Is Your PMO Leadership A Solid “Safety Bar”?

“Our PMO is like riding a roller coaster where the safety bar meant to keep you from flying out works about 50% of the time…or less.”

The advantage of presenting and being a panelist at conferences, especially those virtual ones where someone doesn’t need to speak up in a crowded room, is you hear things that you’ve never heard before.

That brings us to Fred (name changed to protect the innocent). Fred has worked in the same PMO for five years. In those five years, he’s enjoyed four different PMO Managers! The PMO was created when a new CIO joined the company. Despite mediocre project success since its inception, the CIO and exec team refuse to disband the PMO and its revolving door of managers, even at the request of project managers!

As Fred explained, when you get on a roller coaster and the safety bar comes down, you pull up, jiggle, and test to make sure it will hold. No one ever expects it to move, but you verify anyway. Once that’s done, the expectation is the safety bar will keep you from certain doom for the duration of the ride.

Roller Coaster Bernie - Meme by strako :) Memedroid

But in Fred’s case with his PMO, the safety bar could come loose at any point in the ride!

One day, the PMO manager would say no undocumented changes, no projects to be kicked off and managed without governance approval, and adhere to agreed-upon steps in the process. The next day, the PMO manager says a change is allowed without documentation or impact analysis. Or, help with someone’s side project that didn’t get governance approval. Or, just skip critical steps in the process because someone requested the project be “moved along.” Leadership did not hold, and now the project staff and team members go flying in all directions.

As Fred recognized, there are times changes have to be made outside of normal guidelines. Happens everywhere. However, he feels this issue starts with the CIO.

Sponsors and stakeholders have learned to run to the CIO when a project manager pushes back on anything, from changes to making sure gate reviews and approvals are done. The CIO says OK. The CIO tells the PMO manager to adjust. The PMO manager tells project staff to adjust. Now, project managers need to make whatever adjustments necessary while telling their team this is OK. And, the person or group making the request was successful, so they’ll use this tactic again in the future. Meanwhile, the project got bigger, other projects are pushed to a lower priority, and nothing gets done.

At that point, your safety belt is gone and you go flying to your death!

Fred asked, what can they do? Everyone is extremely frustrated. Project managers complain to the PMO manager, who says their hands are tied because the CIO said so. The team gets more upset with the PMO manager and after six months or so of constant complaining, the PMO manager “checks out” and eventually leaves. Other project team members have also quit. “We’re in a tight spot!”

Damn, they are in a tight spot.

Right away my mind started going through different questions and options:

  • Impact analysis to the project and portfolio
  • Does the CIO know what happens when he says “OK”
  • I heard the word “Gate”, so is the process too rigid
  • Does the PMO manager explain to the project manager and team why a change is important, or just says to it
  • Are the project manager’s concerns being heard & does anything happen with those
  • Is everything a YES

The list of questions and comments could go on and on. But ultimately, the answer lied in one word: LEADERSHIP.

If there was a solid PMO LEADER, then

  • Understands and can clearly communicate impacts a change or skipping a step in the process would have on the project and portfolio
  • Tells the CIO what happens when he says “OK”, and the chaos that can ensue
  • Understands project management processes are a corporate asset and should allow for some flexibility (rules vs. guidelines)
  • Articulates WHY a change of any kind is necessary to the team
  • Listens to the concerns of others & takes action; psychologically safe to do so
  • Are they courageous enough to say NO


It sounds simple, but what happened that four managers haven’t been able to curb these issues in the last five years? Fred thought it was ass-kissing the CIO and exec team. If that’s it, didn’t work. But at the same time, the PMO managers weren’t helping secure their team. Changes caused people and processes to go flying. Unfortunately, our time with Fred ended as our session came to a close. I hope to connect with him again, this time with better news.

Having been a member of and lead PMO’s, I can attest to having and being a good leader for your team. Being an attentive, transparent, supporting, and consistent leader let’s a team know you’re there for them. You’re their “safety bar” that keeps them from flying all over the place.

So next time you get on a roller coaster and the safety bar comes down, I bet you check it! I also bet it holds. Remember, good leaders are like those safety bars; they’ll prevent you from flying all over, including to a potential doom!

Rollercoaster Tycoons - YouTube

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