How to Avoid the Death of Your PMO

rip-pmoWe’ve witnessed the collapse of a several large PMOs among our customers. It’s not a pretty sight. The collapse of the largest one started at the top, with the resignation of the PMO director, and ended with the rest of the PMO being completely disassembled. Some of the 100+ PMs were reassigned to individual business units, but most were shown the door. To say the least, it’s a harrowing experience.

PMOs don’t just disappear, of course. So what happened? Surprisingly, it wasn’t the health of their projects that did them in. To be sure, the failed PMOs had plenty of late, over-budget projects, but so do successful and thriving PMOs the world over. Instead, what kills PMOs seems to be a lack of strategy.

A healthy PMO recognizes that it will always have projects with issues, and puts together a strategy to set expectations, communicate status, and increase visibility to all stakeholders. A good PMO will have a solid communication and reporting plan before things go wrong.

The failed PMOs we know all claimed to have such a plan, but it was mostly lip service. Here’s what was missing:

Buy-in from the Top

In order for project reporting and communication to work at the PMO level, it has to have buy-in from the very top. At minimum, this buy-in consists of the head of the PMO, but ideally it will go above that, so that senior management expects and encourages the PMO to communicate proactively from the top down.

After all, it’s senior management that needs to understand what the PMO is doing and how the PMO is mitigating project risk. Senior management already knows which projects are at risk, so when communication is spotty, they’ll often assume the PMO doesn’t know what to do about it. Ultimately, it’s senior management that pulls the PMO’s plug.

Required Participation

PMOs are not a democracy. It’s not OK for some PMs to opt out of a task that they deem unnecessary or time-consuming. This is certainly the case with project reporting, but most other project management duties should be required of all PMs as well.

One of the PMOs that failed made many of its decisions using a show of hands. Each member of the team got his or her own vote as to which practices would be used on a particular project. The result wasn’t surprising: Some projects had good visibility, others lousy, and many no visibility at all.

Standard Style & Standard Tools

Creating a standard for communicating about your projects is a no-brainer because it helps executives and other stakeholders see every project in the same light, for better or for worse. A PMO that doesn’t decide on a standard project reporting format or a standard project reporting tool is going to be fighting an uphill battle at every turn.

A lot of the standardization battle comes down to having a PMO strong enough to be able to set standards in the first place. If executives don’t give the PMO this power, or the PMO splinters by implementing a “democratic” process for standardization, failure is just around the corner.

We saw one PMO that couldn’t even come to a consensus on their underlying PPM tool. Across 100+ PMs, we saw a mixture of Microsoft Project, CA Clarity, Excel, and (you guessed it) nothing to track dates and deliverables.

The Right Frequency of Reporting

Assuming the first three pieces are in place, the final step is to keep on top of the project communication plan you’ve established. This means every PM should regularly update project reports on every project.

There are two key components for getting into the groove. The first is to ensure that the project plan–usually in a PPM tool–is current. We recommend weekly updates at minimum. Even when a PM thinks nothing has changed, a quick review of the project plan each week can ensure that is the case.

The second component is to update reports and other project communications consistently. We don’t recommend updating project communications as frequently as the underlying project plan. Sending out a revised report too often is a recipe for information overload, guaranteeing that no one will ever bother to look at what you’ve sent. Dialing the reporting frequency back a bit makes each incremental update more valuable to your audience, which will increase your visibility and level of engagement. If you’re making weekly updates to the plan itself, strive for an updated report every 2-4 weeks as a rule of thumb.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Failing to update your project plan and associated reports on a regular basis can lead to another, more technical problem: loss of tool skills. PPM and project reporting tools take practice, so you shouldn’t expect to pick up where you left off if it’s been six months since you touched it.

The best way to make sure you stay on top of your skills for PPM and project reporting tools is to use them often enough that you don’t get rusty. This will increase your comfort level and actually reduce the amount of time you need to spend making updates, because you’ll be more familiar with what you are doing.

Tell Us Your Story

This article was written based on observations from several recent PMO failures–names weren’t used in the interest of confidentiality. If you’ve worked for a PMO that collapsed, or if you’ve been a part of a PMO that followed some of these suggestions and feel that you were more successful as a result, we’d love to hear from you.

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About Safford

Safford is a versatile technology professional with a solid history of empowering emerging growth companies in a broad array of industries. His employment history includes energy industry consulting at Quorum Business Solutions, Senior Manager of Business Development and Technical Sales at telecom service aggregator GetConnected, and Vice President of Strategic Partner Management at electronic payment processor IP Commerce. Prior to his tenure as OnePager's COO, Safford was the company's Vice President of Marketing and Alliances. Safford holds a BA in Psychology and management from Rice University.

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