Why a Strategic PMO Is Not a Status Machine

Tom Hoch

Over the last several years, the PMO (Project Management Office) has transitioned in its public perception from a valuable company practice to a “status machine.” Worse, it has become aligned with a distortion of “governance” that suggests there are people forming up walls of rules that make getting things done exhausting and painful. In fact, the opposite is true of a Strategic PMO.

Meetings, statuses, milestones, and rules are NOT the strict purpose of a PMO. Meetings, statuses, and gates are a byproduct: a support mechanism. They’re not to be abused.

A strategic PMO knows they can only be effective if they FIRST understand the needs of an organization. I told a client recently that you wouldn’t walk around a construction site telling everyone how great a hammer is. You’d ask the builder what they are building first. If it’s a skyscraper, a hammer might be a little worthless. If it’s a house, a hammer is a smart tool. The same goes for a business and a project— you can’t know the tools, the engagement model, or the structure if you don’t know what they’re trying to achieve.

For instance, people may be working on projects but need a bit of organizational management to get it done efficiently and on deadline. That requires a strategic examination of everything from content management to common processes to exchanges of information. Often, there are unknown time drains or inefficiencies that a Strategic PMO can remediate with process and structure. Simply said, tools, rules, and structure are meant to ensure everything runs smoother and more efficiently.

How did PMO get pigeonholed as a Status Machine?

There are a couple of ways PMOs ran off the rails. First, individuals in large organizations learn pretty quickly that identifying a sticky problem in an organization that could be fixed with process is a great way to get ahead. A decade or more later, those processes from a multitude of individuals start to lose oversight. And process chaos ensues. It’s death by a thousand cuts. Second, process-driven activities often trap organizations that aren’t all that process-oriented. They get stuck in the rut of over-processed meetings and rules and lose the point because they weren’t set up for that kind of process in the first place.

A Strategic PMO isn’t rigid.

Strategic PMO solutions enable work to be done in a way that complements the organization.

  • THEY’RE READY TO BE NIMBLE: A Strategic PMO considers the nature of their client organization, team(s), and project. How nimble are they? Solutions can, and often do, straddle work modes to meet the needs of a project— for instance, enabling Agile work while at the same time enabling waterfall mode. Good PMO practices are ones that allow for speed, agility, and efficiency.
  • THEY EXAMINE THE TOOLKIT: Toolkits are not one size fits all. And they should be re-evaluated periodically. New tools and opportunities enter the marketplace all the time. A great example is the rise of online document sharing such as OneDrive and Box. These collaborative tools minimize back and forth, simplify versioning, and store documents for controlled access. The point is— it’s worth making room to see if your toolkit is helping or holding you back.
  • THEY INVOLVE THE ORGANIZATION: Say somebody asks me to make them breakfast. And, after going away for a bit, I bring them a toaster. They’d be pretty confused, right? But, what if they asked me to make them breakfast, and then I sat with them and asked questions— Do you want me to make it once, or do you want me to enable you to make it every day? How much money do you have? Then, after discussion, I suggested a toaster so they could make breakfast every day. That toaster sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? By engaging people in the right way, there is more collaboration and less friction.

It’s time to ditch the “status machine” moniker and reclaim the PMO as a strategic asset— one that can help create success within companies alongside their teams and within their most pressing project initiatives.