Change Of Pace

Organizations Are Transforming For A Digital World; PMOs Will Have To Follow Suite To Stay Relevant


Lori Tanner, PMP, American Red Cross, Washington, D.C., USA



Going digital means different things to different organizations.

For some it's a transition to the cloud; for others it's automating factory lines or harnessing internet of things technologies to track operational performance.

Regardless of the specifics, executives almost universally agree: Digital projects need to get done. Nearly 90 percent of executives say digitization is a priority, according to 2017 research from CEB (now Gartner). And they are willing to shell out a lot of money to make it happen. By the end of 2019, spending on digital transformation projects is expected to reach US$1.7 trillion worldwide—up 42 percent from 2017, according to research from International Data Corp. By the end of this year, at least 40 percent of organizations will have a fully staffed digital leadership team to support the execution of enterprise-wide digital initiatives.



The intense focus on digital projects creates huge opportunities for project management offices (PMOs) to assert themselves as strategic partners that can help drive successful delivery. But the first steps are adapting processes to a more fast-moving, customer-focused project environment and communicating that transformation to the executive team.

“The PMO must shift its focus from simply governing and delivering projects to strategically supporting digital transformation,” says Alex Julian, owner of the project management consultancy bePM Training, São Paulo, Brazil. “Current procedures and processes generally are not made to follow the time-to-delivery speed needed by digital markets—so PMOs must change.”

Many executives would seem to agree, inasmuch as agility and digitization overlap. Barely a quarter of C-suite occupants say they can leverage their PMOs to boost organizational agility, according to The Essential Influence of the C-Suite report, part of Achieving Greater Agility, the latest PMI Thought Leadership Series.


“To remain relevant, PMOs have to change.”

—Raed Skaf, PhD, PMP, KPMG, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

This might be because PMOs are known as the group that creates tools, documentation and oversight requirements that can feel burdensome to fast-moving project teams.

“To remain relevant, PMOs have to change,” says Raed Skaf, PhD, PMP, head of PMO consulting, KPMG, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.


The translation for PMOs is simple: It's past time to ramp up capabilities around rapid delivery and fast feedback, and zero in on the strategic goals of the organization. “There is a relentless pursuit of value that is changing the way organizations break down projects and iterate,” says Rebecca Porter-field, a consultant in Chicago, Illinois, USA who was director of project management at the financial services organization Peak6 Investments until December. In industries that face constant digital disruption, stakeholders now measure success by how rapidly projects are executed, and they participate in more frequent stage-gate reviews to decide whether a project should continue, pivot or cut its losses, she says.

PMOs need to adapt their processes to enable more frequent reviews by stakeholders, including end users who can offer vital feedback on project value. Ms. Porterfield refers to this as a “hyper version” of traditional iterative processes, where project teams gather constant feedback to vet their project plan on a near-daily basis.


“PMOs today need to define what they can do to support execution and how they can help project teams prevent and navigate issues.”

—Lori Tanner, PMP

This feedback extends all the way up to the portfolio, she says. In tech companies, she sees stakeholders and PMO leaders reviewing the interdependencies of digital projects in the portfolio to determine where the most value is achieved and how each project fits on the broader business roadmap.

“It's been part of the PMO evolution for a while,” Ms. Porterfield says. As leadership teams at these digital-first organizations recognize the positive impact of project portfolio management on digital projects and their business outcomes, they are turning to the PMO to help them assess investments. “It's one more way the digital PMO has matured.”


“The PMO must shift its focus from simply governing and delivering projects to strategically supporting digital transformation.”

—Alex Julian, bePM Training, São Paulo, Brazil


But the process of evolving from a support organization into a strategic partner can be bumpy. At telecom company MTN, project teams have to constantly churn out new features and mini-projects to keep customers happy, says Thokozani Skaka, group digital PMO lead, MTN, Johannesburg, South Africa. That has changed the role of the PMO. “It's all about driving fast results, getting customer feedback and applying it to the next project,” he says.



Take his team's effort to create music streaming features. Since beginning to do so, it has faced constant pressure to ramp up the speed of delivery and feedback integration—both from internal stakeholders and to keep pace with global competition. “When a company like Spotify deploys new features every two weeks, we are always looking for ways to do things faster,” he says.

These are the types of market pressures that have forced PMO leaders across sectors to rethink their structure, role and charter. “PMOs today need to define what they can do to support execution and how they can help project teams prevent and navigate project issues,” says Lori Tanner, PMP, senior director of IT PMO, American Red Cross, Washington, D.C., USA.

In recent years, Ms. Tanner's organization has come to recognize the importance of supporting a structured yet agile project management culture. And that need has grown with an increase in natural disasters, when her teams have to rapidly develop and deploy technology solutions to support hard-hit communities. She's also been pushed to provide greater portfolio-level clarity and to let stakeholders more easily see where money is being spent and what value is being generated across the entire portfolio of projects. “It's part of the push for greater transparency and accountability.”


“It's all about driving fast results, getting customer feedback and applying it to the next project.”

—Thokozani Skaka, MTN, Johannesburg, South Africa

In response, two years ago, her PMO began redefining every step in its project management process with the goal of providing teams with lightweight structures to help them deliver better, faster projects with minimal extra steps. She ultimately built a portfolio management platform that can support various types of projects and project management processes with a focus on minimizing paperwork and unnecessary overhead. Her PMO leadership team created a framework with standards and automation that provides real-time access to project data. The framework uses a simplified approach that supports agile projects as well as more formal phased projects with strong regulatory or personal risk factors, such as building software to manage blood donations.

“Our method is light enough now that it doesn't slow progress but still gathers all of the necessary data,” Ms. Tanner says. “It's all about finding balance between too much structure and not enough.”


To accommodate all of these shifts and to better support digital projects, PMOs have had to add new capabilities encompassing things like analytics, the internet of things, cloud-based platforms and other digital solutions. “It's not enough to have project management expertise anymore,” Dr. Skaf says. “PMOs need project managers with specialized skills.”

Unfortunately, such skill sets can be difficult to find. As a result, many PMOs are forced to develop new project management training and career track programs to pull in-house tech experts into the fold. “If you can find a technology leader with good communication skills, put them through project management training,” Dr. Skaf says. In a market where tech talent is hard to come by, training could be the fastest and most efficient way to integrate in-demand talent into the PMO.

“Our method is light enough now that it doesn't slow progress but still gathers all of the necessary data. It's all about finding balance between too much structure and not enough.”

—Lori Tanner, PMP

Shifting the organization's project management culture also can help the PMO build its strategic relevance, Mr. Skaka says. His team has launched initiatives to promote creativity, including design-thinking workshops to help teams find new ways to solve problems, and setting aside an hour every Friday for people to pitch innovative project ideas. He plans to secure funding for the best ideas and then to promote those projects heavily across the company.

“One of our main objectives is to make innovative thinking the norm,” he says. “Creating opportunities for knowledge sharing and supporting innovative ideas will drive that change.” The goal is for the PMO to move beyond being merely a support structure to becoming an integral part of the value chain, he says.

Digital transformation inevitably will create bumps in the road for many PMOs trying to adapt, but those that can make the leap will be well positioned to hold authority in their organizations, Mr. Julian says. “This is an opportunity to become a business unit, not just a support area,” he says. If a PMO successfully evolves, “it will help drive the entire company down the digital path.”

PMO leaders who can demonstrate their business value to the organization will move into strategic management roles, says Dr. Skaf. “They will sit at the top, advising executives on how to proceed.” PM

Digital or Bust

Executives view digitization as a top priority—and are spending big to push change forward.


Sources: CEB/Gartner; IDC FutureScape: Worldwide Digital Transformation 2018 Predictions, International Data Corp., 2017



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