What Exactly is a PMO?

As a consultant who works with organizations around the globe, I get to see many forms of a PMO and I get to see what works and what doesn’t.  A well thought out and value adding PMO can add measurable strategic and operational value to any organisation regardless of its size or maturity. Getting the right PMO for your organization can be a challenge and I want to share with you some thoughts and observations on what exactly a PMO can be. Hopefully from these thoughts you can take some tips on what your PMO should be.

Let’s start with what do the letters “PMO” stand for? Well the “P” can stand for Portfolio, Programme or Project. The “M” and the “O” generally stand for Management Office. You can add an “E”, for Enterprise, in the front to get an EPMO to indicate it stretches across the entire organization. You can have individual PMO’s that answer into an EPMO. It can even not be called a PMO at all, and there are many other names it can go by. You can call it what you want as long as the name is an accurate representation of what the function actually does.

Answering the question about what a PMO can be takes a bit more time. It is not a single standard format you can apply to your organization which makes it a little hard to define appropriately. The easiest why I have found to describe, at a high level, what a PMO is, is that it should be the center of excellence, whatever that means, for professional project management in your organisation to support the current and future portfolio, program and project management aspirations of the organisation. That is a long winded way of saying that your PMO should support what you currently do but also take you into the future and a better, more mature state.

At one end of the spectrum I have seen a very low maturity organization have a ‘PMO’ that was as small as a few ring binders with templates in it that were regularly updated. At the other end of the spectrum I have worked with large and complex PMO’s which can be a fully separate and resourced unit that does full portfolio management, strategic alignment, governance, project selection & reporting, and also employs, deploys, & trains all the project management personnel. Somewhere between these two extremes is the PMO that is right for you and your organization.

Here is a list of functions that a PMO might consider:

  • Governance and sponsorship
  • Developing standards, methodologies, processes, tools and templates
  • Maturity improvement
  • Strategic alignment
  • Project selection
  • Full control and reporting of all initiatives
  • Assurance
  • Benefits management at all levels and at all stages
  • Programme management
  • Allocation of project management resources
  • Recruitment of project managers
  • Training and development of project managers

What have I missed?

These are the types of things to consider when thinking about introducing or upgrading a PMO:

  1. Maturity of your organization – a low maturity organization may want a PMO that helps it increase in maturity in specific ways, while a high maturity organization will want a PMO that supports and maintains its high level of maturity.
  2. Size of your organization – larger organizations generally need a larger and better resourced PMO
  3. Complexity of the work that you do – the more complex the work that you do the more complex the PMO will need to be to support your efforts
  4. C-Level understanding and support – without full support from senior and executive management your PMO will never be considered a full-time part of the organisation.

Unfortunately, the research tells us that there are many threats to a PMO and its success. These include the following:

  1. Making a PMO a bureaucracy
  2. Not proving the value a PMO brings to the organization. The PMO, whatever its form and name, must deliver real value to the organisation, and not be afraid to tell everyone how good they are. I’ve seen great PMO’s fail because they kept their success to themselves
  3. Lack of senior management support
  4. Tough financial times – it seems that when finances get tight for an organization the first thing to go is the PMO
  5. Trying to be everything to everyone – focus on what you do well, and just do that
  6. Being under resourced and overworked and letting everyone down
  7. Looking backwards at what you have accomplished and not looking forward to the value you have yet to create
  8. Assuming a PMO is static – a PMO should change with the organisations needs. If your PMO is the same as it was 2 years its probably out of date.

Just a reminder, this is just a high level introduction to the PMO. There has been plenty of research done on the topic and if you are academically minded you can easily find some serous pieces of research out there on the topic. There are also many people on forums such as LinkedIn and projectmanagement.com who I know would love to share their experiences, both bad and good. So don’t be afraid to reach out and find out as much as you can before deciding on what sort of PMO is right for you.