Resolve PMO conflicts for project success

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There are several conflicting forces that currently shape project management offices (PMOs), and these need to be resolved in order to ensure their future success.

This is particularly important given that about half of all PMOs fail within three years of being set up.

One of the main problems surrounding PMOs is that while the idea of a project management office has been around for decades, there is still no agreement about what they are, what they do or how they should be organised.

According to Mark Mullaly, an expert in organisational project management in North America who heads Canada's Interthink Consulting, there was no single definition of a PMO. In fact, the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), a collection of processes and knowledge areas that are accepted as best practice for the project management profession, doesn't say much about the PMO at all.

Reason for existence

The most common definitions of the PMO are based on its role: either to define and maintain standards for project management within the organisation; or to standardise and introduce economies of repetition in the execution of projects; or to be the source of documentation, guidance and metrics in the practice of project management and execution. Or all of the above.

In effect, the PMO's function can range from merely providing project management support to actually being responsible for the direct management of one or more projects.
In addition, just as there is no single definition of a PMO, there is also no single reason why organisations implement them in the first place.

Many PMOs are often initially implemented in reaction to a range of organisational challenges such as failure to deliver previous projects; or the need to implement large, complex projects or strategic changes.

Other reasons businesses set up PMOs included a desire to ensure project management consistency, formality or rigour; ensuring adherence to "best practices"; a significant increase in expectations of project delivery; and a perception that project management is about 'forms' and 'template'.

Opposing forces

As a result, the forces that shape PMOs differ and it's not unusual to have two opposing forces at work simultaneously within the same PMO.

For example, the PMO could be pulled between an emphasis on process on the one hand, and delivery of results on the other.

Where the dominant driver is process, the focus of the PMO will be ensuring that the process is followed. The emphasis will be on consistency, adherence and compliance. This requires accountability for completing deliverables, templates and forms.

On the other side, there is the demand that the project gets done and the project results have value. The emphasis here is on project outcomes and benefits, and that actions and decisions are based on doing what is necessary to be successful - and, as Mullaly said, 'process be damned'.

Tension between roles

There is also often tension between the roles of delivery and advocacy within the PMO: is the PMO's role to serve as the centralised home of best practice, with a focus on process adherence, tool adoption, verification and audit; or is the PMO's role an enabling one that facilitates the adoption and adaption of practices and enables project delivery to be decentralised throughout the organisation?

According to Mullaly, there is no right or wrong way for a PMO to function. What is required is to try and resolve the conflict within the PMO and ensure there is clarity about its role throughout the organisation.

See also