Understanding the Project Management Office

Excellence in project management is essential, but PMOs can do as much harm as good. Here we examine the fundamentals and scope a proper role for a PMO.

By N. Dean Meyer
Mon, September 26, 2005

CIO

PMO—Project Management Office.... Why does everybody think they need one, and what should a PMO really do?

Henry, an experienced project manager, was asked to set up a PMO when the IT department took on a huge, politically visible, enterprisewide project. He was well qualified, with both PMI certification and a track record of successes.

The CIO also wanted Henry to establish common project reporting, a dashboard that tracked how everybody's projects were going.

The need for good project management wasn't limited to the one big enterprisewide project. Henry soon found his tiny staff swamped with additional work, which he took as a sign of the value of his group. But trouble wasn't far behind. It seemed there were never enough project managers in the PMO to go around. While Henry's staff handled a few big projects, many other projects ran adrift. The proposition of growing the PMO to manage all projects was neither affordable nor politically acceptable.

Meanwhile, relations between Henry and his peers became strained. The other senior managers in IT resented Henry when hot strategic projects were taken away from them and given to him. They resented his control over their resources. They resented his looking over their shoulder, judging their progress and reporting on them to their boss. And they were offended by the implication that Henry was somehow more competent than them.

On a technical side, this PMO didn't work well either. Henry's projects didn't fit the technicafl directions established by the other senior managers. And when his solutions went into production, the other groups were not prepared to support them.

Excellence in project management is essential, but PMOs can do as much harm as good. Let's examine the fundamentals and scope a proper role for a PMO.

Definitions
First, we need to define a few terms:

Project management is a task people do in order to deliver projects (results). It involves a discipline and a set of methods and tools for planning and controlling project resources. It's a means, not an end in itself.

A project manager is the person accountable for results. Project managers are responsible for delivering products to customers; and to do so, they manage projects.

A project-management expert is a person trained in the techniques and tools of project management. Generally, people cannot be world-class at two different professions at once. A project-management expert is someone who has chosen to study a discipline that applies to any and all projects—to any and all technologies—rather than someone who has spent his/her career studying a particular domain of technology.

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