Let’s look at some of the pressing problems and challenges that PMOs face, and what they can do about it.
1. How much work is really going on?
“All of my resources are busy, but is it on the right things?” There is a tremendous amount of activity that is going on at any given moment within any project organization. True vision into all activities is still a challenge. Many maintenance and small projects go undetected, which can be likened to death by a thousand paper cuts. If a PMO lacks clarity on what everyone is truly working on, then it can’t be effective at using the resources of the organization to its maximum potential.
The PMOs needs to know how much work has been taken on and committed to. The PMO must be the early warning indicator as to whether the portfolio is in danger of not delivering on what has been promised. Without insight to all of the work being performed, it is unable to shift resources and priorities to take on strategic work
Many PMOs today have a loose grip on the amount of activity going on under their own noses. Worse yet, the PMO can be guilty of not utilizing their organization’s abilities to deliver on what is strategic to the business by only focusing on what interests the PMO. Lacking this insight is not unlike trying to navigate treacherous waters with faulty instruments — it can be done but rarely.
2. How are my resources allocated?
This one is most elusive and most challenging. There are good tools on the market, but the degree to which they have been implemented is still lagging. The PMO needs to know where resources are spending time and effort. We know they’re busy but on the right tasks? How are they allocated? Are tasks at a manageable level? Is that level consistent across the portfolio? Many times immature organizations try to drive their resource forecasts from the existing project plans. The problem with this approach is that it lacks the resource budgeting component that makes provisions for large or important initiatives that will be in play down the road. Waiting for detailed project plans doesn’t help anyone to begin planning resource capacities for the near future.
Organizations have a financial budgeting process that makes high-level plans for the future and tracks the details of progress (actuals). For PMOs, resource budgeting and forecasting is a crucial component of the value it can deliver. Unless they develop resource forecasts separate from how they are tracking the resources utilization, the organization won’t know it’s short-staffed until it’s already too late.
3. When am I over committed and in trouble?
Now it’s too late. The PMO has more work than it can handle and its projects are beginning to fail. PMOs must proactively make adjustments and corrections to keep this from happening. The PMO cannot fall into the trap of assuming that every shrink-wrapped vendor application has everything it will need to be successful. The managers need to determine what information they need to manage the portfolio and then select the tool or tools that will deliver what they need.
If the PMO is not aware of the total level of effort occurring in the portfolio and how major initiatives are slated for delivery then it is flying blind. To make matters worse, the PMO may also have a false sense of the health of its own portfolio and compound the mistake by making additional project commitments while the undercurrent of collapse is already building. PMO need to be vigilant about early warning signs and manage them accordingly.
4. We can handle the truth
How did we not see trouble coming? Truth (or lack of it) is a symptom of the organization’s culture above anything else. If the organization doesn’t want to know what is really going on and punishes project managers who bring forth problems and issues, it should not be surprised that project managers are hiding problems or trying to solve them on their own.
The PMO should create an environment where open communication is not only accepted but also encouraged and rewarded. Project managers should never be trying to bury the sticky points — inevitably the issue will demand attention but at a rate too fast for a status report. An issue that festers moves the organization into a reactive position that most likely will not yield the best results. PMOs need to promote a culture of candor and truth for the better of the entire organization.
PMO Success Factors
PMO leaders and staff must work diligently to address these daunting challenges, but they can’t do it alone. Here are several factors that are critical to PMO success.
1. Executive Support
Without executive support, nothing else matters. The PMO must work in close conjunction with executive leadership to accommodate change and establish priorities. If these two groups are at odds with each other, it is like two parents who don’t agree on how to raise their children. Project participants will leverage the dissent and begin to set their own priorities. Management needs to trust the PMO; the PMO, in turn, needs to conduct itself responsibly so that it can be trusted.
2. Details: 80/20 Rule
Becoming consumed and immersed in the task level of 200 or more projects hits the point of diminishing returns — no value is being added. On the other hand, performing an atmospheric fly-over by looking at four or five milestones is far from adequate. Follow the “80/20 rule” here. The PMO needs enough detail to determine dependencies and general work levels, and about 20 percent of the details will typically yield about 80 percent of the information the PMO needs to know. The PMO shouldn’t limit itself to milestones but rather get a feel for the phases within the project and when major activities such as user training and testing sign-off occur. This is enough information to enable the PMO to ask intelligent, evolving questions.
3. Trust but Verify
Trust the project managers, but test the quality of the project with interval-based or random QA checks that delve into actual content, not just marking check boxes when documents have been filed.
4. Guidance, Not Control
The key to sword fighting is to have a loose enough grip so that you can correct, adjust and guide the movement of your weapon. Grip too tightly and you have already been defeated. The same applies to managing projects within the PMO. Try to guide projects and programs from the phase level (plan, define, design, etc.) and avoid micromanaging each project in the portfolio. The PMO needs to establish outcomes and not try to direct each step along the path.
5. Boundaries and Expectations
Organizations tend to fall apart the moment that people begin to do each other’s jobs. Far from trying to control people, setting boundaries establish how roles will interact with each other and helps sets expectations. Team members and stakeholders are able to recognize and observe one another’s “turf.” The larger the organization, the more imperative it is that these roles and reporting frameworks are established early. When all team members know where they fit in the PMO and what they are counted on to contribute, the PMO has gone a long way to shoring up doubt and take a major step towards becoming a high-performance PMO.