The problem is that while more than 50% of all projects fail to some degree, one survey of project managers showed that 58% feel that their organization’s PMO is or has been ineffective at serving the needs of the projects and project managers within the organization.
47% of survey respondents indicated that their company’s senior leadership had little to no visible involvement in the project management office and 41% offered no training to project managers.
Finally, 66% indicated that there were either no repeatable processes or templates in place for project managers to use, or that the practice was definitely lacking and change needed to happen in order to be successful.
I have personally seen project management offices created, dismantled, and re-created again only to fail again all within the same organization within a timeframe of less than two years. PMOs come and go and left in the aftermath are frustrated project managers who thought they had an organization that was backing them and that they could call their own. Also left behind are customers of these organizations looking for consistent and successful delivery of project solutions only to find that chaos often ensued and good, solid repeatable practices were sorely lacking. Without repeatable practices and templates in place that have proven to bring success, we’re often leaving our project successes to chance and luck…and that’s no way to build a solid project management practice, is it?
There are generally three different types of project management offices: supportive, controlling, and directive. For the purpose of this article, I’m referring to the directive type of PMO that takes over projects by providing the project management experience and resources to run the engagements. That’s the type of PMO I’ve worked in before and the one I personally feel is the best structure for the company when it’s done right.
From my experience, there are five key ingredients to a successful PMO. There are no guarantees of success, of course, but if these five ingredients are present, the chance of your project management office achieving long-term success is greatly increased. These five ingredients are:
- Executive leadership support
- The existence of repeatable processes
- Hiring the right people
- Strong, dedicated PMO leadership
- Meaningful capture of project knowledge and data
Let’s examine each of these in more detail…
Executive leadership support
I’ve seen many PMOs come and go and one thing is for sure… first and foremost, a project management office must have buy-in from senior leadership within the organization in order to survive. Why? You would think good processes would be first. Or even just having the right people. No, if your CEO on down doesn’t support the PMO, then it’s in trouble from the beginning. One recent survey showed that for 26% of PMs the #1 frustration they cited was a lack of management support.
When company leadership doesn’t buy-in to the PMO, here’s what can and often will happen. The good projects will go to other departments in the organization – handpicked people who the CEO or other senior leadership ‘trusts’ with their babies. Funding won’t go to the PMO, it will go to other departments and processes that leadership deems worthy or more impactful to the bottom line of the organization. This is often a very misguided thought process based on a lack of understanding of how much successful customer projects can mean to an organization financially and in terms of reputation. Good people and leaders will be moved to other departments because they are needed elsewhere and should not be ‘wasting’ their talents running projects. And finally, the organization – as a whole – will not adopt the PM processes or see value in the PMO’s existence because, well, the CEO doesn’t back it so why then should they?
The existence of repeatable processes
Another key ingredient for PMO success is the creation of and existence of repeatable PM processes, procedures, and templates. In order to try to avoid the ‘50% of projects fail’ scenario, it’s important to have processes and templates that work and that your project managers can continually go back to for each project that they manage. If a good, proven methodology is not in place for managers to use that will help them repeat their successes, then you’re just leaving project success to chance or luck and that’s a certain ingredient for eventual PMO failure. Without the proper tools in place for the project managers in the PMO, projects will continue to flounder on a regular basis and the structure of the PMO will become meaningless in the organization.
Hiring the right people
It’s not enough to just staff the PMO with project managers who have their project management professional (PMP) certification. PMP certification can help ensure that everyone is on the same page with language, but it is no guarantee of experience or success. Likewise, having in-house people move into project management roles ensures they have some connections as well as knowledge of the corporate structure and goals, but it is still no substitute for experience. To do it right, you need a blend of experience, strong resource management, some financial management knowledge, and the right amount of entrepreneurial drive in your fleet of project managers. Because these individuals need to be able to think on their feet and make decisions when there’s no one around to help them do that. And they must be able to not wilt under pressure because the target will be on their head throughout each engagement that they manage. And if the projects are in an IT environment, it is essential – in terms of credibility, estimating, leadership, and decision-making, that the project managers have a technical background. Not really hands-on technical, but they need to be relevant from a technology standpoint.
Strong, dedicated PMO leadership
Too many times the PMO Director ends up being a project manager who just happens to be leading the project management office. That’s really a bad call unless your organization and PMO is very small. The director needs to be a well-connected leader in the organization. One who can knock down obstacles for the project managers on their projects. Someone who is an experienced resource manager with an interest in mentoring project managers and helping them map out a career path that is beneficial both to the company and the resource. This should actually be someone with some direct resource staff management experience, not necessarily the most experienced project manager in the organization. The PMO Director is not someone who should be overloaded with five or six of their own projects. It’s understandable that a leader like this may be in high demand for a very visible project or to assist a PM on a troubled project with a high profile client, but that needs to be the exception, not the rule.
Capture of meaningful project knowledge and data
Finally, the project management office must have processes in place to capture knowledge and data that will help project managers learn from mistakes and repeat successes. Lessons learned sessions can be a great way to review the project with the customer and project team, discuss what went right and what went wrong, and understand how to run better projects in the future. And best of all, the information that comes out of these sessions can be made available to all project managers in the PMO so that lessons will not have to be learned over and over again.
The problem is that - when the project is over - the team often quickly moves on to other tasks and projects and never gets around to conducting this very vital and useful step in the project process. In fact, 63% of respondents in a recent survey indicated that end-of-project lessons learned sessions were conducted either never or for less than 25% of the time.
By skipping these knowledge gathering sessions and failing to capture data and issues from the project we are managing that can be helpful to us and to others in the project management office, we’re potentially setting ourselves up to repeat the same failures. Or worse, to miss out on repeating the same successes. Save documents and lessons learned from past projects in a common location where project managers can collaborate and share what worked and what didn’t. We learn a lot from what went right or wrong for us, but we’ll learn even more from what went right or wrong from ten or twenty other project managers. Don’t miss that opportunity to share and aid in each other’s successes. That is what helps build great project management offices.
These five ingredients that I’ve discussed are certainly not the only characteristics of strong PMOs. There are many factors that can go into making a project management office succeed or fail and some are always going to be dependent on the type of company they are in as well as the PM professionals that make up the PMO. These five, however, are critical and when practiced they will definitely help get your project management office on the right track toward success.