What is a Project Management Office?

What is a Project Management Office – PMO?

What is a Project Management office? You know, I love this question and what is funny about it is that I have never actually wrote about what I think a PMO is in any of my blog posts until today. Sure, I have defined it in my books, but I wanted to cover it here as well. I wrote two books “The PMO Lifecycle: Building, Running, and Shutting Down” and “The Tactical Guide for Building a PMO” both sold on Amazon. In these books, I go deep into how to build, run, and shutdown PMOs in every detail, but don’t spend a ton of time on the actual definition. I figured if you are planning to build or run a PMO, I assume you might already know the definition. You know what they say about assuming right…. Regardless, I am covering it now and please go check out my books today! I think that one of the main reasons I have not described or wrote about my definition of a PMO, is because there is no single definition applicable for everyone. There, I said it, you can’t define the term Project Management Office with a single definition, because it will mean completely different things from company to company and from leadership team to leadership team.

You might recall, but I have over 30+ years hands on experience in the Project Management field. In those 30-plus years, over 20 of them have been in the PMO space across ten PMOs and four different companies. Ten PMOs, I mean when I step back and think about that for a second, that is a lot of PMOs and puts me in a pretty unique position than other PMO leaders in the world. With that experience, I can tell you that you can’t put a single label on a PMO! You just can’t. They differ from company to company, and frankly, they just are not the same.

Start with your executives!

One of the most important ways of defining a PMO at your company will be your executives. Some executives do not know what a PMO is and some are very well versed in the topic. As we think about defining it or even building one, working with your executives is going to be critical. What do your executives expect you to do? Has the executives worked with PMOs before and know exactly what they want? Right, you need to unpack these conversations immediately with your executives to have any chance of success.

Then look at the PMO type!

One of the big issues that PMO Managers cause for themselves when they build their PMOs is they focus strictly on managing and controlling projects. That is really not the best starting place for any PMO. See, starting with projects actually limits your ability to expand and run a complete organization. By doing that, you are actually pigeon holing yourself into a single threaded organization. That’s not the way to set up a successful PMO.

So, one recommendation is to think about when defining what is a Project Management Office is to think about the type. Because the PMO type drives a lot of what you will offer within your PMO.

Let’s look at the common PMO types across the industry.

PMO Types

PMO types include:

  • Directive
  • Controlling
  • Enterprise
  • Agile
  • Managing
  • Supportive
  • Etc.…

There are ten known PMO types in the project management industry, but then again, these types are all called “PMOs”, but they act differently. The expectations are also very different, hence why I stand behind we can’t have a single definition of a PMO because there isn’t a one size fits all scenario that works in defining PMOs.

Does that make sense? It is important for you to get that the term “PMO” and the type of PMO are locked together, but they all act differently. Ok, let’s keep going. Now you know how important that type is, let’s keep talking about the definition of a PMO.

Let’s look at this again – What is a Project Management Office?

A Project Management Office (PMO) is an office that oversees and managing portfolios, programs, and projects. The PMO helps to ensure that projects are completed on time, within budget, and to the specifications set forth by the project team, mainly the customers. Do you notice here that I cover portfolios, programs, and projects and not just projects? See, just focusing on projects limits your PMO and is it applicable sometimes, yes, but in all cases, no, my advice is to think broader. A project management office (PMO) is also, in most cases, a centralized office that oversees all aspects of how portfolios, programs, and projects operate.

A central point of focus

As noted above, the centralized PMO focuses on how the portfolios, programs, and projects are executed is really a powerful statement for any PMO Manager to consider. I just want to unpack that for a second. If you have oversight across all three areas, you can be a valuable member of the company, and at the heart of everything that is going on. That is an influential position for any PMO Manager to be in, and what we all strive for with our individual PMOs.

What are the Ps of the PMO?

What you are going to find in my definitions of PMOs is that PMOs are not just about projects. They are not. Yes, this is the easy way of describing a PMO, and you see it describe that way all the time. But it is not the case, PMOs are not just about projects. I have lots of materials out on the web about what PMOs do and I actually have written an entire eBook on “PMO Service Offerings” but when you describe a PMO, describe it by everything it does, not just about the projects that it oversees. So many people get so wrapped up in PMOs = Projects and that is just not the case. Project oversight is one of the many things you will do in a PMO. We will dive deeper into this later in the article, but when you think about your Ps of your PMO, you must think broadly across:

  • Portfolio
  • Program
  • Project
  • People

Will all PMOs have all Ps, no of course not, but if you don’t plan for it in your definition or when you first creating your PMO you could miss a big part of your organization.

Let’s talk about consistency now. I think when defining a PMO, one of the key components is consistency.

Consistency in project delivery, by providing standardized templates and methodologies

One key to running a PMO is that you are driving for consistency across your Portfolios, Programs, and Projects that no other organization can develop. PMO Managers who are driving a Directive PMO for example, their goal is to drive consistency across every PMO Service Offering. With that consistency, you quickly realize a series of benefits across your organization. Some of those benefits that PMO Managers should strive for include:

  • Benefits of following a consistent approach
  • Benefits of a consistent methodology
  • Benefits of a consistent set of project documents
  • Benefits of a consistent set of project dashboards and reporting
  • Benefits of following consistent processes and standards (Color conditions, Risks and Issues..etc..)

When you are managing and driving a PMO, your goal has to be around consistency, because that is literally the only way you are going to scale. I have a story I want to share on consistency and scaling.

**Bill’s Story**

One company I was working for had just finished running a very large program and one thing they had to do to finish on time was hire a bunch of vendors project managers. By bunch, I mean 15. 15 vendor project managers. To set some content, this very large program was not running from my PMO, so these vendors were not in my organization. When the program finished, and the vendors were still on contract, they needed to land for the rest of their contract into an organizational structure. My PMO was the most logical choice. Ok, think about this for a second. 15 Project Managers needing to come into my PMO within a matter of days. That means 15 people needed a new functional manager, 15 people needed access to our PMO processes, 15 people needed access to our Dashboards, status reports, SharePoint sites… etc. That is a tremendous amount of pressure and I would say that if they put any other organization in that same spot, of having to onboard 15 people and get them incorporated into all the processes and procedures, it would cripple them! So, how did I do it? Well, I had set up my PMO from the very beginning with a scaling mindset. I setup the tools, processes, and the different procedures from a perspective of one PM or 50 PMs, and because I did that bring on 15 new PMs in a matter of days was relatively quite easy for my PMO!

So, as I think about that story and I think about how PMOs are the center of consistency, I think that is an important lesson with defining a PMO for your organization. Think scale, think consistency! Because imagine this same scenario from a different angle. Imagine if you brought in 15 new project managers and they used their own color conditions, their own status reports, their own risk and issues processes. You would not get that consistency you need in running the organization. One project manager could have a very different definition of a “red” project from another project manager, and both of them could very likely have the same customer. That customer would get a very different experience from one project manager to another. I can tell you that over the 30+ years of doing this, that has never been successful.

PMO Resources dedicated to the Service Offerings you provide

One of the core components of properly defining a PMO is by the services you provide. Those services are defined by the PMO type we covered in the materials noted above. I have a very simple table I added to my book “The PMO Lifecycle: Building, Running and Shutting Down” that describes the different Ps of your PMO based on the PMO type. It looked a little something like this, but this is not the full table from the book.

Controlling YY
Supportive YY

You see where I am going here, right? You take the type of PMO and you select whether you are going to have Portfolio, Program, and Project Management oversight and activities in your PMO. From there, based on the type, you know what you will do within your organization. To be clear, if you run a directive PMO with all 3 Ps, and you run a Supportive PMO with two of the 3 Ps, these are two unique organizations and ran completely different. Again, I have documented this completely in my book, but as I describe the definition of a PMO, I wanted to make sure I covered this again. I covered more details on this entire process in my books noted above.

We are moving now; we have talked about Types; we talked about the 4Ps, now it is time to talk again about PMO Service Offerings. I want to cover it quickly. As I noted above, I covered this in my new eBook on Amazon that I would highly suggest if you are serious about this you grab a copy today. Here is the link to my book PMO Service Offerings – How do I select the right one for my PMO?

PMO Service Offerings – Critical to the Definition

When defining service offerings for your PMO, the first place to start is to find the business problem your PMO is trying to solve. See, without understanding your business problems completely, you don’t know how your PMO is going to solve them, aka. PMO Service Offerings. What are some examples of business problems that your PMO can solve? Project execution, Project reporting, Project success rates…etc. Here is a little table I have used for years to capture the business problems and then map those problems to your services you will offer in your PMO.

Pretty cool right? Again, I covered way more details in my PMO Service Offerings book, and for the price of a coffee at Starbucks, I think you will learn a lot more from that book than you would ever get from that cup of coffee! Grab a copy today, and learn more about PMO Service Offerings today. Link to my book PMO Service Offerings – How do I select the right one for my PMO?

One of the last components of how you define a PMO, is around your organizational structure you setup at your company. Let’s look at that now.

PMO Org Structure – Critical to Type/Services/Management Expectations

Ok, now you have some of the core components of your PMO built, now it is time to define your PMO organizational structure. I love this part and so do your employees. Every employee likes to be connected and belong to something. This is your time to represent where your employees belong in your organization. Across my ten PMOs I have managed, here are some examples of my organizational charts.

Setting up an organizational structure for any PMO Manager is critical to running a successful PMO. Get your employees and vendors mapped and into a structure like the examples shown above, so everyone feels connected and part of your great organization.

As we summarize, we covered a lot here with the definition of a PMO and in all my books and all my experiences, it always comes down to these fundamentals of defining a Project Management Office (PMO). These to me always include:

  • Executive Expectations
  • PMO Type
  • PMO Ps
  • PMO Service Offerings
  • PMO Org Structure

Remember, without an effective PMO, it will be difficult for organizations to realize the full value of their investments. A properly defined PMO helps create a more successful project management environment by providing coaching, mentoring, and guidance, along with essential tools and resources needed by the organizational resources.

What do you think?
If you like this article, you will love this one on how to build a PMO. Or this one, on how to run a PMO.

Bill Dow, PMP

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Bill Dow, a PMP-certified expert in Project Management Offices (PMOs), has co-authored books on the subject. With over 20 years of teaching experience and having built 10 PMOs across 4 companies, including 13 years at Microsoft, he currently serves as the PMO Director at the University of Washington Medical.

1 thought on “What is a Project Management Office – PMO?”

  1. Hey Bill,

    Just stumbled upon your article on project management offices (PMOs), and I have to say, it’s an absolute gem! Your knack for breaking down complex concepts into digestible bits really shines through. As someone relatively new to the PMO scene, your insights were not only enlightening but also incredibly relatable.

    Your explanation of the PMO’s role in aligning projects with business goals was spot on. It’s refreshing to see someone emphasize the strategic aspect of project management rather than just the technicalities. I particularly loved how you highlighted the PMO as the unsung hero behind successful projects. It made me rethink the whole project landscape and appreciate the behind-the-scenes work that often goes unnoticed.

    The real-world examples you included were the icing on the cake. They brought the theory to life and made it feel less like a textbook concept and more like a conversation with a seasoned pro. Kudos on that! Looking forward to diving into more of your articles and gaining further insights. Keep up the fantastic work, Bill!

    PMO Global Institute
    For more information please visit the website: https://pmoglobalinstitute.org/what-does-pmo-mean-in-business/

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