Secrets of a Successful Project Management Office

Wikipedia defines a Project Management Office (PMO) as “…a group or department within a business, agency or enterprise that defines and maintains standards for project management within the organization…a source of documentation, guidance and metrics on the practice of project management and execution.

Books have been written and careers dedicated to PMO delivery and leadership; for practical purposes, this blog post serves as a high-level overview of UDig’s experiences in PMO settings, a peek into the attributes and inner workings of successful PMO’s. I recently had the opportunity to discuss effective Project Management Organizations with Sara Hartary, Ronda Cilsick and Mike Thompson (bios below), three local leaders executing PMOs in three unique situations. What’s particularly interesting are the commonalities, notwithstanding the fact that each PMO referenced has been chartered to serve differing purposes; it’s also noteworthy that they share many similarities when describing organizational risks and threats.

Let’s start with a foundational question:

“What is the purpose of a PMO?”

Sara Hartary suggests that the purpose of the PMO is largely to “bring visibility” to a portfolio of business and the audiences that will benefit from the delivery work — that the concept of an effective PMO is not “one dimensional.”  She continues that a PMO’s drivers must be:

  • To visualize how an organization is assigning its resources
  • To interpret and optimize what those resources are doing
  • To assess how a collection of projects moves along the desired strategic path

Ronda Cilsick largely echoes those thoughts, coining a phrase that succinctly answers the headlined question above: “Transparency, Accountability and Alignment.”  While PMO’s universally bring a repeatable project delivery approach, Cilsick further advocates that PMO’s must still “add value over process” — that process alone isn’t enough to justify the investment.

Mike Thompson expands that his PMO is ultimately tasked to deliver high quality solutions and to do so in a cost-effective manner.   More on that shortly.  All are in agreement that it’s ultimately imperative to satisfy their clients’ expectations, whether internal or external.

“What are the traits of an effective PMO?”

How do you know an effective PMO when you see it?  Our panel of experts shared somewhat overlapping responses when it comes to describing what makes a PMO good.  Paraphrasing in the interest of brevity, the most frequently noted traits include:

  • Upstream, downstream, and to clients alike.  Without structured, constant communication, a PMO is doomed to fail.
  • Say what you are going to do, do what you say.
  • Says Cilsick, “there’s got to be formal flexibility, a pragmatic approach that adapts to the business needs of the company.”  Hartary shares along those lines that PMO’s “don’t work well when they are dictatorships.”
  • Thompson advocates not only for client satisfaction, but PMO stakeholder involvement as evidence of a healthy PMO.

“What are the greatest risks and threats to a PMO?”

It’s interesting that there is also consistency when describing the most prevalent risks that could threaten or undermine a PMO’s effectiveness.   Cilsick and Thompson shared compatible views that PMO’s can be at risk during times of heightened budgetary or financial pressures, that a company’s changing financial landscape can impact the ability to add resources or managed current team members’ workloads.  I like what Hartary added, that “PMO’s must not fall victim to making assumptions”, (that they) “must be aware of their capacities and limitations” while constantly verifying that they are “satisfying the stakeholders versus being too inwardly focused.”  The group also recognized that there can be pressure on PMO’s simply due to Executive sponsors’ poor prior experiences, pre-conceptions or pre-existing biases.

“What organizational or enterprise support is required for a PMO to flourish?”

  • Executive buy-in and engagement (all PMO executives are consistent here); not simply acknowledgement of “amber or red” projects, but responsiveness from upstream leadership when escalated (Thompson). Each leader commented in their own words that PMO’s must ultimately demonstrate real delivery value back to those same Executive champions.
  • Human resource capacity and support (Hartary, Thompson)
  • Candid relationships with finance group(s) (Hartary)

“What are examples of measurable contributions that a PMO makes towards a company’s success?”

Consistent with the very purpose of PMO’s (above), on time, on budget project delivery is the grand prize.

While there’s consensus among our experts on this note, Cilsick points out that it’s also “important to flex along with the business and not adhere to delivery commitments if the business priorities change.”  Thompson notes that his organization keeps tight delivery and customer satisfaction metrics to demonstrate its effectiveness (i.e. timeliness, function according to requirements, and gross profitability are central).  Hartary stressed the importance of “time reporting and capture” that she’s built into her organization, whereby it becomes possible “to not only give insight about what resources in the PMO are doing, but to revisit what leadership thinks they are doing – or should be doing.”  (And we’re back to the Accountability driver mentioned in Effective Traits, above.)  Thompson closed by sharing that an effective PMO also brings the potential of efficiently training new resources through a common, repeatable process and delivery standards – a goal of his PMO is to promote effective resource orientation as well as continuity.

And the not-so-subtle plug portion of this blog post:  UDig has considerable experience in the I.T. PMO space!  If yours is an organization that is evaluating a PMO launch, consider a conversation with UDig about how to initiate an effective PMO from the top down, promoting delivery calm in place of chaos.  If you own a PMO, but are painfully aware that it could function at a higher-level, send me a message to talk about PMO and workflow optimization ideas.  If you’re a top notch candidate, a job seeker who wants to work with talented colleagues for clients doing truly interesting work, share your resume with me and I’ll make certain that we begin a conversation with you about doing more of what you dig.   (Sorry, couldn’t resist that one.)

Let me sincerely thank Sara Hartary, Ronda Cilsick and Mike Thompson for their gracious contributions not only to this blog, but for their continuing support of UDig.

About the contributors:

Sara Hartary is a UDig consultant currently on assignment at Livingston International as their I.T. PMO Director and Chief of Staff to the Chief Technology Officer.  Sara has effectively built Livingston’s I.T. PMO and is an expert in workflow optimization, change management and organizational leadership among many other things.  Livingston is an international firm providing customs (trade) brokerage services.

Ronda Cilsick is the Vice President of the Enterprise PMO (EPMO) at Deltek.  She and her organization are responsible for delivering a variety of projects for Deltek including internal IT projects, engineering projects for Deltek’s products, internal readiness and product launch projects for new releases of their software to the market, Cloud Operations project, and Acquisition Integration projects.  Deltek is the leading global provider of enterprise software and information solutions for project-based businesses.

Mike Thompson is the Delivery Management Director for Fair Isaac Corporation’s (FICO) Professional Services organization.  He is responsible for implementation of FICO software products projects for clients throughout North America.  FICO is commonly recognized for its individual credit scoring line of business although it offers more than one hundred (100) industry-standard products to and for the banking industry for loan origination/decision management, fraud detection and remediation and customer communications, to name a few.