Let’s be honest. PMOs don’t really do very much, do they?
They might set policies and processes, but other people do the actual work.
Take risk management, for example. The PMO might set up the process, put in place suitable tools, but it’s the PMs who actually keep the risk registers and implement risk mitigation strategies.
Getting people to do things this is like being able to do some kind of Jedi mind-trick. You can't do the work yourself, so you need to get them to do it.
Same thing with project prioritization. The PMO doesn’t select projects. They might own the process of collecting data and documenting the case for projects but the actual selection is done by the business.
Why am I taking such a provocative position?
I don’t mean to say people within the PMO don’t do much – in my experience they are dedicated individuals who work hard – but most of the actual work happens elsewhere.
Majority of the impact that a PMO (specifically the PMO leadership) has happens through others.
So, when you’re hiring into the PMO, or when you’re reviewing your own performance, here are some of the factors I’d explore – the ones that give the best chance of releasing your PMOs inner-Jedi. Personally, I’d rank all of these factors above “experience” though this is “something about which intelligent people can disagree” (does using that phrase automatically qualify me for a US Senate seat?) Here they are (in no particular order);
The credibility to influence exec direction with respect to how a portfolio can best be improved. Call this “Earning exec sponsorship” if you like.
The ability to drive and manage change WITHIN the project delivery machinery (not just manage business as usual, but transform the way project management/selection/oversight is done).
Credibility with PMs - they need to see value in the PMO and if they don't trust you... game over!
Each of these is about influencing others, not about “doing the job well”. Yes, you need to know what you’re talking about, but if you can’t get other people to follow along, you may as well not bother showing up.
Case in point: I heard a story a few weeks ago about a large Federal government agency that has been heavily and repeatedly criticized for its inability to run projects. They hired an absolute top-tier person to run the PMO, someone who knows project methodologies inside-and-out. Unfortunately that person was unable to get exec buy-in for what needed to be done. That may be down to exec intransigence (given the particulars of this case, I think it probably was about intransigence) but the fact is that the most important success factor for this particular PMO was the ability to influence executive direction.
It was not about methodology, quality of execution... it was about acting through others.
Another example – this one is one of our customers. An IT portfolio that was failing. Projects failing.. Unhappy stakeholders… the list goes on. A new PMO leader came in, identified that prioritization and resource allocation were the problem (80% of the portfolio was ranked “top priority” which basically meant there was no prioritization). He was able to sell the need for change, identify a solution (which happened to be us) and then implement that solution quickly. This bolstered his credibility right across the organization and made it easier for him to implement other changes (leading to promotion).
Again, the barrier to changing a well-entrenched business process (prioritization) wasn’t the methodology or the tools. No, it was getting execs to buy in because they were the ones who actually did the work of selecting projects.
Success came down to getting others to change their way of doing things… because the PMO doesn’t do anything themselves!
It's like hypnosis...
Finally, the topic of this blog is not an area I’ve seen any research on. I’d be really interested in seeing some if anyone’s aware of good data. This article is just my take based on my own journey through PMO Land. I’d also love to hear your view of what the most important factors are in PMO leadership.