Project Management Institute

The hidden roles of the project support office

MiddleGround

by John Sullivan, PMP, Contributing Editor

TWO YEARS AFTER BEING hired to start and run a project support office (PSO), I was asked to speak about my experiences. While preparing my talk, I uncovered some behind-the-scenes roles that the PSO plays. While none of these is a starring role, the following four parts, when played well, can help a PSO contribute to a project's success.

Broker. Information is the universal item with which any project support office deals. A successful PSO is an information broker, matching pieces of information to people or teams who need it. Success in brokering information comes by synthesizing and integrating pieces into a comprehensible whole. Don't just produce reports, read them. Don't just call meetings, attend some. Invite yourself to engineering meetings and design reviews. Find out who knows what and connect them with the other people and teams that need their information. This makes the PSO function a catalyst, accelerating information flow and speeding the transformation of information into knowledge.

Translator. The PSO helps translate the larger direction of the company into action by aligning the project with corporate vision statements, divisional objectives, and departmental mission statements. The best way to do this is to ask questions. When preparing the project charter, ask “How can the PSO help achieve success?” “What does the PSO need to do to make these goals happen?”

Alignment is important because one role of the PSO is to sets standards and practices, determining how things get done. That is often accomplished via a methodology.

Implementor. Many PSOs use a methodology—a system of principles, practices, and procedures applied to a specific branch of knowledge—to put project management into practice. By all means use a methodology, but use it carefully.

John Sullivan, PMP, is a founding member of PMI's Dayton/Miami Valley Chapter. Send any comments on this column to editorial@pmi.org.

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Project teams are like children; they don't want restrictions or discipline, but deep down inside, they crave order and direction. Like parenting, implementing a methodology can be a balancing act. The old saying about rules applies to methodologies: “It's not knowing when to obey them, it's knowing when to break them.” The methodology may not need breaking, but it may need bending. Be willing to do that.

Again, asking questions can help. Seek out stakeholders at several levels—executives, managers, and individuals—and ask, “How can I be of service?” This can help ferret out the team's real needs. Some of these needs, like schedule reporting and risk management, are best accomplished with a methodology. But other needs may emerge that don't work with a methodology.

The flip side of this is sticking with a methodology. When people have complaints or criticisms, refer them to a formal system. My reply is often, “Why don't you file a risk statement for that?” or “Submit that to the change control board.” Many times, that stops them cold, which tells me that they'd rather complain than change, because they've discovered something we already know: project management is hard work.

Facilitator. To facilitate means to make easier. Working with a PSO should be easy. Make it easy by automating tasks, using templates, working through the corporate intranet, and having a positive attitude so that you can be of service to your team.

Here's why working with the PSO needs to be easy. At the start of our project, I was trying to define our mission when our brainstorming stalled, so I asked my staff, “What can the team do without us?” One of them answered: “Everything.”

It's true. Teams can develop software, set up an oil derrick, or construct a building without a PSO. The question is, can they do it as quickly, as cheaply, as well? If so, they don't need a PSO. That fact led us to put the following phrase in our mission statement: “The project support office doesn't add revenue so it must add value.”

MAKE SURE THAT YOUR PSO adds value by brokering, translating, implementing, and facilitating. And when it does, discover one more role to play: promoter. Make sure everyone—including your boss—knows of your contributions. And when they do, never let ‘em forget it. ■

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

February 2000 PM Network

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