Critical Success Factors for a New PMO

In a previous post I discussed the need to “get back to basics” when it comes to Project Management, and one of those basics is having a Project Management Office (PMO). I’d like to discuss what I believe to be some of the critical success factors for a new PMO.

PMOs come is all shapes and sizes depending on their mission and the size and complexity of the organization they serve. However, there are some critical success factors they all share.

The mission of the PMO needs to be understood. Why does the PMO exist? What purpose does it serve? A PMO charter is a very useful tool to socialize and gain support for the PMO’s mission. A PMO without a clear mission will muddle its way through challenges, just like any other team without a clear mission. And obviously it can’t achieve a mission it doesn’t have. Don’t assume this is understood by everyone. Write it down, share it, and refer to it constantly.

The PMO needs tools to succeed. In this age of technology, there are many tools to communicate and to report. The PMO concept predates many of these tools, but they have become a critical success factor of modern PMOs. The PMO needs to communicate both project status and a methodology for all to follow. In the good old days, a binder would be the tool of choice, with paper templates, process flow diagrams, and sample deliverables. Technology allows us to digitize and share these much more effectively these days, but the concept of a “binder”, or of a “PMO library”, remains relevant today. Without it, the PMO cannot ensure consistency or onboard new Project Managers effectively. In addition to the PMO library, a “project record” is needed. Somewhere to keep track of project status and collect project artefacts.

The PMO needs staff. If all the PMO team members are managing projects 100% of the time, then the work of the PMO itself is undone. It can be part time of one person or it can be a staff of dozens. It depends on the size and complexity of the PMO, and it depends on its mission. But someone has to maintain the PMO library, someone has to define project record standards, and someone has to onboard new PMs. These are three of the most critical functions of a PMO. There are many others, but at its simplest, these alone could justify the investment.

So, in summary, the PMO needs a mission, a library, and staff. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. As the PMO adds value to the organization, additional needs will arise. But the value of a PMO cannot even begin to be realized without an initial investment, and these three things are as good a place to start as any. PMOs often grow with their organization and can become very complex and large. But they shouldn’t forget their beginnings and keep focus on these basics. A strong foundation will ensure the PMO can grow to serve its organization and provide value.

Project Management: Back to Basics

Project Management has made a lot of progress since the days the Department of Defense (of War?) built the weapons systems of WW2, or NASA sent a man to the moon. The need to apply knowledge, tools and techniques to project activities to reach the desired outcomes remains and our ability has improved. 

However, as we move into the 21st century, and a whole new generation enters the workforce, how do we pass on those lessons? As a microcosm of this problem, how do we enable a new Project Manager to become effective? With a focus on technology, agile development, and all manner of tool and technique, I think we may be missing a focus on the fundamentals.

I am a good project manager. But I have worked with better. Much better. And what makes a good project manager great? I think great project managers have made the fundamentals look so easy and second nature that we forget many of these are learned skills, and we have failed to pass them on to the new generation. A multi-million dollar project portfolio tool is not going to fix this. Actually, it is going to make it worse.

So what is the agenda for the meeting? Did we have action items coming out of the meeting? What are the major milestones? Dependencies? Budget? These things are the bread and butter of a project manager, but these are learned skills. We cannot assume a Project Manager has them. We have to teach and agree on standards of behavior.

I think that a severe lack of business leadership combined with a lack of understanding of this problem has led to a belief that Project Management is not a “real” job, but a “role” that can be tacked on to someone’s job description. And this attitude is dangerous as it ignores decades of proven work performed by Project Managers is a multitude of industries. At the other side of the spectrum, some Project Managers become so consumed with the minutiae of reports and plans they lose the forest from the trees.

So, let’s get back to some basics.

1. Project Management is a real job. Yes there are people called “Project Managers”, and their job is to manage projects. It seems silly to have to lay this down as a basic, but this is, after all, getting back to basics. You cannot add the “role” of Project Manager to someone else, either a Sales person or an Operations Manager, and expect them to do it. You need a dedicated, professional, trained Project Manager.

This could potentially involve changes to HR systems to create new job descriptions, a job career path (Project Coordinator to Project Manager to Senior Project Manager), changes to compensation, management training, etc. But the result is the identification and assignment of qualified individuals to fulfill this job. 

2. You need a methodology. There are plenty of methodologies and accepted methods of doing things, so no need to reinvent the wheel. But you do need to invent it once. What is your project lifecycle? What does a status report look like? How do you track your budget? You need to define and agree on the fundamentals. You need common tools, even if it just Microsoft Excel. So that every project is reported and tracked the same way. Trust me, this will work wonders when you move on from the basics to do portfolio management, or when you have to onboard a new Project Manager. 

3. You need a Project Management Office. Once you have 3 or 4 Project Managers, you will have enough critical mass for a PMO. It can be informal at first, and grow and evolve as your portfolio grows. But someone has to mind the candy store. Someone has to ensure consistency, support and coach the Project Managers, bring all their work together into some manner of Program management. Someone has to onboard new PMs and ensure the knowledge is shared and passed on. This concept has been tried successfully for decades. Trying to reinvent this concept at this stage of the game is pointless. Project Managers without a PMO are just that – a group of Project Managers. Their work disjointed, inconsistent, and lacking a single minded purpose and direction.

So, you need Project Managers, you need a methodology for them to follow, and you need some mechanism to ensure consistency, to support them and to onboard new Project Managers to your organization.

You should focus on your Project Managers and make sure they have the tools to succeed. Don’t assume they know every meeting needs an agenda, or that they know how to report status. You need to provide them guidance and support so that they can manage the fundamentals in a consistent and effective manner. Only then you can work your way up to loftier goals of portfolio management and program management. Without a strong foundation, anything you build will surely crumble. Don’t forget the basics.

Positive Leadership

I’m currently taking a leadership course at work, and one of the important aspects they teach is “positive leadership”. Being positive, having a positive attitude, and approaching others with a positive mindset in an important part of being a good leader.

This seems self-evident, but apparently not as evident as one would hope. There are still many folks who don’t subscribe to this philosophy. I recall management types from the 80’s, “management by intimidation”, and the like. But as the workforce makes a generational switch to millennials, positive leadership takes an even more important role.

As a leader, I cannot rely on “because I said so” to get folks to do what I need them to do. That really never worked, not for any length of time, but especially not now. People want to know why they do things, how they are contributing to something bigger. People need to be “engaged”, they need to buy into whatever it is you are selling. They need to follow you because they want to. The hierarchical relationships of the past do not hold the same influence they once did. And someone can pretend they are following you only so long. Eventually they will need to follow you even when you are not looking, and that is where the true believers and the sceptics can be found.

There are a lot of elements in the workplace that cannot be controlled, but of the few that can be, your attitude is one you can control. How you react to situations, to people, to challenges, defines you and affects those around you. You can choose to meet challenges with a smile or as a grouch. Guess which one will affect your colleagues more positively?

Maintaining a positive attitude during a challenge allows you to think more clearly, to project an image of confidence, and opens doors of possibilities to meet the challenge. It inspires people around you and creates and image of competence. Insurmountable challenges are rare. They typically spell the end of an organization. Most challenges can be overcome. But you have to maintain a positive attitude. Not only for yourself, but for those you lead.

This requires to maintain focus on your attitude. From the moment you wake up until you go to sleep, did you have a positive attitude? Did you smile? Did you say “thank you”? Did you offer praise? Did you give any feedback? Did you receive any? Getting angry and being grouchy only serves to make you less effective, less capable, and it is a complete turn off for those around you. Think about that when you face your next challenge. Take a deep breath, smile, and keep a positive attitude. This will get you a lot farther than the alternative.