The Silver Bullet?
Mark E. Mullaly, PMP
January 18, 2005
Well, it's finally happened. The idea of a PMO has become endemic, and the preferred initial answer to the question "How do we improve our project management?" There was a time when this answer was instead conducting some training or installing software. The PMO has become the latest silver bullet. The problem here is that in these instances, it is not going to be any more successful, relevant or useful than training courses or MS Project were.
As a consultant, by far the most common request I now receive is, "We want to set up a PMO. Can you help us?" While I want my answer to the question to always be "yes!", more often than not I'm unsure what is meant by the question, if only because I don't think they know what they mean. As you start to probe for the details of why they want to establish a PMO, a very different reality often emerges.
Most organizations want to be able to manage and deliver their projects more effectively. What is interesting is that rarely does the conversation start with "What will it take to be able to manage my projects better?" Instead, the request starts with the solution.
Lately, that solution has shifted from training or software to setting up a PMO. The problem with this silver bullet approach is that it assumes that because we believe Company XYZ manages their projects well (or at least better than we do) and employs a particular strategy--like a PMO--following their lead will produce the same result. But we can only see what they do, not why they do it. Mimicking the surface appearance of a solution gives you nothing more than the same surface appearance. Like a car without an engine, while the exterior shell may be appealing we aren't going to get very far unless there are pieces inside that fit together well and make things work.
So what are the necessary pre-conditions before a PMO might actually be the right solution? The first and probably most essential element is developing an understanding of what defines better project management for your specific organization. What this implies--and this is critical--is that there is no one right answer.
Just like cars come in various shapes, sizes and colors, so too does project management, and for the same reasons--what you want to do with your projects is likely to be very different than what the company next door does. Yes, there are surface similarities, in that both do projects and want them done well. Cars have similar characteristics--principally doors, four tires, an engine and a steering wheel, all in a package designed to get you from A to B. So why do some need a Prius and others a Lexus SUV? Because we value the different features and functions of each type depending on our individual circumstances. So it is with project management.
With an understanding of what better project management looks like for you, the next question is really focussed on how it needs to be done in your environment. The culture of your organization, the types of projects it typically does and the skills and aptitude of the people will all influence the method required and the implementation support necessary to realize the change.
Whether or not you need a PMO really comes down to what approach you require and how you need to manage it. While there is no standard implementation of a PMO, they are most often established as a central catalyst for project management. Whether it promotes the use of effective project management, manages the delivery of projects or spans the distance between these poles, a PMO can only exist in an environment where there is a base level of acceptance in the organization for centrally coordinating projects.
Beyond the necessity for central coordination or support, there must also be a base level of maturity within the organization for a PMO to be effective. Building a car dealership in a region without roads amongst a population that can't drive is a wasted exercise. Building a PMO in an organization without a process of project management or a critical level of understanding of how to manage projects will yield the same result. For either to be successful, there is a minimum level of infrastructure, awareness, education and skill required.
So, the next time someone tells you that your organization needs a PMO, ask yourself if sufficient groundwork is in place that it makes sense as a solution. Are there pathways of understanding to build your roadways on? Do your project managers have sufficient skills to walk, and a process that allows them to run? If the basics are in place, then you can drive the organization to the next level. Without it, an accident is inevitable.