PMO leadership--a catalyst for accelerating growth within the information technology project management office

Abstract

A properly equipped Information Technology Project Management Organization leader can be a catalyst for PMO maturation. After introducing PMO maturity, this paper focuses on specific skills needed for the PMO leader. It concludes with practical action planning steps for leading the PMO and incubating leadership within the PMO staff. The practical experiences of the authors and supporting research materials are utilized to illustrate the importance of the PMO leader.

Introduction

One of the more recent developments in Project Management is the Project Management Office. The Project Management Office (PMO) has been created to help standardize project management beyond the skill of the single project manager and help to provide consistency across multiple projects and have consistent progress reporting. (Tousignant, 2002).

With the rise of the PMO, comes the need to focus on the skills needed for leadership of the PMO. The skills and characteristics of the PMO leader is a primary focus of this paper. A skilled PMO leader can act as a catalyst for maturing the information technology based PMO. In addition to outlining skills of the PMO leader, we as authors will attempt to delineate the leader’s individual role in guiding the PMO in its development from infancy through adolescence to adulthood.

Without focused PMO leadership, a PMO can struggle with its identity and the role it plays in the parent organization. A PMO which lacks strong project management focused leadership can have its growth stunted and its ultimate value to the parent organization hampered. Whereas the mature PMO with proper leadership can stand on its own providing undeniable value to its customers as well as to its staff.

Leadership is a broad topic. An Amazon.com search for ‘Leadership’ in June 2007 returned 223,787 books. Project Leadership itself is a huge topic. A similar scan for ‘Project Leadership’ returned 6,531 books. These searches do not begin to include the periodicals, online documents, and non-English publications. There has been much written on both leadership and project leadership. What is less well established are the role specific leadership skills required of a PMO leader. Techniques which make a project manager successful in leading delivery projects may need to be redirected and transformed to successfully lead a PMO.

This paper will focus on the role of the PMO leader and attempt to show how the PMO leader can accelerate growth of the PMO itself. In addition to looking at research materials, we, the authors, will be draw upon our own practical experiences in leading and being lead in a various PMO’s. Where possible, our experiences will be woven into this paper to illustrate the ever evolving role of the PMO leader.

Rational For the Study

In 2006, while writing ‘Growing Up…The Information Technology Project Management Office (PMO)’s Journey from Infancy to Maturity”(Woerne & Aziz, 2006) we (the authors) felt that the topic of PMO Leadership was key to the development of PMO Maturity. However, this was a topic in and of itself and not covered in detail in this earlier work. The more we examined our experiences in leading PMO’s, being PMO members, and what we were seeing in the literature, the more we realized the importance of strong leadership in PMO maturation. In our opinion, a skillful leader with a project management expertise can accelerate the PMO on its road to maturity. In the same way in which certain chemicals can function as catalysts in a chemical reaction, a solid PMO leader can increase the speed in which the PMO matures.

This paper focuses on the PMO leader and the key skills needed for the PMO leader so that others can learn how to apply PMO leadership to accelerate growth through the stages of PMO maturation. We will reveal how the PMO leader is a transformational leader, who needs the ability to transform his focus as the PMO moves through its stages of growth.

Furthermore, there appears to be a need for practical action planning steps for establishing PMO leadership direction including: 1) PMO organizational leadership, 2) Developing mission statement to supporting the organization’s business, 3) Establishing governance, best practices and quality measures, success criteria, 4) Creating a culture of goal setting, flexibility, and continuous improvement, 5) Incubating leadership skills of project management practitioners within the PMO and 6) Managing change.

Historical Background – How PMO’s got started and with it the PMO leader

In the early days of project management, IT management would select project managers out of a pool of resources with the following send-off “We need this done by this time, and here’s your funding. Good luck!” This sink-or-swim induction to project management is how many project managers got started. (Harris, 2000)

Project Management evolved to fill the needs of the project manager. The project management processes of Initiation, Planning, Execution; Control and Closure (Project Management Institute, 2000, p 30) grew out of this. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) has gone on to become the de facto standard for Project Management.

Once project management became a recognized skill, the next step was to build organizations to foster consistency. This was the birth of the PMO. Companies setup PMO’s “to ensure that a particular project is planned and executed well”. In the last 20 years organizations have come to see project management is a unique ‘value-added’ discipline for the enterprise. This value is measured either in terms of cost–benefit achieved or the return on investment (ROI). The PMO provides a home for project management and an entity from which to effectively manage delivery. (Harris, 2000).

Once a PMO is established as an organizational entity, it needs an administrative leader. In some PMO’s the leader is chosen from among the staff of the PMO itself. In this model – the most experienced project / program manager is appointed as the leader. Such a leader may know how to lead a project, but may not understand the nuances of managing the PMO nor understand the internal politics of the parent organization. Techniques used to successfully lead projects may or may not translate in leading the PMO. In other cases (particularly in the early stages of PMO history) a generalist manager with little or no functional project management experience will be anointed as the PMO leader. This model often stagnates when the management generalist fails to understand the nuances of PMO leadership. In the best of both worlds scenario - the PMO leader will possess project management functional knowledge, hands-on experience managing projects, and administrative management experience.

The PMO concept continues to evolve. A more recent development (in late 2006) is the creation of The Standard for Program Management (Project Management Institute, 2006) and The Standard for Portfolio Management (Project Management Institute, 2006). These two additional standards will need to be considered as aspects of the modern PMO and how a PMO is lead and /or managed.

Mature PMO Characteristics

To lead the PMO and be the catalyst for growth, it helps to understand what PMO maturity looks like. In our assessment, a PMO will be grownup when it masters both the process side of efficiently managing its internal operations and also providing business value in the managing portfolios of project based work. Another critical success criterion for PMO maturity is ability to execute on projects. In a project setting, this means that projects are delivered on time, on budget, and with quality and customer satisfaction. To achieve this status PMO needs a well defined organization structure, strong leadership, and a general orientation (culture) towards execution, and getting things done. This ability to get things done is a key aspect in a mature PMO that is juggling multiple deliverables.

We believe the mature PMO has a number of characteristics, which fall into 4 general buckets of Strategy, Operations, People and Metrics. Into these 4 buckets, there are numerous characteristics which become aspects of the roadmap for PMO maturity. A detailed description can be found in ‘Growing Up…The Information Technology Project Management Office (PMO)’s Journey from Infancy to Maturity” (Woerner & Aziz, 2006).

Understanding what PMO maturity looks like is only the start. In the same way that buying a map or printing out directions on mapquest.com does not take person to the destination or teach a person how to travel to the destination. It merely establishes a path to get there. Similarly, knowing the road to maturity does not automatically take the leader there. It does, however, provide help for the journey.

PMO Leadership versus Project Delivery Leadership

Project delivery leadership focuses on the successful implementation of a project within scope, budget, and time constraints, assuming quality and customer satisfaction. In this role, the project manager can focus his or her energies on the project and will have skills focus in this area.

By contrast, PMO leadership is a multi-dimensional organizational leadership that encompasses organization building and foundational elements necessary for running a business.

Leading and Managing the PMO

Leadership has been defined generally as “the ability of an individual to influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute toward the effectiveness and success of the organizations of which they are members” (House, 2004, p. 18) By focusing the leadership definition to the PMO, we could further limit the definition of PMO leadership to the ability to influence, motivate, and enable the Project Management Office and project manager to contribute toward effectiveness and success of the sponsoring organization.

Leadership is often associated with management. Some view management as a subset of leadership. In this view, a leader knows where to go. Management skills are how they actually get there. (Leadership 501, no date). To further elaborate - there are managers and there are leaders, but also, there are mangers who can lead and leaders who can manage. The key is in “effectiveness” especially in inspiring others, guiding change, sharing a vision and (where needed) conflict resolution.

In the context of PMO leadership, it is important to possess management skills as well. Bennis used distinctions on managers vs. leaders (Exhibit 1) (Bennis, 1989)

Managers vs. Leaders (Bennis, 1989)

Exhibit 1 - Managers vs. Leaders (Bennis, 1989)

In our experience, successful PMO leaders will posses key skills in both areas. (Exhibit 2)

PMO Key Management and Leadership Attributes

Exhibit 2 – PMO Key Management and Leadership Attributes

Great leaders throughout history are actually good managers as well. If we look to the great leaders of history general management was often described in the context of leadership ‘was the medium by which changes in societies where accomplished’. Many of the great leaders throughout history were managers managing political organizations, kingdoms, explorations, wars, social change, etc. These leaders who were at the core ‘managers’ needed to deal with change that affected their societies or created change for the better (Cleland, 2006, p 1-4)

Leading leaders

Another aspect of leadership for the PMO leader is leading a team of leaders. Project managers are used to ‘running the show’ on their respective projects. The PMO leader, regardless of whether the project managers have a reporting relationship as direct reports or in a matrix structure, must be a leader the leaders. The PMO leader will successfully delegate the leading of the projects / programs to the individual project managers and be there for support. An example of how this might work can be seen in how a primary school principal and teacher collaborate on the education of students. The principal will on occasion ‘drop in’ (usually pre-announced) on class, but primarily their duties are more in the back office areas of coaching, supporting, and administering so that the teachers with full backing of the principal can focus on educating their students.

Project Delivery Leadership

The PMO mandate and core competency is in execution – project execution - the art, science, and discipline of getting things done. To accomplish this mandate successfully, the focus needs to center around:

  1. People – are the primary focus, they make things happen. People’s competencies, capabilities, and maturity level should be taken into consideration when forming the PMO.
  2. Process (operations) – is the bread and butter of the PMO. Definition, standardization, and consistency of processes with make the PMO stronger, efficient, and effective.
  3. Technology – is an enabler of effective project management. It is not the driver. It comes after people and process are considered and defined, and it is there to support them. Enterprise Program Management (EPM) / Project & Portfolio Management (PPM) systems are often complex and understanding their functionality and setting them up correctly is vital to support people and processes.
  4. Customer satisfaction – understanding customers’ needs and managing expectations is a key function for the PMO leader and the project management team
  5. Strategy creation and implementation with a focus on framework, structure, system, style, staff, skill, and super-ordinate goals is a foundations concept to aid in successful project delivery.

Striking a balance between the above five concepts is key for successful project delivery. Each is important as they coexist thought-out the project life cycle (Gage, 2005).

Multiple careers paths of the PM leadership

A discussion of PMO leadership would not be complete without touching on the general career path of the PMO leader. To set context for this it helps to spell out the general hierarchy of project related positions. Levin establishes the career roadmap in 6 levels (Levin, 2002, p 54):

  1. Project team member
  2. Associate project manager
  3. Project Manager
  4. PMO Staff Member
  5. Director PMO
  6. Vice President of Projects

In her model the first 3 are project focused positions where project focused whereas the final 3 are enterprise focused. To this, one could add the recently minted Program Manager and Portfolio Manager (PMI, 2006) titles.

In our experience, the hierarchy of roles in the industry is evolving to look something like this…

  1. Project team member
  2. Associate project manager
  3. Project Manager*
  4. Sr. Project Manager*
  5. Program Manager*
  6. Manager PMO / Portfolio Manager**
  7. Director PMO / Portfolio Manager**
  8. Vice President of Projects / Chief Projects Officer

* Note: Many still use the term project and program interchangeably. For sake of the hierarchy, we consider all of these discrete roles.

** Note: The role of Portfolio Manager could fall on the PMO Manager or the PMO Director depending on how the role is defined.

In this model all roles from Manager PMO to Vice President of Projects / Chief Projects Officer would be able to be catalysts for spurring PMO maturity.

Transformational Leadership

The PMO leader is a transformational leader - a leader who brings around change and innovation. The PMO leader is a project leader, general manager for the PMO, and the central voice for project work in the organization it supports. PMO leader is also a chief officer of project works. A new term has been established – the ‘Chief Projects Officer’ in some organizations. All organizational projects need to come under the jurisdiction of the PMO and the CPO need to be aware and prepared to address issues as they arise.

A CPO can provide a new communication channel to assist the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) with integrating the business needs with corporate strategic and operational initiatives. The CPO ensures alignment of project management with the strategic decisions made by other functional executives. This alignment can improve company performance. Moreover the CPO and in fact all PMO leaders regardless of level can work with project managers to convert strategic goals into tactical objectives with projects (vertical communication). Project managers at the tactical level can better understand corporate strategies communicated by the CPO. Managers throughout the corporation will appreciate the CPO position as they will no longer be burdened with carrying the project managers’ requirements to the C-level. (Piazza & Baweja, 2006)

The PMO concept is still, generally speaking, new and there is not a lot of history and experience from which to learn. Therefore, the learning is done by inference, observations, and extrapolation. It is learning by doing, keeping track of lessons learned, and learning from mistakes. ‘It’s surprising how many companies don’t go back and say ‘How did it go?’” (Wheatley, 2007) Learning from mistakes can be ‘low hanging fruit’ which the PMO leader can use to accelerate PMO progress in a short time.

In a similar way that a parent’s role evolves during the development of a child, the PMO leader will have an evolving role as the PMO matures. What works in the child PMO will need to evolve as the PMO matures. Perhaps this concept can be illustrated by thinking of how a child learns to ride a bike. In many ways the leader of the PMO needs to lead the PMO ‘with the training wheels on’. For example the baby PMO may not even understand the basics of project management as outlined in the PMBOK ® Guide. In this stage the PMO leader may need to spend a disproportionate amount of their time in establishing the basic structure of the PMO and in the skills development of the PM staff. Similar examples could be cited as the PMO matures.

Accelerating Growth – Utilizing Project, Program & Portfolio Standards

In order for the PMO to continue to grow towards maturity, PMO leadership needs to foster adherence to professional standards and strives to update organization behavior to be based on generally accepted professional standards, such as the recently published The Standard for Program Management (PMI, 2006) and The Standard for Portfolio Management (PMI, 2006).

Ways to Accelerate Growth of the PMO – A Plan of Action

From our observations and supported by the literature, the following measures are considered key focus areas for the success and maturity of the PMO. These focus areas need to be developed, sustained, reviewed, and optimized on by the PMO leader on regular basis to ensure the continuous success of the PMO.

  1. PMO Leadership characteristics
  1. well connected and respected in the organization
  2. Strong interpersonal skills including motivation and listening (Wheatley, 2007).
  1. PMO needs to have a vision and mission that aligns well and supports the organization business goals and overall long-term strategy.
  2. Governance structure – the PMO needs to establish a high-level organizational governance or steering committee to project prioritization, funding, and resource allocation.
  3. Define key success indicators needed for strategic and operational alignment.
  4. A communication strategy to keep stakeholders apprised of the role of the PMO in:
  1. Supporting the organization core business
  2. Setting and monitoring quality measures
  3. Maintaining an optimal operating model
  4. Developing, updating, and enforcing relevant policies and procedures
  1. PMO Core Competencies:
  1. Roles and responsibilities
  2. Career path for project managers and other staff members of the PMO
  3. Developing technical and management skills
  1. PMO culture needs to foster:
  1. creativity
  2. flexibility
  3. goal-setting
  4. regular assessments and reassessment
  5. continuous improvement
  1. Leadership skill development for project management practitioners within the PMO
  1. succession planning
  2. program management
  3. portfolio management
  4. managing multiple project
  5. leading a team of leaders

PMO Leadership – A Balanced Approach

In addition to the above action planning, the PMO leader can utilize an approach which balances multiple complementary skill sets. The purpose of the balanced approach to PMO leadership (Exhibit 3) is to build on individual skills and to benchmark against others regarding how they lead their IT PMO.

Benefits from various sources

Exhibit 3 PMO Leadership – A Balanced Approach

Some keys to use this approach are to follow the following techniques to strengthen their business:

  1. Attract and retain key talent (effective, efficient, energetic, and passionate)
  2. Build a creative, innovative, and agile project management organization
  3. Maximize PM performance, profitability, and competitiveness
  4. Improve critical project management processes and workflows (change & integration management / project intake requests / project request assessments / project prioritization & alignment / project approvals / scope change request / budgets allocation)
  5. Improve project-management workforce effectiveness
  6. Manage project risk, compliance, and enterprise governance
  7. Manage change.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the PMO leader who can put the above action plan in place and who displays the skills outlined in the balanced approach will establish the cultural foundation for accelerated PMO maturity. By combining the general leadership skills with PM specific expertise, the PMO leader can be a driving force for progress, PMO maturation and in turn, the overall effectiveness of the PMO.

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© 2007, Bruce Woerner
Originally published as a part of 2007 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Atlanta, Georgia

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