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The Biggest Obstacle To PMO Success Is Not What You Think

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There’s an off-chance that I know a thing or two about this month’s’s theme of Project Management Offices, or PMOs. PMI® actually published my book on the topic, Things Your PMO Is Doing Wrong (PMI Publishing, 2008), where it spent a bit of time on its Marketplace bestseller list. As the title indicates, much of the book addresses common but ineffective (or even counter-productive) strategies that PMOs use in the pursuit of their objectives. I was inspired to write that book, not because of my predilection to be the highly-irksome fellow in the corner of the conference room who is constantly of the opinion that everyone else is getting it wrong, but due to the sheer frequency of the employment of these flawed strategies. It’s almost as if the most formidable barrier to successfully advancing Project Management as a capability across the macro-organization was receiving short-shrift, if not invisible altogether.

Before I get to naming this PMO-wrecking monster, let’s review the typical life-cycle of the failed PMO:

  1. A medium-to-large organization encounters either one massive project disaster, or a series of medium-sized overruns and late deliveries, which wakes them from their PMO-less slumber and motivates a change. At least one person in the upper levels of management has heard of those people over at the Project Management Institute®, and decides to…
  2. Create the PMO. They’ll start by pinging existing staff to see if there are any PMP®s in the bunch, and will combine a couple of them with another who’s a new hire.
  3. The newly formed PMO will meet to assess the current PM maturity level of the organization. Panic sets in.
  4. The team will start to generate policy documents that require all projects, or projects above a certain size, to establish things like a Performance Measurement Baseline, or Critical Path Schedule (resource-loaded, in order to do the PMB), and a calendar for pulling status monthly. The head of the PMO will also schedule project reviews, where the cost and schedule reports stipulated in the recently signed-off policies will be presented.
  5. The first project review is held. Most of the projects will be in marginal compliance with the policies, but others won’t even try. Notably, at least one project definitely over the compliance threshold won’t present, and will offer up some excuse why they couldn’t. Upper executives will allow it, either because they’re not convinced of the added value of these new meetings, or else because the titular PM of the defecting project is too highly-placed to confront.
  6. At the next project review meeting, other projects begin to opt out of reporting. After all, the dumpster fire that led to the creation of the PMO is fading from memory, and those responsible have convinced those that created the PMO that the previous failure was due to some anomaly, and is unlikely to happen again.
  7. The no-value-added crowd, oh-so-ever subtly supported by the accountants, find common cause with those who maintain that the new policies are too difficult to follow, leading to more project defections.
  8. The plug is pulled on the PMO. Its members, firmly believing that they would have succeeded with a little more top management support, are reassigned, or leave for an organization in Step 2.


I’m fairly confident that many (if not most) of GTIM Nation will recognize this pattern, either having seen it unfold in this manner, or else having lived it. I would like to pause and point out things that were not part of the template: the ultimate failure was not due to a lack of talent, nor a poor selection for the Critical Path or Earned Value Methodology software platforms. It wasn’t due to a lack of a risk management capability, nor did quality issues sink the effort. And none – none – of the documents churned out by the non-certified guidance-generating organizations could have presented the insight needed to push the PMO over the long-term sustainable goal line.

After this set-up, my choice for the most common and dangerous PMO-killer is pretty clear, but I’ll go ahead and state it anyway: the coin of the PMO sustainability realm is cooperation. I believe that a primary reason that this barrier has such an effective cloaking device (note to editors: please reset the weeks-since-the-last Star Trek reference meter to zero) is due to the initial enthusiasm of the PMO-creating organization, way back in Step 2. Coming right out of the starting gate not only do the upper executives express their support, but the existing PMs offer their backing as well. How could they not? At that point in the overall process, they’re under a performance microscope. To openly oppose the PMO creation initiative would be career suicide, at least within that organization. But make no mistake – if these PMs could make a plausible argument on why they should be allowed to escape upper management scrutiny, they will. It’s basic human nature. They’ll slow-roll or silent veto the policy requirements, or assert that their projects fall outside the parameters for policy compliance, or push the idea that their project is so well run as to not need any additional overhead expense, or…

The list goes on and on. I’ll be maintaining this until I exhaust all of the pixel ink gives me each week: the key to creating a sustainable PMO is achieving the cooperation of those in the macro organization. What is the best strategy for this kind of implementation? Well, first you…

Wow, look at that! I’ve used up all of my pixel ink for this week. Tune in next week for the key aspects of the optimal

Posted on: November 11, 2019 08:08 PM | Permalink

Comments (8)

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Dear Michael
Interesting reflection on the topic
Thanks for sharing

I will be attentive to your reflections on the theme in the coming weeks

Very interesting, thanks for sharing

Hello Michael: In your experience, do you believe workplace bullying has any impact on project and PMO success? With 60-70 million Americans stating they deal with workplace bullying, have you come across any statistics showing the correlation between the two and contributing to the downfall of projects and PMOs? Do you see this as another obstacle to success?

Hello, Lori.
Yes, absolutely work place bullying has an impact. I would like to precisely define "bullying" as any act intended to advance one's status or hierarchical placement NOT based on observable virtue, merit, or quantifiable accomplishment. In short, the further the organization is away from a true meritocracy, the more prevalent the bullying. Since this definition is rather germane to my writings (see The Unavoidable Hierarchy: Who's Who In Your Organization, And Why) I have no statistics indicating correlation or causality. Short answer: yes, it is an obstacle to success, but a rather prevalent organizational behavior and performance pathology, resistant to any formulaic remedy.

I would agree that cooperation is key, but so too is a common goal. Both are needed to drive what sits inbetween: motivation.

Not the way I've ever run a PMO
My start has always been "I'm a service provider, what do you need, what would you value?"
That combined with "if you commission me as the pm's doctor don't expect me to tell you their secrets but you can ask me to set up as the pm's oversight. Relationships will be different"
Also what the pmo does should be evolving over a 6 to 18 month cycle
Also a small portion is mandated e.g. Formats for aggregating basic capacity vs commitment vs achievement info and the rest is on request and as you like it

I had experienced some of these failed PMO life cycles, thank you for sharing your meaningful insights.

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