PMOs struggle to balance project discipline, bureaucracy

IT organizations are turning to project management offices for help

ATLANTA -- A growing number of IT organizations are creating project management offices (PMO) to improve upon IT's historically abysmal record of delivering projects on-time, within scope and under budget.

But as PMOs go about establishing more disciplined approaches to project management, their leaders are discovering how tough it is to strike a balance between creating structure and excessive bureaucracy.

"We all know there's resistance to a PMO [by project managers]. There's this image of a governing body being bureaucratic or creating red tape" to manage IT projects, said Tom Nodar, PMO manager for the American Cancer Society.

Nodar spoke at a PMO best practices conference held here yesterday by the International Quality and Productivity Center. At the event, he and the other five members of the Society's PMO said they have been sensitive to such concerns of other IT project managers since the group was created in 2000.

"We didn't want to become a source of bureaucracy," said Nodar. "But we knew that we needed a certain level of governance and discipline over these projects."

It's a tricky balancing act for many PMO managers. "I think this is the fundamental question as to whether the PMO is going to succeed or not," said Jack Duggal, a principal at Projectize Group, a Simsbury, Conn.-based project management consulting firm. By establishing a firm set of project management processes to adhere to, PMOs are forcing IT project managers to abandon approaches to overseeing projects that they've been using for years, said Duggal.

"You're changing their religion; you're taking away their freedom" to choose, Duggal said.

Several PMO managers said one way to achieve buy-in with IT project managers is to start a PMO slowly and build on project successes to gain their trust. With an IT project completion rate above 90%, IT project managers at Meijer Inc. "are pretty committed" to the methodologies espoused by its PMO, said Jim Morse, program office manager for the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based retailer.

Since it established a PMO in December 2002, the state of Florida's Department of Health division of information technology "hasn't had any 'black hole' projects and that is a success for a government agency," said Jane Matthews, a project manager for the group in Tallahassee.

At the American Cancer Society, Nodar and his team hold regular PMO issue meetings, where IT project managers can gripe about any requirements they see as overly bureaucratic and suggest revisions. For instance, one project manager recently recommended that the PMO adopt an off-the-shelf project management software tool that was better than the system already in place, said Nodar.

"We encourage feedback from our project managers. They're comfortable enough with us that they can be blunt," he said.

For companies in heavily regulated industries such as financial services, it's a bit easier to sell IT project managers on the need to document their project management processes, said Jennifer Code, executive vice president for program management at Citigroup Inc.'s technology infrastructure group in New York. "People don't blame us, they blame the regulators" for those requirements, Code said.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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