What Is a PMO, and What Flavor Is Yours?

PM Commentary by Stacy Goff, ProjectExperts CEO.
What is a PMO?
A Project Management Office, or Program Management Office, is a formal or informal group that accepts responsibility for one or more Program/Project governance, support and/or mentoring functions, with the explicit purpose (in the best cases) of improving PM Performance.

What brings this topic to our blog at this time is IPMA-USA’s sponsorship and support for the PMO Symposium 2009, held November 8-10 in Atlanta, GA. Presented 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. See the PMO Symposium site.

You say you don’t have a PMO? We’ll bet you do! It may just not be formalized 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), through our consulting firm, ProjectExperts®. We 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. Those PMOs that were set up to assure proper cost control and reporting in contractual engagements had a bit different style than those whose primary objective was to guide Project teams to increasingly higher levels of performance.

The things we learned in that era about the most important personal style characteristics and interpersonal skills quicky found their way into our PM training, coaching, and 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 internal group to use PM CompModel to assess and develop PM Performance Competence in most organizations.

Just Like a Bellybutton
You say you don’t have a PMO? We asserted above that everyone has one, it may just be that yours is not formalized or easily recognized. Like a bellybutton, it may not be often exposed and visible (well, come to think of it, at the Mall we do see those with increasing frequency). Organizations with no formal PMO still have many of the functions of a PMO. In your PMO-less organization, chances are you have informal roles filled by 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, whether it is early estimating methods, tool support, project metrics, methodology support, how to develop the business case, or how get a faster funding approval or issue resolution. Savvy Managers and Executives further support these informal roles, allowing 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 other 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 if you have a leadership role in your organization, or within your team or workgroup, but missed this year’s event, you will undoubtably benefit from attending next year’s PMO Symposium. We’ll blog more about PMO purposes and functions in our next posting.


PMI is a registered trademark of Project Management Institute in the USA and other countries.