for repeatable processes, providing a discipline that is often lacking in organizations. It helps you to deliver strategic projects with more consistency and efficiency, cutting costs and saving time.

A focus on culture. The important strategic initiatives in your company that were successes probably flowed within your business culture. That's no accident, so make sure that your PMO does the same. Don't isolate it as some solo test project. Make it part of the organization's very fabric.

Getting Started

Set realistic expectations. Don't predict extravagant returns if you don't have anything to benchmark against.

Manage perceptions about PMOs. Before you embark on building a PMO, take the temperature of your organization. Do you need to educate people about what a PMO can do for your organization? If the term "PMO" has a negative connotation for some reason, a name change might be all it takes. Call it the Center for Project Excellence, say, and you might overcome objections that a PMO would raise.

Know where you're going. What are your organization's goals, and how will the PMO support them? If management is focusing on a strategic initiative, make sure that your PMO is part of it. Don't measure and manage what management doesn't care about.

Decide what shape your PMO should take. There are two basic models: A consultancy hub that provides project managers in business units with training, guidance and best practices, and a best practices center with project managers on staff who are loaned out to business units to work on projects.

Build a good team with solid leadership and clear ownership. Don't staff the PMO with people who have some downtime. Choose strong leaders who have a direct line to you.

Track the success and share the results. Don't treat the PMO as top-secret. Share its mission and its successes, failures and benefits with the entire organization.

Use baseline controls. Decide what you want to track and set expectations for what you want to benchmark against.

Be relentless in your pursuit of performance. Results come from diligence and dogged determination. Support your PMO with clear commitment and support from the senior-most levels of your organization.

Demonstrate the bottom-line impact. Once you have a baseline to measure against, you can see results in less than three years. You'll save money by empowering better resource management, reducing project failures and prioritizing and supporting those projects that offer the biggest payback.

Make it actionable, not administrative. Avoid the pitfall of making the PMO a purely administrative office. Instead, make it the center of change, a catalyst for improvement across your organization with tangible and realistic strategic goals.

Success starts at the top. If the vision of the PMO is coming from the top, it's already on the road to success. If the PMO is on management's radar screen, then your leadership team will focus on it too. This will give the PMO the support it needs to bring long-term results to your organization.

Michelle LaBrosse, PMP, is the founder and CEO of Cheetah Learning and author of the books Cheetah Negotiations and Cheetah Project Management.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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