But, Our PMO Is A...
I already hear distant sound of cocking guns, I can sense people taking aim, and I can feel the anger rise with the murmuring, "I'm gunna' to shoot this idiot down." The issue is a much bigger business problem than the PMO, someone's empire, or the project. The trouble is accountability and leadership—more accurately, the lack thereof. The PMO, which at many companies is created and destroyed with regularity every four years, tries to fill a number of corporate gaps: project prioritization, uniformity of reporting and process, resource allocation (fancy words for "Gimme a PM"), PM coaching, support, and advocacy, corralling the problem project; or some combination of these attributes. Anyone of these honorable goals, however, is a misdirected effort at compensating for deficiencies elsewhere in the organization.
As a Prioritization Group
PMOs that prioritize the queue of projects are simply hiding the fact that the "leadership" is shirking their accountability in providing clear, concise direction. CEOs and their direct reports should be prioritizing initiatives and projects to meet corporate goals. Having a secondary layer in place to make that call is a feeble attempt to push accountability out of the executive suite. The cries that the PMO has to coordinate priorities across various business units (the justification for many IT-PMOs) simply points out that the "leadership" does not comprehend the complexities of the matrixed organization and they need to spend time understanding basic resource loading.
As a Standards Group
"But, how will we be able to compare performance if we are not all using the same standard process?" Projects by definition build unique capabilities, how in the world can you expect them all to use the same processes? Some projects build new capabilities and need an adaptive and innovative approach; other projects are more repeatable and require a well-documented and tested methodology.
The answer is to look for the project manager with the proper skill set to run that type of project. Speaking of which...
As a Resource Group
Although I hate calling people resources, shouldn't Human Resources be supplying people with the right skill set? Just pop into a dictionary or thesaurus and alternative words for resource include supply, store, source, and means. Why not have a store of project managers with various skills that HR has in their inventory. As a sponsor initiates a project and identifies the required resources (money, people, buildings, time, etc.) they define the skills required for the job and Human Resources identifies the resource who has the means to complete the job—not just any PM currently on the bench. The executive sponsor is accountable for describing the need (it is his or her project after all) and HR is accountable for finding the right person. Viola! Done.
As an Advocate
"Our project managers need advocates for when they run into political road blocks, or the sponsor or end-user is not engaged." Wait a minute. This is clearly a problem with prioritizing the project. "Politics" is simply a code word for someone not being onboard to support the project. Lack of engagement is misaligned priorities—someone has something more important to do than the project. We are back to an executive sponsor problem or a CEO that has confused the priorities. Remove the bureaucracy—the PM should be raising the flag to the executives. They need to change the priorities of the disengaged people or drop the priority of the project.
As a Project Recovery Group
I am always amazed when companies build internal project rescue teams. Yes, rescuing projects is my business, and I am not worried about the competition. There is plenty of work to go around! I am amazed at the strategy of fixing a failed project, rather than running it right the first time and running health checks. Focus on preventing the problem project, do not take pride in how many you can fix.
The Real Picture
The other day, I was talking with executive at a multi-billion dollar corporation who is a good friend. He was complaining about the never getting the real picture of project status. "We continually get a rosy picture when my peers and I are clear that our culture is about transparency." Obviously that message has not gotten through and the layers of managers, PMOs, etc. have created the status quo of sanitized project reports, greener projects, and softer news through its standardized reporting system. Sorry, Liz, it is a cultural issue. She sighed, but I am unclear on whether she was willing to take the hit.
The Place for the PMO
The best role of the PMO is a temporary group to help re-align the organization. Step in the middle for six months and show the deficiencies in the organization. Help HR set up the "project manager pool;" help align the priorities to the corporate goals; move shared services closer to the customer; help the leaders define and communicate clearly articulated goals; help define the executive sponsor's roles and responsibilities; and, then, step aside and let the newly accountable organization do their job. Foster transparency and train the leadership on how to deal with the blunt facts it brings. Be proud to be an empowering leader and then, as all good leaders do, get out of people's way. Change the meaning of the "P" away from Project, Portfolio, Process, Program, and even People. Make it a Problem solving group that temporarily focuses on problems and solves them once and for all.