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Why PMO’s Fail

jason orloske pm pmo program management Apr 10, 2023
Why PMO’s Fail

PMO Failure. 

We hear about PMO's failing all the time. Some fail to deliver expected results but somehow tend to linger on in a semi-effective state. Others suck so bad they just get shut down and disbanded. Stats on PMO failure rates are all over the map based on your definition of "failure." But one thing is for sure, it happens enough where people in the project management profession talk quite a bit about it.

What follows is a list of reasons PMO's fail from my experience and what I've gathered from others. This is not a comprehensive list as I'm sure PMO's have failed for reasons many of us can't fathom. If you have one of those stories, please let me know!

Lack of Strategic Alignment. I have a book idea. It's written by an executive and it's called "My Company Has A Strategy But No One Knows What It Is And We Don't Deliver On It." Catchy! According to PMI, about 41% of organizations with an enterprise-wide project management office (EPMO) report that it is highly aligned to the organization's strategy. That also means 59% are NOT. Sure, PMO leaders can blame sr. management and say strategy can't be realized if execs don't share what it is. Let me tell you; it's your job to ask, and re-ask, and ask again! Projects need to align with strategy, and PMO's need to ensure that happens. Not doing so can lead to failure. Someone will be happy to share strategy with you (probably because their bonus depends on it), so keep asking!

Too Much Focus on the Tactical & Not Enough on Strategic. And since we're talking strategy, if you're not focusing on it because you're spending too much time on tactics, you'll do the wrong thing really well! That's still a failure. I have seen PMO's spend the majority of time perfecting processes and artifacts while executing "pet projects" that don't add value. PMO leaders must focus on business outcomes. Processes are important, but should not require 100% focus. Again, know the strategy! 

Lack of Senior Executive Commitment to the PMO. One of my favorites! The "I think a PMO is a good idea but I'll just let everyone else take care of it" executive. Sure, they've probably heard of this PMO thing and wanted to keep up with the Jones'. But, they're not fully committed to its lasting success or there to help promote change to the greater organization. They also don't influence other execs to work with the PMO leader on building its capabilities. Strong exec sponsorship is a must!

PMO Metrics Don't Show Visible Value. Per the recent PMO Squad report from '22, 78% of PMO's don't have a formal process in place to measure PMO value. So if a company is going to invest a lot of dollars and time into a PMO, shouldn't it show some kind of ROI? Understand what metrics are important to the company and report on those. Have your own, too. PMO's that don't show value eventually won't be around.

PMO Reporting Level is Too Low. Expanding on the reporting of value, there is another reporting issue I've seen; too low level in the organization. Even if this is a rockstar PMO getting projects done, if you're reporting too low in the organization, those with influence won't see the value you're creating. Report high enough up the chain so leaders see the value you're bringing.

PMO and PMO Leader Unable to Pivot. There are two things here:

  • What worked at one company should work at the next, so follow the playbook. That answer is False! Every company, culture, team, structure, and more is different, so be ready to adjust the PMO approach to the company, not the company to your playbook. Stay nimble.
  • The needs of the business and the market can quickly change. PMO's that can be at the frontlines of change will be a value-add department. Those that hear of change and say no thanks can be replaced. Don't stay stuck in current may disappear.

Heavy on Following the Rules Precisely Philosophy & Bureaucracy. If the PMO creates processes and then says "follow them or else!", you'll have a problem. PMO's that are heavy on governance and managing to strict practices make for grumpy project managers, who then turn stakeholders grumpy. If a PMO is also too bureaucratic, it can lead to non-value add overhead, delays, and frustration. I like to think in terms of rules and guidelines. For example, the rule is to have a project schedule. The guideline is make it as simple or complex as the team feels necessary. Not every project needs a 100 line schedule. Also, go easy on the documentation. Some industries require it, some don't. Find the right level without being burdensome.

Lack of Impact on Project Success. This should be a no-brainer, but a PMO was created to positively impact project success. If that quantifiably doesn't happen, it's on the wrong track. Figure out what the issue is and fix it! It's quite possible the PMO is doing good, but lack of perception the PMO is having visible impact on projects can also lead it down the wrong path. 

No Marketing Plan. I learned from one of my earliest mentors to have a PMO Marketing Plan. To keep the PMO relevant, it needs to highlight the wins to a broad audience. If you're not the type of person who can promote the PMO in the organization, get help! Ask someone in marketing or communications to lend a hand. If the PMO is doing great work, have a marketing strategy to communicate that.

PMO Leaders Over Their Heads. Want to make an exec mad? When they ask "How are you going to do ______?" and you just answer with um's and ah's. If you're new to the PMO game, it's OK (and encouraged) to get help. You're going to need support when starting this journey. There's a healthy mix of tactical, strategic, political, psychologist, fire fighter, and negotiation skills needed in this role. If you take the approach of figuring it out as you go along and hope for the best, good luck. Leadership is critical, so make it a priority.

Underperforming Staff. So you have some project managers working for you. Great! But they're struggling with their projects and pissing stakeholders off. Not great! The PMO has to train the project managers and provide coaching. Hire experienced PM's. Fight for a training budget. Making stakeholders mad and underperforming projects don't make for a lasting impact.

No Concept of Capacity/Resource Management. When a leader asks "What are your people/those people working on? Why can't we do this [what THIS is] too?", you need to be ready to answer. Understanding capacity and your finger on resource management helps with those more strategic priority discussions.

No "Customer Service" Mindset. Who are your "customers?" Understand your customer's (internal and external) expectations and then meeting or exceeding those expectations. Actively listen to your customer's problems or opportunities. If you don't have a customer service mindset, your customers will get upset with you!

PMO's fail for a number of reasons. Again, the list I've created isn't comprehensive but I hope I've covered the big ones. If you have a story, please share it!