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PMO Stories — Part II — The Good

The Short Happy Life of A Good PMO

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

We’ve heard so much about the challenges of ailing projects and, of course, ailing Project Management Organizations (PMOs) that, as mentioned in Part I of this series (see Do you really want your PMO to survive? in PMO Stories — Part I — The Bad), get shutdown at a fairly alarming rate. So are there any good news stories about PMOs?

A Good PMO is Born

It was late in the year, and my consulting work with an energy utility firm was slowing up a bit. If you have any experience with utility firms, you already know that the end of the year at a utility means that work can often grind to a halt while key employees take vacation and try to enjoy life (utility firms, on the whole, are not subject to the same level of financial performance pressure that many other corporations are, and so, during these end of year periods, you can find yourself in a much more relaxed setting where a lot less seems to get done).

So as the year made it into its final weeks, a new efficiency program introduced by the utility firm’s parent company was starting to transition into its “implementation phase.” In this program, numerous efficiency ideas were being introduced, evaluated, and incorporated into new projects. As this next phase of the effort began to take shape, I saw a tremendous problem looming: dozens of project ideas were to be introduced as new projects without any structure or standards for how they’d be managed and no reporting to track progress and results.

I made a proposal to the senior director — we’ll call him Jeff Bowling — of the main stakeholder group responsible for coming up with most of the efficiency ideas that we should start up a PMO. This PMO would manage the influx of new project work related to the proposed new efficiency projects.

Jeff had some previous experience with PMOs and, as you might expect, his past PMO experiences had not been very good. Jeff initially felt there was no reason to set up another PMO that would likely get disbanded before it had a chance to accomplish anything. Still, I persisted, and specifically spelled out how the PMO would help to improve the situation. Jeff eventually relented and agreed that we could give it a try.

After presenting my proposal to Jeff’s boss, we moved ahead with rolling out the new PMO, as rapidly as possible.

A PMO That Leads and Supports Project Managers

The set-up of this new PMO provided our team with a couple of excellent, but challenging, opportunities:

  1. It turned out that the PMO would have to grow and evolve to support two portfolios of projects — the group of efficiency projects that prompted its creation and a group of projects related to a key utility asset maintenance program. Each of these portfolios had very well defined end states.
  2. The PMO Manager assigned by Jeff to run these portfolios had some experience managing projects, but had never run a PMO before, so I also needed to train her on how to run a PMO.

Why did these opportunities help shape a good PMO outcome for my client?

The PMO needed to support the projects defined within its scope, but would not need to continue to attempt to support projects with scope and delivery date creep issues, since basically, if the project didn’t make enough progress by a certain date, it would have to be cancelled or descoped from the portfolios. This was because the parent company efficiency program had a definite end date, and so did the improvements to the maintenance program.

In terms of the training of the PMO Manager, I had a very unique opportunity to train the leader of a PMO function that — above all else — should have a mission to support its project managers and lead them in a way that improves their ability to be successful. The key is for the PMO Manager to function more like a coach than an autocrat. In my opinion, this is how you always want a PMO Manager to function, but you rarely get to influence this approach at the beginning of a PMO start-up.

From the beginning, I worked with the PMO Manager to rollout a flexible toolset that allowed project managers to define key elements of projects and weekly status updates that rolled up into the portfolio and PMO dashboards that the PMO Manager and I defined together. There were no manual PowerPoint decks or Excel sheets created to communicate statuses, and drill-down capability was rolled into the high-level dashboards.

Best of all, as projects were defined, I worked with the PMO Manager to help her coach the project managers and project core teams on how to lock down project definitions, scope, and baseline schedules.

Ultimately, there were more than a hundred projects rolling up into the two project portfolios that the PMO was responsible for managing.

Finishing the PMO’s Job, and Closing Up Shop

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this story is that this PMO did come to an end, but this time it was put to rest after it had lived out its useful life.

The efficiency portfolio was focused on process improvements that the utility’s parent company wanted to see implemented to meet budget reductions, and there was a limited timeframe for these improvements to be implemented. At the end of this timeframe, the portfolio of project work was rolled out and transitioned to Business As Usual (BAU) work. Anything that did not meet these timing considerations was removed from the portfolio, and ended up as cancelled or postponed projects without funding.

The effectiveness of the maintenance portfolio was measured by the number of missed inspections by the end of a certain timeframe. Typically, the timeframe was the end of the calendar year. Any improvements that could not be made before this cycle would not provide benefit to the maintenance program’s effectiveness measures. So, like the efficiency portfolio, improvements to the maintenance program that couldn’t meet the portfolio’s timing requirements were descoped from the current portfolio.

Clearly, these structural conditions that the PMO was born into had an impact that seemed to move it toward a relevant, successful path.

I would add that it was also the supportive spirit of the PMO Manager that helped set the majority of the PMO’s projects in both portfolios in a positive direction from the outset.

Some of the PMO’s project achievements were surprisingly significant, too. The improvements stemming from the maintenance program portfolio were perhaps the most striking. For the first time in its history the utility had a process in place — including substantial improvements to its systems integration — that resulted in zero missed inspections for the calendar year. Given that the regulator responsible for the utility could enact daily fines for missed inspections, this was quite an achievement.

In the end this “good” PMO quietly shutdown when it had fulfilled its mission: facilitating the successful implementation of two large portfolios of projects. There was a lot of descoping and rescoping of projects along the way, but, more importantly, there was also a lot of facilitative, supportive leadership by the PMO that really did encourage project managers to do their best work.

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