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Home Blog: Back From Red General Blog Poor Leadership, The Progenitor Of PMOs
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Poor Leadership, The Progenitor Of PMOs

Image PMO not equal to LeadershipLet me be perfectly clear, I hate PMOs. It matters not if you call them project management offices, program management offices, or portfolio management offices, they only spell one thing—poor leadership. Now those of you that know me, have heard this enough times that your eyes are rolling back as you mumble, "Here he goes again. Who set the bait in front of him this time?" However, I have confused people with a couple of PMO articles that might seem contrary.

The Role of a PMO

There are as many types of PMOs are there are PMOs, maybe more. Most are trying to combat some issue with struggling projects. There are, however, a very large percentage that are implemented just because it sounds neat. "Of course, we have a PMO, don't you?" I salivate when I hear that question. This person has inadvertently stumbled upon one of my biggest pet peeves. "So, what problem was it that you were trying to solve?" Their responses and my retorts are as follows:

  1. The PMO allows us to implement a common process across all the projects. Process is about 20% of what it takes to run a project. It takes people, management, and leadership to make projects consistently successful. Process only helps since it provides the managers and executives a set of guideposts to judge a project. Using piles of process, they try to devolve projects into a checklist of activities, thinking that you can follow the steps and the project will be successful. They can ignore a project and occasionally swoop in asking for a new report. They cannot see whether the project is running efficiently or heading for ruin. Their goal is to be a one-minute manager.
  2. The PMO ensures that we are properly prioritizing our projects. Now, wait just one second. At any well-managed company, the CEO sets the direction for the company. He or she works with the executive team (other C-Suite members) to develop the strategic and tactical plans to achieve those goals. Their progressive levels of planning and maintaining close coordination of all business units develops a list of projects and their corporate priority. Only if the executives are failing at prioritizing projects or communicating these priorities do we need a PMO to do this task.
  3. The PMO removes roadblocks for the project manager. Granted, this is dearly needed support. In a properly lead company, internal roadblocks should be nonexistent (see bullet 2). Everyone should know his or her priorities with respect to one another. External roadblocks, risks, and issues, requiring "executive power" or additional resources (people, time, or money), are a reality and the PMO can be quite beneficial in addressing these. However, this is the project sponsor's job.

In so many words, the PMO is filling in for the void of leadership.

The Role of Leadership

Leadership, rather than reports, solves this problem. I am aghast at the number of companies where when asked for their strategic plan the only thing delivered is a blank stare. They have the revenue to keep their inefficiencies funded and cover up their lack of leadership. You can make money with minimal leadership as long as you have a great bunch of people selling anything they can. You can only grow and prosper, however, with an executive team's vision that sets direction and inspires and empowers employees.

Image of a naval fleet

Think of it in naval terms. The executive team is comprised of captains piloting a fleet of ships on a mission; each ship having its own crucial role and piece of that mission. None can survive on their own they must work in unison. They are not guided by a group of lieutenants telling them who should be in the lead and where to steer.

Ergo, Poor Leadership

Alas, PMOs are a necessity because companies have become leader deficient. Too much emphasis has been placed on corporate politics and the resulting executive teams are incapable of creating a vision, developing the plans, and inspiring their employees to meet those goals.

PMOs should be a means to an end, not an end in themselves. They are being used to fill the leadership void instead of educating executives in the complexities for running projects with interdepartmental dependencies. PMOs can institute the discipline to ensure projects get started at the latest possible date and that key resources are properly allocated when they are needed. The added bureaucracy that most PMOs bring, however, weigh the down the organization making it a lumbering giant, when what companies desperately need is leadership.

Want To Hear More?

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If you would like to hear further debate on the subject, tune into the upcoming PMTV panel where Lindsay Scott, Dr. David Fraser and yours truly will answer the question Why do PMOs Fail?. Our hosts, Jon Hyde and Bernardo Tirado, promise this will be an exciting and educational event. It will be August 7, 2012 at noon BST (GMT +1). For all the Western Hemisphere early birds that is 7:00AM EDT or 4:00AM PDT. Yes, in the morning. If I can do it, so can you. However, it will be taped for viewing at a more reasonable hour.

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+2 # Bruce Lounsbury 2012-08-07 05:51
An interesting juxtaposition and I can't say that I disagree.

In my mind a PMO should really be a meeting of the PMs from the company to discuss and resolve what key pieces of information and value-add tasks should be a part of each type of project and/or phase within a project. These things are then documented and can be used for reference for each new project (as assigned by executive leadership) to reduce costly variability.

I whole-heartily agree that the priority of projects MUST be within the realm of those executives who are setting or acting upon the strategic plan.

Now where a PMO might be of use is in the processing of project requests. Here each project requested can be made to follow the same valuation standard as every other thus insuring apples to apples comparisons of value. The PMO could then be responsible for making sure that these requests are presented to the proper strategic leadership, in executive summary, to get the key points across quickly. A PMO, or as I said, a group of PMs, could/should work with executive leadership to establish a standard set of KPI's consistently available to any executive to review at any time for project status.

Just my 2 cents worth.
+1 # Steve Romero 2012-08-13 11:59
Hi Todd,

You bring up a number of great points in your post, but I can’t agree with your conclusion that all PMOs are a result of “poor leadership.”

I agree with your contention that “PMOs should be a means to an end, not an end in themselves.” I have argued for years that organizations should never institute governance for the sake of governance or process for the sake of process. All governance and all process should only be invoked when there is a specific business problem to solve or business opportunity to exploit. I also agree that PMOs should never be established to “fill the leadership void,” but I believe PMOs are capable of creating great business value, even in an enterprise with leaders fully capable of “creating a vision, developing the plans, and inspiring their employees to meet those goals.”

I have written on the topic of effective PMOs before, so instead of regurgitating it in this comment I’ll share a link to my “Do you love your PMO?” post

Thanks for a though-provoking post.
0 # Alexander Matthey 2012-08-14 11:22
Hi Todd,

Like Bruce and Steve, I agree with most of your points. Business driven PMOs listen ans support, do not impose for the sake of imposing.

I too disagree with the overall conclusion : PMOs are by product of leadership deficient enterprises. PMO existence can be a deliberate choice, after all top executive should prioritize their own activities and delegate some.

0 # Shannon 2012-10-09 17:13
I have had the pleasure of working for some great leaders and some great organizations. Leaders build the teams and structure they need to run the business. I feel for you that you work in such a poorly run organization. Show some leadership and make a difference, who cares what they call it.

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