PMO in the modern world (part two): The identity crisis

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PMO? What the heck is that? It sounds like everything and nothing all at once. And that’s exactly what it will be, unless we fix our identity crisis.

By Jools Barrow-Read, Portfolio & Programme Management (PMO) Consultant, RedWizard

PMO is the classic chicken-and-egg acronym: how do you know what it is unless you’ve worked with (or in) one? And if you haven’t worked with (or in) one, how on earth could a jargony acronym like “PMO” give you the first clue about what the PMO does or how it could revolutionise how change is delivered across your organization?

For an acronym that’s supposed to make life simpler, it doesn’t half kill clarity!

In our last article, PMO in the modern world: What is the maturity level of your PMO? we shone the spotlight on the evolution of the project management office and came to the conclusion that very little has changed since the 1990s. This week, we’re arguing that actually, one thing has changed, and has changed for the worse:

No-one really knows what PMO stands for anymore!

If our social media feeds are any indication, there’s a full-on identity crisis happening among PMO professionals—and it is preventing PMOs from gaining traction within organizations.

What’s in a name anyway?

Project, Programme or Portfolio PMO, PPMO, EPMO, ITPMO, AMO, ITO … LOL!

Imagine how much time has been wasted debating which acronym the PMO function should use! If we added up all the hours, we’re sure it would be an impressive figure. But does it really matter?

Well yes … and no.

From one perspective, an acronym is just an acronym. If someone really wanted to know what PMO (PPMO, EPMO) stood for, they could just Google it—easy. Problem is, they’d then get stuff like this from Wikipedia:

Project management office (abbreviated to PMO) is a group or department within a business, government agency, or enterprise that defines and maintains standards for project management within the organization … The PMO is the source of documentation, guidance and metrics on the practice of project management and execution.

What does that mean? For someone who has never even heard of a PMO, reading this would surely lead them to assume it’s mainly an admin function. In fairness, that’s what the PMOs of yesteryear were. PMO means different things to different people, and if people get used to using a certain terminology their past organizations may have used, they bring all those preconceptions to the table. Which means that PMOs are boxed in by a label before they walk in the door.

The heavy cost of the PMO identity crisis

A mature and effective PMO is the eyes and ears of any business. The first thing a good PMO does is research, learn and ‘live’ the organizational vision, mission and overall strategy. They do this to gain an absurdly deep insight into the business so they can transform factual information into meaningful, effective and enduring solutions.

The word ‘transform’ is key. PMOs exist to minimize the risk of change to an organization—managing change is why PMOs were created in the first place! PMOs have intelligence and insight that other functions across the organization simply don’t have, existing as they do in the gap between functions. They can spot dependencies between projects, functions, teams and individual team members—and connecting the right people means delivering projects faster and more efficiently. But if the PMO is perceived as a purely administrative function, then they’re not invited to the boardroom table. And that means a vital piece of the value-added gets lost.

Here’s what happens when the PMO is overlooked, and it isn’t pretty:

Important communications are overlooked or ignored—a recipe for failure
If customers and key stakeholders ignore PMO communications, they’ll have limited insight into the progress of key projects or change initiatives. They may be unaware of the many ways the PMO can help to mitigate risks; catching any issues early in the process.

Low engagement shoots the project in the foot
Stakeholder engagement is arguably the most important ingredient for successful project delivery. If stakeholders don’t understand the value of a PMO, they won’t engage fully and that can kill a project’s success chances before it even begins.

Vital timelines are missed
There are many reasons why a project timeline may be missed, from project resources being overloaded to not having the right funding. But the root cause? It’s usually a lack of understanding and confidence from stakeholders.

Project resources may be impacted
Who allocates budget to an admin? It’s not a revenue-generator, it’s an overhead. If there’s no understanding about how PMO can support business transformation,
then project resources may be impacted.

Slow progress and incomplete work leading to project failure
Most organizations still use the top-down approach, with the admin function at the bottom. If that’s how PMO is perceived, then getting answers from stakeholders when you need them is going to be extraordinarily challenging.

Throw away acronyms, focus on the customer

What does ‘PMO’ mean? Ultimately, it means whatever the customer needs it to mean. The names we choose are not as important as the value we add, or the way we go the extra mile to influence and change how people see the PMO function. It’s our actions, not our name, that gets us a seat at the strategy table.

What that means, is that we are the navigators of our own destiny. We have to walk the walk, engage with stakeholders and improve buy in at a senior level. We have to prove that there’s real importance to the work we do, and that we are so much more than an admin overhead.

How to change the conversation? Here are some tips:

Actively listen with empathy
A great PMO listens with empathy. They put themselves into the organization’s shoes to understand not only what is being said, but why. You might want to try repeating what you hear, without attempting to inject anything of yourself into the statements.

Ask more questions
It’s always important to ask questions and share information, but it’s also vital that a PMO gathers information about its key stakeholders—and remember, they’re human! Asking the right questions, learning about who they are and what pressures they may be facing, will help you to assess if there’s a better way to work with them. Ultimately, this will help you build strong relationships that will last well into the future.

Understand what success is for your key stakeholders
Success means different things to different people. Find out what your stakeholder community perceives success to be in the context of a given project—then show them how you can deliver it. Sell your expertise.

Take responsibility—deliver solutions not problems
Move away from producing lengthy admin reports and don’t deliver problems—deliver solutions. That’s how you move from being a simple admin to being a strategic advisor.

A PMO may start as admin but it should end up changing the conversation.

Key takeaways

Who cares what a programme management office should be called? Acronyms are diversions—don’t get bogged down! Focus on what really matters—building strong relationships and proving your value. Talk less, listen more! Walk the walk. Place customers at the centre of everything you do.

Whether you’re a project, programme or portfolio PMO, an EPMO, an ITO or whatever, it’s your customers’ needs that shape your identity and the solutions you provide. We all agree that it’s high time that PMOs got a permanent seat at the decision-makers’ table. Building lasting relationships is the only way of being invited to pull up a permanent chair.

We’re RedWizard, the missing piece.
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