The Inside-Out PMO

April 8, 2019

Being in a project management office (PMO) is tough. In many ways it feels like the ultimate corporate middleman role. You report to the executives on the status of their key initiatives, but you aren’t actually doing any of the work. Frankly, it’s kind of a tough place to live. From the perspective of the executive, there’s the expectation that somehow you have influence over these initiatives. From the perspective of the teams doing the work, you only get in the way. It’s not an easy place to live by any means.

As organization charts have flattened in recent decades, this pressure has only gotten worse. On the entrepreneurial end of the spectrum, why would you ever have a PMO? Either the business is too small, or you wouldn’t dream of inserting yet another layer between you and the work; it’s a ridiculous proposition. However, for established businesses, you are overwhelmed and unable to keep up with all of the work. You need someone to help keep track of the dozens of initiatives and hundreds of projects. The organization needs some oversight that executives alone can’t provide. There just aren’t enough hours in a day to keep up with it all.

It’s in this tenuous space that the PMO lives. And it’s easy to see how the role of the PMO can easily become somewhat inward facing. You have reports that you need to provide on initiative status. That requires a great deal of information from the people working on those initiatives. Those reports require tremendous effort to put together and keep up to date. Then there are the often fickle, yet incredibly urgent directives that come from above: “Get us the latest data on capacity for project X. Divide that by the gross national product of Uruguay (or some other equally meaningless and hard-to-obtain metric) and have it on my desk by tomorrow morning!”

The PMO is the middle man between executives who are desperately trying to steer the business, and teams that are executing largely without any guidance from those executives. The more that you try to provide additional detail, the more detail you are asked for. The more that you try and provide guidance to the people doing the work, the more they push back. That’s not an easy place to live.

Introducing Agile teams only amplifies the problem. Teams are executing at a breakneck pace, and demanding that they get guidance that the PMO really doesn’t have. To make matters worse, they are self-organizing teams that are comfortable operating independently and chafe at constraints. This makes the PMO about as popular as a policeman in a speakeasy. Meanwhile, the executives are looking on in horror as the teams take off at a high rate of speed in exactly the wrong direction.

What’s a PMO to do? Well, you could try to dig in, provide more numbers, and apply more controls. But we all know how that’s going to end. No, there is another alternative: I think of it as the inside-out approach. The PMO can open up opportunity for the organization the same way that scrum masters enable teams to flourish. I’m thinking of a few different kinds of strategies:

  1. Get out of the way. Rather than being the middleman, become the facilitator. Create the space for executives and initiative sponsors and teams to collaborate. 
  2. Create transparency. Make the initiatives and their progress visible to everyone.
  3. Create the a stable intake process for new initiatives.
  4. Limit WIP.
  5. Create the innovation pipeline. 
  6. Facilitating retrospectives at the initiative level.

The PMO is in an ideal place to help bring the kind of innovative thinking and creativity to the management team that Agile has done so successfully for the development teams. By applying some of these practices, the PMO becomes an enabler, not a controller. The PMO is bringing change rather than constraints. The PMO is perceived as a partner rather than an owner.

What we are really trying to do is fundamentally change the role of the PMO. No longer do you write up reports; instead you bring the teams and the executives together to talk. No longer do you provide metrics; you help insure execs can attend demos of working software. No longer do you sit at the table reporting on initiative status; you facilitate the meeting, and let others tell their stories. No longer do you wait for new initiatives; rather you are building the pipeline for innovation.

This is a very different role for the PMO. You are introducing people to each other, you are enabling conversation — you are helping the whole organization, not just executives. This is a much more transformative and influential role for the PMO. At the end of the day, perhaps even the name of the role will be altered: from PMO to Change Agents.