The Naive PMO
It may seem surprising to those outside the field that most PMOs are not in fact focused on proper governance, but for us in the thick of it this does not come as a surprise.
Most PMOs are in fact driven by the (misleadingly) named governance calendar. This applies at all levels of PMO.
- Portfolio Offices use as core driver the schedule of funding meetings when the body in charge of approving expenditure meets, typically a sub-committee of the Board, and typically once a month. All other dates, mostly deadlines for submissions and dates for publishing outcomes, are derived from that. The work of the people in this level of PMO consists of various grades of detail provision around the single goal of having a consistent set of data from each project and programme, so that priorities and funding can be done by comparing like with like.
- Programme Offices and Project Offices are driven by the same monthly schedule, but their outputs try to describe the status of their change initiative for 'public' consumption. These outputs are consolidated mostly into decks of slides for Steering Groups, or summary information formatted for the Portfolio Office.
The deadlines and the pressure all come from this artificial calendar, driven by when certain busy people can meet. The effect of this state of affairs is that, in the end, the very useful knowledge work in the background is done just to "tick the box", to meet the deadline. Work done by PMO people on critical disciplines like schedule and budget forecasting, risk management, dependency analysis, change control, etc., is rarely used actively to reduce the uncertainty relating to the deliverables and benefits of the change activities. The outputs of this work are used mostly to comply with reporting standards.
A lot of PMO talent and organisational investment is wasted in this way. The actual disciplines being deployed are the right ones, and they may be done to a high level of skill in some cases, but the overall effect is a sub-optimal PMO because the focus is not on governance.
If you read about what various PMOs report as their focus you will find a variety of approaches, or so it seems. There are many, many missions and visions out there. However, with few exceptions they all share the same problem: the PMO becomes a parallel stream of work, not an intrinsic ingredient of managing by projects. That's why you hear so many stories about very long reports that no one reads. Without a focus on governance there is a real risk of creating a PMO cottage industry of limited value, other than allowing the company auditors to tick the box.
It doesn't need to be this way.
When we look later at what we can do to allow a PMO to deliver its optimal potential I will cover some specific steps that should be taken to start that journey, which will of course be different in each case.
For now we need to keep in mind that the firm ground from where to start this journey can be recognised by certain essential characteristics: a PMO must be business-driven, not methodology driven; its services must be focused on governance, not on templates and calendars; and there needs to be an explicit map of the project environment, including the areas that usually remain hidden.