My PMO Can Beat Up Your PMO: A Tale of 2 Defunct Departments & Why PMO’s Fail

A couple years ago, back when we could have in-person events, I attended a local PMI presentation on process and experience mapping. It was informative with engaging exercises and great conversations. After the presentation was over, I overheard two people having a disagreement about the PMO’s they worked for. I’m paraphrasing their conversation here, but…

“Your PMO isn’t that great. You just handle the administrative functions and templates. We’re an EPMO. All project managers report into it and we have greater control over what goes on.”

“Yeah, but your PMO is too big and bureaucratic. You get things done but it takes too long and you can’t respond to change as quickly as we can.”

I couldn’t tell; was this a legitimate argument over who thought their PMO was better, or were they giving each other shit? After a couple more exchanges I realized that yes, it actually was a legit argument.

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These two had worked together previously in another organization’s PMO and had different styles of managing projects. Both left to go to different companies; one to an entrepreneurial company that was quickly growing, and the other to a well established, large public company.

Fast forward to the end of 2020 and beginning of 2021. Both PMO’s are defunct, gone, dead, no more! They’ve joined the other 50%+ that die within 3 years. The EPMO was absorbed into individual business units. The entrepreneurial company decided a PMO was no longer needed and the project managers were distributed into functional areas.

What the hell went wrong? Well, rumor is both were so process driven that responding to change was non-existent (i.e. COVID). Another is the entrepreneurial PMO hired a new PMO manager, who told the CEO “No, we can’t do that” when they were doing some COVID strategizing. In any case, both are gone.

I’ve stood up, lead, consulted for, and worked in, a number of PMO’s in my career. Some of these PMO’s were wildly successful and are still in existence today. Others, not so much.

I’ve seen some of what’s worked and what doesn’t. What follows is a list of reasons why PMO’s fail that I have experienced either directly, or with peers of mine who I’ve spoken to. These are the common themes I’ve noted, though I’m sure there are more that can be added!

  • Executive stakeholders that are not fully committed to the PMO. It’s a familiar story: The executive team realizes there’s a problem with projects. They’re not executing properly, constantly failing, contending for too few people and resources, and/or not delivering results. So, they authorize a PMO and hope it solves the problem. But, when it comes time to attend a steering committee meeting and make hard decisions or debate priorities, they send someone else and don’t delegate the authority to make those decisions. Then, when projects are once again failing, they blame the PMO and eventually eliminate it.
  • PMO leaders who don’t know how to pivot and adapt. What I’ve seen, and also done myself, is assume that worked well in one company will work in another. Not true. If you think you can take a cookie cutter, playbook style approach to PMO leadership, you’re probably going to fail. Instead, take time to do an assessment and understand the pain points and drivers for the organization. Also, learn the people and personalities of key stakeholders. Be willing to adjust if you see something isn’t working. 
  • The PMO becomes a project manager’s “colonoscopy”. I once worked with a project manager who compared the number of documents and status reports we had to do in our PMO to having a “weekly colonoscopy”. I’ve never had one, but I assume it’s not fun (at least that’s what I hear). If the PMO becomes the process police and forces chaotic and/or unnecessary methods, it will become a pain in the ass (maybe literally) and possibly skirted or ignored by the project managers. This can lead to inconsistent stakeholder experiences, which leads to frustration, which leads to PMO failure.
  • No vision or strategy for the PMO. PMO’s need to focus on those day-to-day tactical matters. But, this cannot be all day every day. PMO leaders and their teams also need to see the bigger, organizational strategic picture. If the PMO leader doesn’t spend time with senior leadership to understand their challenges and opportunities, they can’t develop strategies to add organizational value. And, if they don’t add value and focus only on the tactical matters, they can become irrelevant.
  • Disconnect between company strategy and project scope. What if Elon Musk went to his PMO with a strategy to build a cutting-edge feature, and they delivered a washing machine? I’m sure it would be a kickass washing machine! But, the project goal didn’t deliver on corporate strategy (unless, of course, a washing machine is what he asked for). Delivering projects with no strategic value doesn’t move the company forward. It only takes one “pet project” to slip into the pipeline, and the PMO loses credibility.
  • Lack of reporting the “right” metrics. I once saw a 22 slide weekly status report deck sent to the CEO of a company. Really? These people don’t have time to go to the bathroom most days, let alone read a 22 slide deck. There is a place for status reports, but they also need to keep the audience in mind. Execs need short and sweet with high-level information (since we just had the Super Bowl, think how is the team progressing towards winning the Super Bowl vs. individual player stats). Other functional-level managers may want more details specific to their department as well as accomplishment against broader organizational goals. If you report nothing but details that execs won’t read and probably not understand, they’ll wonder what value the PMO is delivering and start to lack trust.

It’s unfortunate so many PMO’s fail when there is so much potential to add business value. But knowing why so many fail can help PMO leaders from making the same mistakes. Don’t become a statistic!

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