What Is a PMO, and What Flavor Is Yours?

PM Commentary by Stacy Goff.
What is a PMO?
A Project Management Office is a formal or informal group that accepts responsibility for governance of one or more Projects. Or, rather than governance, it may provide support and/or mentoring, with the purpose of improving PM Performance. Similar groups can perform these functions for Programs, although those are usually more formal, with more authority. 

What brings this topic to our blog at this time is the PMO Symposium 2009, November 8-10 in Atlanta, GA. It was produced by the PMI® PMO SIG (Program Management Office Specific Interest Group). This event was one of your best opportunities this year to tap into the burgeoning world of effective PMOs.

You say you don’t have a PMO? We’ll bet you do! You may just not formalize it as one. There are many different flavors, structures, and primary results of PMOs, yet one thing is consistently true: During tough financial times, those PMOs that add value, versus adding unnecessary bureaucracy or overhead, continue to survive and thrive.

PMO Flavors

Over 25 years ago, we began helping establish, guide, or improve the effectiveness of PMOs (both for Programs and Projects). Our consulting firm coined a “Cops versus Coaches” distinction in the “flavor” or role of each PMO. The Cops mentality was the old style, that forced compliance in whatever appropriate (or not) standards the organization endorsed. The Coaches mentality guided toward compliance, by making it easier to comply with needed standards than not to.

Curiously, two factors influenced which flavor the PMO gravitated towards: The personal style of the PMO leadership and participants, and the reason for existence of the group. PMOs that we set up to assure proper cost control and reporting in contractual engagements have a different style. Compare them to those who guide Project teams to increasingly higher levels of performance–those are very different.

We learned in that era about the importance of personal style characteristics and interpersonal skills in a PMO. Those factors quickly found their way into our Competence Assessment and Competence Development Planning. Interesting, because today, our PM CompModel still identifies those most-important competences of a PMO Consultant. And, the competent PMO is still the best group to use PM CompModel to assess and develop PM Competence in most organizations.

Just Like a Bellybutton

You say you don’t have a PMO? We assert above that everyone has one; perhaps yours is not formalized or easily recognized. Like a bellybutton, it may not be often exposed and visible. Organizations with no formal PMO often have many functions of a PMO. In your PMO-less organization, chances are you have informal roles. These you fill with a variety of the Subject Area Experts in each of the functions a PMO might otherwise deliver.

Each practitioner in your organization knows who is the “go-to” person for each area of needed support. This, whether it is early estimating methods, tool support, project metrics, methodology support, how to develop the business case. Or, how get faster funding approval or issue resolution. Savvy Managers and Executives further support these informal roles. They allow some (but not too much) time for these essential (but seemingly extra-curricular) activities.

In many organizations, these Informal PMOs are more effective than the formal ones that we see in some organizations. In part, because they are a grass-roots and peer-based effort. Coincidentally (or not) this Informal PMO is always a Coaching, rather than Cops, flavor.

Relevance to the PMO Symposium

So do you have a leadership role in your organization, or within your team or workgroup, but missed this year’s event? You will undoubtedly benefit from attending next year’s PMO Symposium. We’ll blog more about PMO purposes and functions in our next posting.

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