Urgency: Has Your Project/Initiative Got Too Much or Too Little?
Project Resources: Who Moved Your Cheese?
Urgency: Has Your Project/Initiative Got Too Much or Too Little?
Project Resources: Who Moved Your Cheese?
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What Type of A PMO Have You Got?

Two Styles of PMO

Most PMOs (or their equivalent, whatever it may be called PPMO, EPMO or OSM, CXO and so on.) are to be found on a continuum between two different styles or approaches to project, program and portfolio management:

  • At one end of the scale are those who take on the role of a cop with the aim of enforcing compliance and threatening sanctions. 
  • At the other end of the spectrum are those PMOs that take on the role of coach – they aim to boost project success by building awareness, developing skills and providing support. 

Based on its style or approach, where is your PMO on the scale from cop to coach (shown below)?  More important still, how is your PMO seen by its stakeholders – that is by project sponsors, senior leaders, project teams and so on? 


Cop Vs Coach

Questions often arise as to where a PMO should be on the scale above.  The easy answer is ‘5 or higher’, but a more nuanced answer would be: ‘it depends!’

No two PMOs are alike, just as no two organizations are the same.  What is best varies from organization to organization, depending on factors such as culture, structure, strategy and so on. 

If you were to contrast the two PMO styles – cop and coach – the following differences (see image) would emerge.

Balancing Bureaucracy & Agility

Obviously, ‘management’ is a key word associated with projects, programs and portfolios.  Closely related are the words ‘visibility’ and ‘control’.  The need for control and how it is exercised is a key distinguishing factor between PMOs:

  • The ‘PMO cop’ aims for centralized control, corralling projects and initiatives through a bureaucratic process that provides greater visibility and standardized efficiency. 

  • The ‘PMO coach’ seeks to balance autonomy and control, ensuring that the people running the projects or initiatives are empowered to succeed.

The challenge for PMOs is to balance the need for visibility and control, with the need for speed and agility.  This is a key distinguishing factor between the two contrasting styles.  But to understand why it matters we need to look at the nature of the work in hand and in particular the level of complexity inherent in those projects within the portfolio.

Managing Complex & Ambitious Projects

Some projects are easier than others. As such, they can be executed in a linear manner by carefully following a project plan and Gantt Chart. There is a tried and trusted path to follow. Surprises and setbacks are few and the demand for creativity and innovation is limited. Here traditional more bureaucratic or control-driven project management methods may be all that is needed. However, such relatively straightforward projects neither test or reveal the organization’s competence in projects or project portfolios.

To see how sophisticated the organization’s approach to project management is, we need to look at how it delivers ambitious projects that require speed and agility. Such complex projects have many moving parts and are more unpredictable or difficult to manage. While setting out with a plan is important, rigid adherence to a plan can be dangerous. 

Bureaucratic top-down controls, with cumbersome approvals processes and slow to act committees, are a major impediment to the success of projects that require speed and agility, as well as collaboration and innovation. 

Authority must be delegated to those closest to the decision.  For example, rather than having to produce documents and present before committees, leaders are empowered to adjust the approach when the plan is not working, or a previously unseen opportunity or challenge emerges.

Rather than providing a rigid set of processes that must be followed without deviation (think railway tracks), the objective is to provide tools, frameworks and guidance that help those running projects to maximize their success and to tackle key project risks (think roadside crash barriers).

For complex projects and initiatives, the path from strategy to success is not a straight line. Because it is difficult to ‘see around corners’ an agile approach is important, with innovation and fast learning enabling the project to adapt based on what is working, rather than what is set out in the plan.

Two different approaches to project management standards.  Which best reflects your organization? 

Is Your PMO Fit for Purpose?

Typically, the PMO is a logical extension of the organization and its style of management. It is, after all, born of the organization and steeped in its culture. So, an organization that is bureaucratic and hierarchical will likely have a PMO that operates similarly. If projects and initiatives must be delivered with speed, innovation and agility, then such a PMO may not be fit for purpose. 

Where the PMO must be an instrument of change, it must manifest those changes in the approach it adopts. In an increasingly complex and dynamic environment, the path from strategy to success is not a straight line.  Rather there are many twists and turns and seeing around the bend is not easy.  To deliver complex ambitious projects, PMOs must foster speed and agility, as well as innovation and cross-functional collaboration. 

To quote that famous saying the PMO ‘must be the change that it seeks in the world’. If a PMO wants to successfully deliver complex and ambitious projects then it must be agile, collaborative and innovative.

Challenges arise when the organization applies rigid traditional methods of project management to complex ambitious projects. The challenge for all PMOs is to optimize projects, programs and portfolios without turning to the traditional bureaucratic controls that stifle speed, agility and innovation.

For the PMO cop, an agile approach to project management can sound like a ‘free for all’ that will likely result in chaos. However, it is possible to strike a balance between autonomy and control.  Think of it as a ‘loose tight’ approach. It is ‘loose’ in that teams are given autonomy, but simultaneously ‘tight’ in that they but act within a set of tightly held principles. Such principles might include the role of the business case and external validation in project approvals, or the role of effective project reviews and cross-functional collaboration in how projects are run.

Complex ambitious projects or initiatives present different challenges and require a different style of project, program and portfolio management. 

Indicators of Project Management Excellence

What are the tell-tale signs of effective project, program and portfolio management?  That is, the practices and behaviors that indicate whether an organization is playing ‘at the top of its game’ when it comes to executing on its strategy. 

Our research points to 6 leading indicators of project, program and portfolio management excellence (as shown in the diagram). Find the detail behind each of these factors here.

These factors go beyond the style or approach to the specific practices involved. In this way it is a helpful playbook, regardless of whether you have a PMO or not and how its role is defined.

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