Festival of the PMO – My Journey to Work and the PMO

I have driven the journey between home and work a thousand times. I know every corner, every traffic light, where the congestion will be, which lanes to be in…in fact I suspect my car could almost do the journey on autopilot itself.
But then a funny thing happened last week. A motor accident occurred (not involving myself fortunately) and the police were diverting traffic off the main road. They had not had time to put in place those big yellow detour signs, so once off the main road I was on my own and within the space of few hundred metres and a minute or so, I realised I was lost. All of my familiar landmarks were gone, my bearings were shot, and in fact I wasn’t even sure if I was heading in the right general direction any longer.
I pulled over and made a scramble for the sat-nav, at the same time I called a colleague at work and explained that I most likely would be late for an early morning meeting as I didn’t really know how long it would take me to finish the journey now. I distinctively remember feeling anxious about the situation, but mostly frustrated at how things had gotten out of control relatively quickly.
To fast forward to the end of the story, I arrived at the office only a few minutes later than planned and when all was said and done the impact on my day was completely minimal. But as a person who runs a PMO in my organisation the whole incident played on my mind and it wasn’t long before I started drawing an analogy between my morning adventure and how projects can run sometimes. In particular I started questioning the role of PMOs… (I know what you’re thinking – I need to get out more!).
My first thought was that most of the projects I have worked on were not like my typical journey to work – predictable, repeatable, uneventful and even boring. They were much more like this morning’s journey – starting off with a clear goal and a plan to get there, but then hitting a major obstruction, going through a period of uncertainty, trying to replan the way ahead on the fly, communicating to those impacted that a problem had occurred but that things were under control (when they were anything but), and then finally discovering a totally different path to my destination.
As I pondered my metaphor, I visualized the Project Manager as being the driver and I asked myself the question “What role would the PM think the PMO played in this scenario”? I quickly concluded that many PMs would probably describe the PMO as being the Police Department – while they are trying to prevent a major disaster (i.e. you not having a high speed accident); they are often perceived as only being there to tell you when you are breaking the rules. “Sir – I’ve clocked you as doing 20km over the speed limit and here is your fine. Have a nice day.”
I’ve worked as part of many PMOs and it’s fair to say that the best feedback and project outcomes have occurred when the PMO has played multiple roles in the journey to the project destination (not just the Police). To illustrate my point here’s a couple of thought bubbles worth pondering.

  • “The map” – when I was forced to detour on my journey, a good map was essential for me to find an alternate way to my destination. What was also important was that the map was appropriate for the task I needed to perform – it would have been pointless having a world atlas, when what I needed was a capitol city UBD.
    In this analogy “the map” can be thought of as the PMO process set or governance. Good governance not only helps a project plan out what the end goals will be, but ensures that a robust plan with all the right steps is put in place to get there. But where the PMO can really step up is in working with the projects to ensure that a properly tailored approach is taken in the application of this governance. Don’t just throw the atlas at the project, give them the UBD!
  • “The car” – this represents the tool I was using to travel to my destination. Now a car has many functions – it will tell you how fast you are going, it will tell you how far you’ve come, it has many indicators to allow communication as to what you are doing, it has many controls to allow you to speed up and slow down as required. It has a rear view mirror so you can see where you’ve been and big clear windscreen so you can see what’s ahead. What a great comparison for the sort of tool set (schedule, cost, risk etc) the PMO should be providing to the project!
    But as before, where the PMO plays a smart role is ensuring that the car is appropriate for the journey. There’s no point in replacing my car with a horse and cart if I have a long journey, nor is there is any point in buying me a Ferrari if a Holden will suffice. The PMO needs to work with the project to ensure the most appropriate tools are put in place to get you to your destination and that the PM knows how to use all the bells and whistles on offer.
  • “The navigator” – how much easier would my early morning predicament have been had there have been someone in the passenger seat to assist me in re-planning my journey.
    I think this is one of the most important PMO roles of all. It’s where the PMO gets on board with the project team to help them plan, execute, monitor and closeout the project as shared endeavor with shared responsibilities. Unfortunately all too many times have I seen the PMO hand over the right map, deliver the perfect car and stand on the side walk waving goodbye as the project takes off. Teams deliver projects and the PMO needs to be in the passenger seat helping the PM to navigate to the destination.

To wrap this all up, I need to add that I challenged myself as I thought this story through. There are fantastic benefits that a well-functioning PMO can deliver to an organisation, but the journey is never over – there is always more value to add and the next bump in the road may be just around the corner.

Post from Guest Blogger Nicole Nader. Nicole is a director at  the Australian Institue of Project Management, Project Manager at ASC and a Governance, PMO and Strategy specialist

Nicole Nader

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