Imagine this scenario as you start-off your day: You open your business site and the message says: “it doesn’t exist.” You then try to login to your email account, which also displays the same message. Your heartbeat goes up and you rub your eyes in disbelief. You remember receiving emails from customers about payments via payment apps, but there too, the same message is displayed, “this account doesn’t exist!” Overall, you feel like the character of the 1998 movie, Enemy of the State.
Is my imagination running wild? Not really.
Such a scenario happened to many in mid-December 2020. A number of service providers’ sites and applications were hacked and systems were brought down. In fact, I thought my personal computer had been hacked, and I rebooted a couple of times without knowing what exactly to do because my service providers’ status dashboards were all green–a good 10 minutes into the internet outage.
Now imagine that a senior executive starts off his day and decides first to have a quick look at the project dashboard expecting to see metrics such as the current status of projects, earned value indices in terms of money and performances, and top risks. Instead, he sees story boards, iteration and release burndown charts, and velocity graphs. Can you feel the frustration, confusion, and possibly anger? What could have been done differently?
Welcome to the concept of the Project Management Office or PMO.
In this article, we will learn about PMOs as organizational structures, about various types of PMOs, and about traditional roles within a PMO. Then, we will dive into the topic of Agile PMO, its relevance, and a number of roles that can be played by such a PMO.
Any organization exists primarily to provide business value to its stakeholders–internal or external. A PMO, like the service providers I mentioned in the example at the beginning of this article, also exists to provide value and insight into project performances.
The Project Management Institute (PMI) provides a broad definition of PMO as:
A project management office (PMO) is an organizational structure that standardizes the project-related governance processes and facilitates the sharing of resources, methodologies, tools, and techniques.
As noted in the definition, a PMO is an organizational structure. If it exists, then a number of Project Managers (PMs) can be a part with various roles and responsibilities.
Do note that the “P” in PMO can stand for a project, program, or portfolio, and the “O” can refer to the organization itself.
With a standardized set of processes, practices, and metrics, enabled by a PMO, the executive stakeholder would not have faced the “it does not exist” situation as previously mentioned.
Types of PMOs
As per PMI, there are three types of PMOs:
- A supportive PMO largely plays a consultative role such as providing templates, imparting training and coaching, and storing lessons learned across projects.
- A controlling PMO plays a role in project compliance to standards and/or regulations, and it ensures conformance with various governances and associated frameworks. It can also be involved in audits of projects and project works.
- A directive PMO exerts highest power and has the ability to initiate and/or terminate projects in an organization. You can say, this PMO directly manages all of an organization’s projects.
While the degree of control provided by the supportive PMO will be low, controlling and directive PMOs will have moderate and high degrees of control, respectively.
Traditional Roles of PMO
If a PMO structure exists in an organization, then the main role in a traditional set-up is to support the PMs. Beyond that, the PMO holds some or all of these listed responsibilities:
- Standardization: Standardization of processes, policies, procedures, templates, and other documentation, along with compliance.
- Knowledge sharing and retention: Acting as a repository of lessons-learned and providing access to projects as and when needed.
- Training: Facilitating or conducting, providing coaching, and mentoring.
- Consulting: Adopting various project management frameworks or methods.
- Resourcing: Managing shared resources across projects.
- Communication: Coordination communication across various projects.
For a PMO, unlike a program or portfolio, it’s not necessary that the projects are related or managed as a collection.
With this background, let’s proceed towards the concept of Agile PMO. The first question that comes to mind in having a PMO coupled with an Agile approach is this:
Is a PMO really needed at all in an Agile setting? Are not Agile teams cross-functional, self-organizing, and self-managing? Isn’t there a leader who serves the team and removes the impediments?
At first-glance, having an Agile PMO may look contradictory–not only to the way Agile teams operate, but also to Agile values and principles. However, it need not be the case.
As noted in the definition, a PMO is an organizational structure. Your organization may or may not have such a PMO structure, but if your organization does and your organization is transforming itself to adopt Agile practices, then it must change to have an Agile PMO because agile creates structural, as well as mindset changes.
Instead of a traditional directing or commanding/controlling PMO which first dictates and enforces standards, policies, procedures, an Agile PMO is more facilitative in nature. An Agile PMO takes the most effective practices used in other projects and shares them across the organization. An Agile PMO is useful when an organization is doing a transition to an Agile approach, and particularly can play a crucial role if the organization is planning to undergo an Agile transformation.
In the context of Agile, PMOs will have the characteristics shown in the below figure:
Let’s break these down one at a time.
This is the most important aspect of an Agile PMO. The PMO’s goal should be to deliver the right value. An agile PMO should have a customer collaboration mindset. Customers, in this case, are the internal customers within the organization and can also be external customers. In many cases, this may result in PMOs working as a “consulting business unit” in an organization. The PMO can tailor their work to meet the customer’s need. For example, the PMO is responsible for providing the template for use story or the template for Product Review/Demonstration.
An Agile PMO should have competencies other than project management, e.g., organization design, change management etc.
With a plethora of Agile frameworks available, it’s easy to get lost in the woods. An Agile PMO deeply understands a variety of approaches available and can adopt or tailor the ones that best meets the organizational needs.
An organization usually struggles while transforming to fully adopt Agile values, principles, and practices. It’s never easy to move into a different mindset and way of working. An Agile PMO acts as a change-agent and guide.
An Agile PMO invites for its services only the projects or project teams which are interested in PMO services. This kind engagement ensures that the practices are followed vs. a PMO forcing its practices on teams.
Roles Played by Agile PMO
Let’s consider some of the roles played and responsibilities that can be taken-up by an Agile PMO. There are many applicable roles here, and I’ve highlighted a few of them in the below figure.
Let’s consider them one by one.
Whereas the Agile project manager is the obstacle remover for the team, many times an Agile PMO overlooking a number of projects is an obstacle remover for the program (defined as a collection of interrelated projects, sub-programs, and other works).
At the level of a portfolio, which is a collection of programs, projects, sub-portfolios, and operations, the PMO can work on investment themes, i.e., which project to take on or invest in.
In the beginning stages of an Agile transformation, it’s highly likely that there will be resistances to the changes being brought in. The PMO, in this case, informs, communicates, educates, and gets buy-in from the stakeholders having Agile mindset, values, and principles.
Simultaneously, when a trial project is undertaken by an Agile PMO, the team members may not get the needed support from stakeholders across the organization. Here, too, an Agile PMO can help provide training to existing or aspiring POs, SMs, Agile PMs, and team members.
Standard Development and Implementation
Earlier we saw the roles played by PMOs in a traditional set-up. In the context of Agile, the PMO can provide:
- Templates for user stories,
- Tools to be used for wireframes,
- Samples for burn-down/up charts,
- Metrics to be used, among others…
If different teams have different metrics, it doesn’t help the organization at all. Sometimes, teams may even inflate data to show they have done more than planned. An Agile PMO helps to standardize on meaningful metrics such as release burndown, cycle time, etc.
Compliance and Audit
An Agile PMO can act as the informant on compliance issues and/or amplify the teams’ external department needs regarding compliance. The Agile PMO, in this case, should try to be facilitative, i.e., listen to what is working for the team instead of dictating or directing.
If it’s regulatory compliance, then the PMO can find ways to get it done, e.g., putting it as a backlogged item in the Product Backlog in collaboration with the Product Owner (PO).
The Agile PMO, like its traditional counterpart, can participate in audits, which is basically to see if project activities comply with organizational, as well as project policies, processes, and procedures. An example is participation in Quality Audit.
In any organization, there will be critical resources, which are shared across Agile teams, e.g., architects, database administrators (DBAs), technical writers, etc. Sometimes, non-human resources have to be procured from outside, and these are used on a shared basis. An Agile PMO can work with the POs, Agile PMs, Scrum Masters (SMs), and Functional Heads to satisfy the need of such resources.
The Agile PMO can also help in hiring resources and evaluating team members. An example is developing interview guidelines for Agile practitioners.
Training, Coaching, and Mentoring
Here the Agile PMO can act as a coach, trainer, and educator by themselves or by partnering (or coordinating) with the training unit of the organization or external training organization.
The Agile PMO can conduct sessions on:
- Test Driven Development (TDD)
- Behavior Driven Development (BDD),
- Retrospectives and intraspectives,
- Story writing workshops,
- Story mapping workshops,
- Backlog prioritization, among others.
Strategic Focus and Alignment
In an Agile PMO setting, the product backlog is executed over a number of iterations or with a flow-based cadence in order to move towards the vision or goal of the product. This, in turn, is usually linked with the strategic objectives, mission, and vision of an organization.
However, a large organization can have many initiatives with hundreds (or thousands) of projects running. In such cases, it’s possible to miss the strategic alignment for all projects in the organization. The Agile PMO defines and ensures a strategy deployment method.
In addition, an Agile PMO can also have additional roles such as that of a traditional PMO—facilitating learning by storing, managing, and dispensing lessons learned from various retrospectives.
In the beginning of this article, I raised the question, Do we really need Agile PMO when Agile teams are self-managing and cross-functional?
Over the course of this article, we discussed various utilities of having such an organizational structure. However, if it’s a small organization, if the owner of the organization is driving few projects on his or her own, or if there are dedicated departments for compliance, audit, training etc., then an Agile PMO may not be needed.
Nevertheless, for a large organization that requires a complete Agile transformation and/or has a large number of projects running, the Agile PMO structure will bring a number of benefits and business value.
 Book: I Want To Be An ACP: The Plain and Simple Way, 2nd Edition, by Satya Narayan Dash
 Book: I Want To Be A PMP: The Plain and Simple Way, 2nd Edition, by Satya Narayan Dash
 The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), Combo 6th Edition, by Project Management Institute