Is Your PMO Cursed To Fail?

(Wherever I refer to a ‘PMO’, you are welcome to read that as Portfolio Management Office, Program Management Office, Project Management Office, or any related derivative.)

The more you work in the PMO space, the more you get used to seeing organisational graveyards filled with the failed PMOs that came before you. Unless you are operating in a new program of work, I can almost guarantee someone else (or maybe even you) has tried to set up a PMO in your exact space.

In fact, across my experience, most organisations I’ve helped have had an average of 3-5 previous attempts at getting a PMO right! Given that each of these attempts average a 2-3 year lifespan, that’s a LOT of wasted time and money.

It wasn’t long after noticing these graveyards, that I decided to start delving in and conducting PMO post-mortems. Like an archeologist delving through the remains of my client’s ancient cities, I unearthed the PMO skeletons, avoided the zombies, aired out the tombs, outrun the boulders and ultimately…

… I discovered the pattern.

I’d like to share it with you.


The Administrative Death Cycle

….Grim name I know. But let’s walk through it. Step by step, and you can tell me if any of this sounds familiar.

First, There is No Clear, Informed Picture of Project Progress

This is our first state. Projects exist but are generally free to operate independently and in their own way.

Common characteristics that are often found in this state, include:

  • A lack of project investment logic
  • A lack of project confidence
  • A lack of consistent process, and
  • Low project management maturity

Usually there is a mix of the above. An organisation may exist like this for a while, but over time the frustrations that stem from chaos build up until someone with enough clout (and a budget) says:

“No one knows what is going on! We need a PMO.”

Which leads us to our next state.

A PMO is Stood Up

Its initial focus can vary but it normally starts with an effort to build consistent processes and some sort of reporting. Typically it has a mission along the lines of:

“We will drive consistency and visibility”

So, the PMO takes the next logical step.

PMO Produces Metrics and Reports

To achieve its mission, the PMO starts producing reports and metrics to monitor the projects under its remit. What it finds is often a mixed bag. Some projects are healthy. Others aren’t.

The issue is that after a few months of consistent processes and pretty reports, the unhealthy projects don’t seem to be improving.

So, the PMO thinks:

“The projects aren’t improving… We need more assurance.”

The PMO Increases Rigour – More Metrics, More Tests, Greater Hurdles

The PMO, eager to please its stressed executives, dials up its health check and assurance programs.

More checks, more gates, more oversight.

Which of course creates

…More delays,

…Slower Processes,

…And ultimately overburdens both the PMO and the Projects.

Suddenly, the PMO has found itself ‘policing’ projects. It has created a ‘command and control’ culture. Smothered with bureaucracy, the projects naturally think:

“This is overly cumbersome.”

Which eventually leads to discontent.

Project Managers Subvert the PMO Systems and Complain in Corridors to Project Executives

Gradually it begins. The shadow processes. The work arounds.

Projects subvert the now cumbersome processes. Despite the PMOs persistent, but now, often cynical attempts at driving adherence – projects are now resorting to seeking forgiveness rather than permission just so things still get done!

Slowly but surely the PMO is neutered. Then one day someone with a notable amount of office clout mentions that:

“We would be faster without the PMO.
The PMO is a hindrance – and an expensive one at that!”

And just like that, the fate of the PMO is sealed. It’s death-bound.

PMO Disbanded

The PMO is closed down. Contractors are let go and employees are redeployed.

Another PMO is buried in the organisational graveyard. The grave in unmarked. A stone is not risen. No songs are sung.

…A couple of years then pass, and a new executive comes in. They look around and notice the lack of a clear, informed picture of projects.

They think:

“No one knows what is going on! We need a PMO.”

And off we go again!

Visualising the Cycle

Now if we were to visualise the cycle, it would look something like this:


How Do We Break The Cycle?


We need to change the fatal assumption that greater assurance = greater projects.

It just doesn’t.

So, how do we break the cycle? We must create a break point.

The best place for it is soon after we stand up our PMO, but realistically, we can create this breakpoint any time before the PMO is disbanded. (Though, the earlier the better).

The key thing we must adjust is our thinking. We must avoid falling into the trap of

“The projects aren’t improving… We need more assurance.”

And instead, we need to pivot to

“The projects aren’t improving… What new value can we offer to increase their capability?”

It is only through this new way of thinking that we can enter a new cycle. One without PMO death.

We will enter ‘The High Value Service Cycle’.


It is only through the High Value Service Cycle that we will create PMOs that last.

To bring all this together for those visual learners amongst us, the figure below shows what happens when we break out of the administrative death cycle.


The Value Continuum

Another way to think about this is on a plot of value and trust.

When there is a lack of a PMO or similar body, this creates our first zone: Chaos. This is a low trust, low value environment.


The thing is that many PMOs manage to shift the environment into a medium trust, medium value environment, but they do this using a ‘command & control’ focus – i.e.

“You must do…”

As we have already seen, PMOs with a command and control, assurance-based focus have a short shelf-life. They quickly find themselves an organisational nuisance and are ultimately put down.

Our aim in setting up or maturing our PMO is to reach High Value, High Trust. We do this by centering value and service into our PMO’s very core.


So ask yourself – Where is your PMO sitting?

Are you stuck in the Death Cycle?

This is a excerpt from Creating High Value PMOs: Your Essential Guide.Creating High Value PMOs

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