PMO: Tactics, not Strategy


At first, when Hal posted State of the Art of Project Management — Underlying Theory is Obsolete I wasn’t sure what he meant by #9: “Project portfolio management is an excuse not to manage each project. Each project team must be set-up for success.” Now in PMO: Obsolete Before It Gets Off the Ground, I understand what he means. I agree.

A PMO can and should be responsible for project tactics (project-by-project and as a whole), not strategy, which is what project portfolio management is. Functional management, starting at the first level and up to the top, has the responsibility for determining which projects are started (and when), which are finished (and when), and which projects are canceled (and when). No one else can or should perform this function. Project initiation, completion, and canceling are strategic decisions, and no one outside of functional management has the information they need to perform that work. If you’re a development (or test or whatever) manager and you’re also a project manager, ok, you wear two hats, and you can help each hat out. But if you’re a project manager or you’re in the project office, you can’t possibly know enough about the organization’s strategy, and how it’s changed, and what that means for managing the project portfolio.

So here’s my take on what the project office (PMO) can and should do:

  • Guide project managers through the decisions about how to organize the project.
  • Help project managers select among practices that may be useful for their projects and help implement those practices as necessary.
  • Help project managers understand the state of their project, and especially to recognize when the project is in trouble.
  • Help project managers understand their risks, how to determine the risks, and how to evaluate the risks.
  • Supply people who can facilitate retrospectives for completed or canceled projects.

A PMO should be internal consultants to the project managers and to senior management, and completely tactical in focus. Of course, they’re company employees and may well have opinions on the worth of any given project. But the strategic force of managing the project portfolio has to come from management, specifically senior management.

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