Project Management Institute

Lessons along the path of creating a PMO

Project Manager


Most professionals working in the project management environment know that setting up a PMO is a challenging project requiring specialized skills and expertise. The maturity of the organisation, as well as the maturity of the business environemnt around it, is key to a relatively smooth implementation. The challenge becomes twofold when the operating environemnt is not mature enough to receive such a function. Operating a business in a country like Sudan is indeed a big challenge for organisations that are already well managed and established. “An organisation embarking on setting up a PMO function is asking for trouble”, commented one of the key businessmen in Khartoum. The statement reflects the magnitude of the problem from a business perspective. The paper documents for and discusses the major learning points of setting up, staffing and operating a PMO within a typical Middle Eastern company.


Many people will agree with the statement claiming that organisations start new initiatives as a result of a business need, and more specifically, a need related to monetary elements. Call it the PMO, the PSO, the PSU or the PPSO; the Project Management Office is a unique initiative that combines both the classical organisational urge to improve business processes with that of a determination to move the business operation a little bit closer to project-based style of management. The PMO will act as the pressure room between the routine day to day business operations and the temporary unique projects that come up every now and then. The end result is a smoother transition of business benefits resulting from project execution between these two different domains of operation. It is similar to a three-tier client-server setup, as IT people all know very well. The ultimate aim is to make the PMO “tier” as thin as possible, making it possible for the two modes of operation to co-exist in peace.

PMO's invaded organisations as a result of the post Y2K related projects. Many organisations felt that it was wise to keep their PMO to compliment the planning, executing, and controlling the organisations' programmes and projects.

AT DAL Group Sudan, the need to overlook strategy implementation called for a setup to be established which would do this. The strategy profile recommended a Programme Management Office to be established. One of the reasons for the urgency of establishing such a unit was the fact that the company had a bad experience in controlling project spending in the past. This was partially due to the fact that there were only a couple of people working on these projects and they couldn't have provided support for the project management methodology and at the same time manages their projects.

The support infrastructure will provide the project managers and the organisation with a solid system that will work on administrative areas such as documentation, configuration management and project communication activities.

The environment was all set to receive the proposal for setting up and establishing the PMO at DAL. The owners needed some insurance that the strategy spending will be better controlled and invested. Cost was not an issue initially, but we needed to establish a rough cash flow statement as part of the proposal. This was mainly consisting of the running cost of the support unit.

Books vs. Reality

Reading articles and books about the PMO is becoming a very challenging task due to the vast amount of publications around the area. Every author has his/her own interpretation of what a successful PMO implementation should like.

Organisations realities call for a more simplified definition for the PMO nature. We need to look closer and start addressing critical issue related to defining the PMO, the reasons for setting up one, the most suitable org structure setup and who should staff it.

Most of the literature in this area defines the PMO as a “staffed function within an organisation that has recognised that the successful completion of projects is a critical success factor”. (March, 2000, vol 1, p. 30) However, the PMO, in the mind of the majority of people within a typical organisation, sees it as something completely different. People believe that a PMO is another operational burden with extra work for them to do, especially project managers. It is also sometimes perceived that those individuals are a group of “wannabes” who are seeking organisation's stardom. The worst perception is the feeling that the PMO is just another “ridiculous organisation development initiative”

Next comes the question of why have a PMO at the first place. Consultants will jump to answer, “to formalize the project management approach”; another will say, “to provide a formal mechanism for resource allocation”. Reality says that PM Offices are set for reasons completely different to what the consultants claim. CEOs launch efforts to set up a PMO in order to police the project staff, centralize the project decision-making process or simply find jobs for people who are doing very little, but receive fat salaries.

“What about where to place the PMO?” The books will tell you things like “at a strategic management level” or maybe you will be advised to place it where you feel it will be most appropriate to support your programmes and projects. Again, this is not the case when it comes to real world operations. The PMO will most likely be situated where it is “most convenient”, convenience of control that is. Senior management feel that the PMO need to be constantly controlled; it is a secretarial function after all, they think.

Tournament Day

The Human race seems to behave in an identical way of behaving whenever operating in a pack. This can be an organization, a university, a school, with family, or indeed, even in a sports team. I usually draw from my experience as a football player when it comes to organizations dynamics.

Doing anything new with an organization, that has been operating for years on a stable system, relying on classical controls and driven by operational needs, is similar to taking a football team (we mean soccer here; for our North American fellows) to a competitive world-wide international tournament after years of playing in a local community for-fun social tournaments, where nobody really cared about how you play as long as you turn up for your matches, stick to the schedule of your games, have 11 players wearing their full uniform complete with shin pads, and no jewellery.

Once that decision is made by the Board, and all the formalities are completed, it is then passed to the team's management team to pursue this adventure onwards: the Coach, his assistant, the Fitness Specialist, the Goalkeepers Coach, the Dietician, and the Team's Doctor. This is the make up of the coaching staff in most international teams. Each one of these can be equated to a vital role in today's organizations; the coach is the leader of the team, he is the one who sets the strategy for the team and makes all the required substitutions at the right time (CEO). The Team's Doctor takes care of any emergency illness and makes sure that all the players are in good condition (Human Resources). The Goalkeepers' coach is responsible for training the Goalkeeper on how to prevent opposition from scoring against the team by constantly leading his/her defence through a constant stream of instructions and directions (Communication). The fitness specialist's responsibility is to have all the players at a fitness level suited for the level of the game the team is participating in (Training).

From the analogy above, we can identify four vital areas that need all the attention of any organization planning to go for a PMO setup after years of operating without one, they are: Leadership, Human Resources, Communication and Training.

Before tackling these vital areas and look into the vital components of each one, I would like to return to my analogy of the football team and watch how most teams behave, once they received the invitation to participate internationally. This is exactly how organisations behave when a decision to set up the PMO is taken by the Board.

The first reaction from the Board of Directors is a stream of orders to the coaching staff (not the players) that this is an important issue and they have to work their b**** off (to equate football environment terminology) to see it happening. The Board will not tolerate any slip-ups. This is The Big Thing and we have the green light. Then, all the Board members disappear from the scene to attend their other businesses. The coaching team is left wondering in the dark. So, they operate in the dark, kind of a black hole situated between their own players and the Board of Directors. They are enjoying it. After all; it is The Big Thing!

And so the work begins. A typical “To Do” list will consist of: get a famous name to sponsor the team, purchase new set of jerseys complete with flashy numbers on the back and colorful logos on the front, make sure you buy the best football boots and socks, ensure the good colour combination of our uniform, obtain 50 FIFA World Cup quality footballs, and take all our players to the barber shop for trimmings. We Need To LOOK Good!

Now we are going to become international caliber, we need international presence. What is better than a flashy website, that www thing. “Construct one” comes the orders from above. Post our players' photos there, put how much they weigh and how tall they are and where they were born, write about all the competition we participated in (although they are all totally irrelevant to the new tournament we are embarking in), invite visitors to join our growing list of supporters (although they have never seen us play), and tell the world about all the things that our team can do (but never did yet).

And so the story goes on. The Coaching team is doing all it can do thinking that they are preparing the team for the most important event in their careers. The shopping list is completed, all the purchases are in place, and the website and other promotion material are up and running. But the team is still training in the same old way, the usual way: half hour warm up, stretching for 10 minutes and then chase the ball around the field.

The Fitness Coach is not fully aware of the International tournament so he felt the players' level of fitness is OK, because it has been OK so far. The Goal Keepers' Coach kept training his keepers on how to stop shots coming from mediocre oppositions. The Team's Doctor kept on checking the players' temperatures and pressure as usual and he is passing them fit as long as the toxic level from last night's bashes did not exceed the average. The Team was not READY.

Tournament Day comes: Flashy outfit in place, all the accessories in place, the Board is in their full suits, the sponsors are displaying all their products, the Coach is parading his team to the spectators, and the team LOOKS good. But the Team is not READY. This was soon to be realized after kick-off. One down, two, three, four, five, game over.

When it comes to winning, it is neither the flashy outfit you wear nor the great sponsor you have, it is neither the publicity you gain nor the accessories you purchase. It is none of these that helps you win your tournaments. READY, WELL TRAINED players win you tournaments. The rest play a supporting role only.

If a team is to achieve in a new challenging arena, then it has to start doing things in a different way. To achieve different results you have to start changing the way you do things at the moment. Same practices will yield same results. A team going from Sunday League tournaments to World Cup events is a team that needs a different mentality from both management and players. They have to rise to the occasion both physically and mentally. Accessories do not compensate. It is a hard long route, but a rewarding one too.

In the next part of the paper, I will discuss the four factors playing a vital role in transferring an organization from non-PMO status to a PMO-based one. They are: Leadership, Training, Human Resources and Communication.

Building the Ship


This is the beacon light for the PMO. If the Team's Coach is not prepared to take that role on and be the first to face disaster and the last to accept praise, the PMO will stay in a state of dizziness for s long as its leadership is behaving like a lost ship in the middle of the sea. The Titanic had all the necessary equipment and tools in place; it was built like no other ship. But those “gadgets” did not save it from a fatal Leadership error - misjudgement.

One of the very interesting behaviours that human beings exhibit at times of disasters are directly related to the animal kingdom, in which most scientific theories have us as full-time members. Individuals tend to gather in groups when faced by danger. In modern organizations they form a committee. What these committees are basically manifesting is a very simple message: “together we share the responsibility”, but what it is actually doing is “sharing the load of the responsibility” Nice move and very romantic indeed. However, what they end up doing is breaking down the load to an extent where it is diluted and eventually disappears. The result is a passive group of people that has no power to do anything, but to call for meetings.

The way out of this dilemma is to form a community of employees and not a committee of managers. All managers are employees, but not all employees are managers. The role of leadership during these difficult times is paramount. During the opening game of the World Cup, we look at our leaders to provide us with guidance when things go wrong in the field, but they are sitting up there in the executive air conditioned, sound proof boxes, protected from the heat and cold, wearing their Armani suits, and talking on their expensive mobile phones. They are isolated from the crowds.

Leadership has always been identified as the art of making people wanting to follow you. How can I follow an isolated individual? We tend to believe in people who share our joy and sadness. We move closer to those who will protect our interests. We listen to those who respect us. Leadership is one great myth in organizations where none of that is happening.

Leading the PMO effort has to be exemplary in nature if the PMO is to stand any chance of survival in an environment not short of management initiatives.

Human Resources

The team's doctor is someone who has little knowledge about the game's tactics. But his/her lack of knowledge about the game does not prevent him/her of being a vital cog in the team's machine. Players and coaches alike look up to this guy whenever there is an injury in the team. The doctor's role is preventive as well as detective. If the team's doctor is not skilful enough to spot injuries early enough, that might cost the team a valuable player. Also, if the doctor fails to treat an injury properly, he might cause more damage. The team's doctor is responsible for the team members' well being.

HR is now experiencing a face-lift operation worldwide. It is now being called Human Capital. At last they are realizing that we are no longer “resources” like materials and equipments. This transformation was a result of the failures administered during the past 10 years by the majority of HR departments all over the world. The tendency has always been to manage the employees in such a way to ensure that they produce what the organization wants. There is plenty of literature telling us about how HR guards our interests and spares no effort in developing us and making us into better Human Beings!

HR plays a vital role in establishing a successful PMO because they provide expertise in resource allocations and levelling, an area very critical to a successful PMO. HR will have a bilateral relationship with the PMO. They need training from PMO staff on project management skills, and PMO staff need training on other business skills for which HR acts as a facilitator.


Another vital, yet ignored, success factor. Not only in our organization, but also in the majority of similar organizations. Training is not necessarily tied to budgets, although it has to be if we wish to achieve excellence in customer service. One myth that has been evading us for a long time is the perception that training is the Training Department's responsibility. In fact, one of the training department's objectives could read as “Obtain Training from the PMO on new methodology”. It is a department that is in need of a Training function, just as we all do. We will be committing a big mistake if we assume that training is something that the Training department alone is responsible for. I think that the titles of the departments have been a little bit misleading so far. Another example is the Operations department that bears a department's title that according to management books is responsible for the day-to-day running of the organization.

What people expect from a Training function (which is totally different from the Training department) is a full review of the current competencies in our organization and then comparing that with the Strategic Plan objectives and performing a Gap Analysis to produce a training plan or general recommendation to management. This is the only way we can achieve what we came up with in the strategy workshops.

The PMO will be playing an integral part of the Strategy implementation practice, and it needs to be well equipped to do so through a proper competency building plan.


It is all about competition when you go international. What your competition is doing is very vital to your business. It is great to see a Competitive Intelligence Unit set up at a number of local businesses. Once you have a communication unit in place, you can have a rough idea about the opposition. Judging from previous experience, a competitive intelligence practice is as good as the efforts dedicated to it. That links directly to the other three elements mentioned above. Leadership must support the initiative visibly in order to give it the necessary authority and gain the unit some respect amongst employees. Human Resources will play a vital part in providing the necessary resources. Training will be more concerned about developing the initiative through building internal competencies and raising the level of performance of the unit's staff and look into ways of utilizing the information and data to feed into their future plans.

Information will be easily gathered and indexed and sorted and classified. Then what? This is the role of leadership. The challenge is to transform this information into knowledge and then intelligence eventually reaching the wisdom level.

Two Roads

There is a beautiful poem, by Robert Frost, that I always use which describes the whole story of setting up a PMO:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence

Two roads diverged in a wood

And I took the one less traveled by

And that has made all the difference

So, take the new less travelled road and set up a PMO of your own that is suitable to your needs. Do not be afraid to build a simple PMO. It is usually the right one for you.

References and Appendices

Englund R., Graham R., & Dinsmore P (2003) Creating The Project Office, A Manager's Guide to Leading Organisational Change San Francisco, CA, USA: Jossey Bass

Marsh, D. E (2000) The Project & Programme Support Office Handbook – Volume 1 and 2. Hants, UK: PMT Publications

PM Solutions (2005) Strategic Project Office Retrieved from

Santosus, M. (2003, July 8) Why You Need A Project Management Office, CIO [Electronic Version] Retrieved from;464985391;fp;4;fpid;16

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 or any listed author.

© 2005, Mazin Abusin
Originally published as a part of 2005 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Edinburgh, Scotland



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