8 Tips to Launching and Maintaining a Successful PMO

Setting up a Program Management Office (PMO) is as much an art as it is a skill.  Entire books have been written about standing up a PMO.  In fact, each of the tips discussed here could stand as a chapter on its own.  With this in mind, realize that this is a general primer intended to provide high level guidance and to share some lessons learned from previous PMO startup attempts.

So what are some of the common challenges of establishing a PMO? And why do so many of them fail to perform as expected?  First, it is important to understand the type of PMO that is being established.  It is essential that the role of the PMO is well-defined, and that the role is understood and communicated to everyone in the organization.  Just like any endeavor, to be successful, you have to know why it is being done and you must communicate it.  A poorly defined PMO role can lead to the PMO overextending its reach or failing to meet perform due to a lack of direction.

There are some key points to consider when standing up and maintaining a successful PMO.  Let’s go into the 8 tips for launching and maintaining a successful PMO.

1. Understand the type of PMO that needs to be established

It is true that PMOs have certain common objectives:

  • Maintain a centralized set of processes and ensure that they are adhered to
  • Maintain  a central set of project management (PM) tools and services
  • Centrally track resources for projects
  • Provide support to project managers and senior management on ensuring project control
  • Support the goal of ensuring project quality and strategic alignment
  • Facilitate performance reporting
  • Support portfolio selection
  • Provide centralized acquisition management services
  • Maintain a knowledge repository of processes, templates and lessons learned

However,  it is important to understand that within an organization PMOs can be established to serve a specific purpose.  According to the Program Management Office Handbook, a book put out by the PMO Special Interest Group (PMOSIG) of the Project Management Institute (PMI), there are six types of Programs:

  • Strategic Program – focuses on work to align to with the organization’s strategic goals and objectives
  • Operational Program – focuses on operations within an organization — specifically operational process improvement initiatives to drive operational effectiveness and efficiency
  • Product Program – focuses on a specific product
  • Functional Program – aligns to a specific function of the organization such as service delivery or information technology
  • Enterprise Program – generally high risk programs that span across the organization and impact multiple business units, operations and functions.  They are cross functional and generally intended to deliver changes in direction or focus on positioning for new opportunities for growth.

Each of the above types of Programs could have their own PMO within an organization.  In an organization with multiple types of PMOs, it also makes sense to establish an Enterprise PMO.  The enterprise PMO would establish a central taxonomy and nomenclature, maintain a central repository of processes, templates and documentation, and provide centralized training and mentoring.

2. Determine the PMO’s roles and responsibilities

Within a PMO, the specific roles and responsibilities can vary depending on the level of sponsor support and the stated goals and objectives of the PMO.  A PMO can serve one or more of the following roles:

  • Mentoring and coaching
  • Process methodology definition and maintenance
  • Project monitoring and control
  • Governance support and strategic alignment
  • Value delivery
  • Reporting (Project and Management level)
  • Communication
  • Training
  • Project execution
  • Project selection
  • Acquisition Management and Support
  • Life Cycle enforcement and reviews
  • Budget and resource estimation

Based on the above list of possible responsibilities, this will impact the types of roles and the number of people involved.  Generally, PMOs that provide guidance but do not actually have the responsibility of running projects or programs are not very large — perhaps 3 to 5 members.  Is the PMO responsible for management reporting?  Is the PMO responsible for ensuring that projects are following the defined life cycle?  Is the PMO responsible for promoting effective and efficient operations?  Does the PMO have portfolio decision-making authority?  Or does the PMO support senior management by supplying information to help senior management make portfolio decisions (accepting, maintaining and removing projects from the portfolio based on performance or risk factors, etc.).   All of these considerations will impact the size and structure of the PMO.

3. Obtain senior management backing and support

A key factor in the PMO’s overall success is upper management support.  The sponsor must ensure that the PMO has pubic backing and the authority and direction to move forward.  If the PMO launches as a half-hearted effort to try the latest trend in management techniques, then it does not have a good chance of succeeding.  Only with a clear vision for the PMO, and a sponsor that is willing to communicate the vision, will the PMO be able to reach its full potential.

4. Develop a communication strategy and reach out if needed

Understand the significance of a PMO communication strategy.  PMO communication responsibilities can be two-fold.   The first communication responsibility includes managing and directing communication within the project or program.   Second, the PMO must communicate out to the organization on the PMO’s goals and objectives.  Depending on the level of senior management support, the second point may be critical to the overall success of the PMO.  In an organization where the PMO’s direct level of authority is limited, the PMO might have to reach out to programs, functions and business units to let them know that the PMO is there to support them.   This is common in PMOs that mainly promote process improvement, but don’t generally have the enforcement authority to ensure that all projects follow a consistent process.

5. Focus on providing immediate value

Immediate value is critical, yet sometimes overlooked.  There is no need to try to involve the PMO across all work products from the outset.  It is better to start with one or two projects so that the work is manageable.  This allows the PMO to show value to the organization quickly.   Remember that most PMOs are considered overhead cost (Generally should not be more than 10% of the budget of the project or program).  Since the PMO is not a money-making operation, it must show that it is improving effectiveness and efficiency through solid performance metrics.  By being able to provide and show value, the PMO can gain the confidence of management and the organization and ultimately become a trusted parter to management.

6. Ensure Alignment with the organization strategy

As a PMO, ensuring alignment to the organization’s strategic goals and objectives should be forefront on the PMO’s list of priorities.  PMOs have a responsibility to ensure that the organization’s work is aligned with its strategic objectives.  PMOs must also ensure that they are in tune with the direction of the organization.  For example, if the organization is making a push for a more modular approach to development with iterative release cycles, the PMO needs to ensure that the life cycle reflects this change in direction.

7. Consider Surveys

Yes, consider surveying the organization periodically to gauge the PMO’s perceived value within the organization.  Of course, once a survey is conducted, make sure to respond to the feedback.

8. Provide the right tools

A good PMO provides the organization with a good set of centralized tools to help them manage their work.  It’s as simple as that.  Provide the right tools, templates and documentation to ensure that the work is being performed per the life cycle.  The tools should strive to take out the guess-work for project staff by guiding them through the processes and leaving little to guesswork.  The tools should also provide management with insight into the work being performed.  Additionally the tools should allow the PMO to become the central repository of information regarding project status, resources, schedules and artifacts.

Future posts will touch more on some of these topics.

The following book in the “Links” section, and listed for purchase through Amazon, is a book that I personally used on a project to develop a PMO.  I found the information insightful and practical with real-world challenges and examples of how to deal with them:

Related Links:

Recommended Book:

  • The PMOSIG Program Management Office Handbook — Strategic and Tactical Insights for Improving Results


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