26 October 2009

Using Project Management Offices in Complex Projects

Occasionally I meet potential clients who do not believe that they need external input for making their complex projects more successful. I know that this is hard to believe, but it does happen……………Very often these executives say that they do not need any outside help because they have a Project Management Office (PMO) that fills this role (i.e. making sure that projects run well). This has always bothered me for two reasons. Firstly, I clearly believe that I can offer valuable input to (almost) any organization carrying out complex projects. Secondly, I often see these same organizations outsourcing projects to external consultants, so there are clearly projects that they believe cannot be handled by their internal teams.

Recently, my thinking on this was brought into focus by an executive from a media company who asked me a slightly different question. He explained that he had mixed results in using people from his PMO in complex projects, and was wondering how he could make best use of them in these situations. There are clearly three alternatives here: 1) Give your PMO total responsibility for this type of projects, 2) make no use of PMO-staff for complex projects, or 3) an intermediate solution.

The cases that I have seen where complex projects have been given to the PMO have generally been a disaster. While Project Management Offices have an important role to play in many organizations, it is important to understand their limitations. In most companies, PMO's have been set up to provide project management for what I call standard projects. These are projects that are closely linked to the core business of the company, and which therefore do not deal with external complexity (openness of goals to interpretation, uncomfortable goals, high degree of communication required) or internal complexity (distance of project from day-to-day business, organizational distance of project participants, sophisticated data collection, and a requirement for "out of the box" thinking). This means that when the PMO uses their "standard" tools on these projects, the results are terrible.

On the other hands, I believe that not using the skills available within the PMO is also a shame, as it is clear that they do have project experience that can be valuable in a wide range of projects. Therefore, the optimal solution is not to give the complex projects to the PMO, but to definitely use the PMO pool of people in staffing the project.

The next question asked by the executive then concerned the role of the PMO-staff in the complex project. Should he use somebody from the PMO as the project leader? In my opinion, this can work, but it is not very likely that this will an optimal choice. Somebody from the PMO will clearly have the required project management skills, but is not likely to score high on other crucial dimensions driving the choice for project leader. These include having sufficient knowledge about the key issues to be covered by the project. Examples of issues where PMO-staff would be unlikely to have sufficient knowledge include a project to look at a new, dramatically different production process, or a strategic pricing project. Somebody from the PMO is also unlikely to have sufficient respect among key stakeholders to be able to "sell" politically difficult conclusions and recommendations.

Using PMO-staff as a participant in a complex project is possible. However, it will not be sufficient if all the person brings to the project are his project management skills. The PMO-staffer will also need to bring some combination of the three skills required of all participants (technical and functional skills directly related to the issues to be solved, analytical skills, and interpersonal skills). If the PMO-staffer has the right combination of these skills for the project, then his additional project management skills can be an asset, and enable him to help the project leader deal with this type of issues.

In conclusion, I would not recommend giving the PMO the responsibility for complex projects. There will also not be many situations where somebody from the PMO is an ideal candidate for leading a complex project. However, using people from the PMO in certain complex projects can be useful, but only if they have additional skills that can be utilized.

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