Why the structure of your Project Management Office (PMO) matters

by Sylvie Edwards

Project Management Offices (PMO) are not new, but how we look at them has evolved like everything else in project management. In recent years, a push, mostly in Europe, towards better structure around project management overall and the move towards strategic portfolio management has prompted the rethinking of what PMOs are and how they exist within organizations. It all has to start with decisions and a review of what structure is needed to support the organization and allow for future growth. 

I have gathered, from my digging into various pieces of literature, that project management offices (PMOs) as supporting structures in organizations have been around officially since around the early 1990s. Before that time, the term was not commonly used, and the structure itself was not known for what it became and that we recognize as such today. Personally, I was introduced to my first PMO around the year 1999, at the time when Y2K was a phenomenon. At that time, a PMO came to life out of the need to organize and structure the project management functions, processes, and tools.  

This first iteration of what is a very tactical PMO is at the first level of maturity in most models that are known out there. We expect here to have little in terms of control while we deal mostly with supporting the organization with growing project management knowledge. It is a way to gather in one location all, that is related to project management for ease of use and access. A PMO, at this stage, will ensure consistency in project management resources and start basically to coordinate the work with the use of policies, procedures, templates, and other shared documentation.

Most PMOs do not remain at this level as long as the need for more complex features often pushes them forward. Depending on the model that you use as a project reference, you can then have consistent/repeatable as the next stage. We have gone beyond having a support mechanism to using that PMO to establish common goals, acquire better project support as well as start to monitor and control our project outcomes in a more centralized fashion. Reporting at this level becomes a key element to start gathering information around our project metrics

The more our structure evolves, the closer to being more strategic and less tactical in nature our PMO becomes. In some organizations, a PMO can morph itself several times before it gets to the maturity level desired to sustain the organization. In other organizations, PMOs become stagnant or get too formal. It is also often not rare to see organizations lose their way and create more than one PMO, a situation that then confuses everyone.

You will often be able to get a sense of what level a PMO has attained by its name. There are several names used for PMOs, but a simple project office is mostly all about tactical support while an enterprise PMO or a center of excellence will be higher up in terms of controls, continuous development, and improvement of project capabilities.

Most PMOs start in a tactically focused support mode, and depending on the organization and culture it resides in, it can either remain as such or develop further. There is no specific or set timeline for moving between each maturity level. If the PMO works, you don’t even have to move at all. You will simply refine your use of the tools and elements that are at your disposal.

It is important for PMOs to thrive, that is why great consideration to size, structure, capability, and functionality be discussed, agreed to, and planned from the start. One might not be able to map out exactly where the PMO will end up, but consideration around growth and progression needs to be assessed regularly and included in continuous improvement plans. Starting off too large too soon might get you in as much trouble as too little, too late.

A PMO of the future needs to be results-focused, adaptive to change, not overwhelmed by its processes, and most of all, provide value to the organization.

Putting some thought into need, growth, and structure from the start allows any organization to have a PMO that grows with them and not despite them.


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