Getting a PMO Out of the Gate

By Allen Bernard

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Setting up a program or project management office (PMO) to oversee company-wide IT initiatives can be a daunting task, especially when no formal processes currently exist beyond the individual project manager level.

Since few would dispute the benefits such an effort can garner -- getting control over costs, processes, procedures, project redundancy and relevance, etc. -- the problem is often one of how to get started, said Joe Topinka, CIO at RSM McGladrey.

"The task can appear overwhelming if you are starting from scratch," said Topinka, who set up a PMO for the Bank of New York and is in the process of doing the same for McGladrey, "just get started."

Easy as 1, 2, 3

Often easier said than done but, like most things, small steps are the best when tackling a big job. First, start with deciding what exactly you want from the PMO, said Fumiko Kondo, managing director of the consulting firm Intellilink.

Is it better coordination of effort and resources; eliminating non-mission critical projects to save money; cost control; quality control; instilling best practices throughout the organization; all of the above?

Once you find some staffers (these can come from either inside or outside of the company depending of the structure and scope of the PMO) the next step is to start identifying all current projects and projects in queue and stop, temporarily, all incoming projects as you evaluate what you have, said Topinka. From there you can develop a process for project introduction that everyone must follow and re-start the pipeline.

Once you know what is going on, you can then start to rationalize what you have by categorizing each project by importance: Is it customer facing? Is it mission critical? Compliance related? etc.

But don't go after every single project right away (you probably won't be able to anyway), said Topinka. Start with a handful of projects, introduce the new methodologies and see how things work out. From there, after you tweak the process, you can then apply PMO directives with a broader brush.

"Again start at a simple level," said Kondo. "Let's define top-level processes before we start getting into more specifics in it. So it's sort of an ongoing process of categorizing and sub-categorization and getting to a detail level."

A few years ago you would have been lucky to have a spreadsheet program to start with (and you still can) but today there are any number of off-the-shelf portfolio management applications aimed at making your job easier, said Topinka. Methodologies also abound for achieving your goals once you know what they are. The wisdom here: Don't reinvent the wheel ... customize it to meet your needs.Office Structure

There are several ways to do this, said Eric Spanitz, founder the consulting firm Synergest and an adjunct professor of Project Management at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. You can set up a PMO using internal employees from divisions within the company that are trained (or even certified) as project managers and send them around as needed to help out. Or you can have a dedicated office staffed with PMPs (professional project managers) that oversee and vet everything that is going on.

Or you can set up a more administrative type of organization where PMO staffers simply ensure that policies and procedures are followed without getting directly involved with each project.

This last is a popular way of setting up a PMO, said Spanitz, but is less than ideal since it basically amounts to group of "project police" and can lead to resentment from other employees. But, it is the most cost effective way of doing things.

Spanitz's preferred method is to train existing employees who, in turn, help others learn the PMO's guidelines. This offers the added benefit of eventually getting everyone trained in project management skills, which can then lead to an institutionalization of the processes.

"By (using internal employees) you're saying you want the overall organization to start developing project management expertise," he said. "You'd like the average engineer or programmer to experience running a project, planning a project, rather than just someone coming in and doing it for them."

No matter how you set up the organizational structure of your PMO the benefits can be enormous. Cost savings and better resource allocation, change management, forensic analysis, infrastructure and application rationalization, etc. all become easier to achieve once you have a handle exactly what is going on, companywide, within the organization.

"With a PMO, you can start having dialog with the business units and senior leadership about the right mix of projects and about how many you can actually take on, said Topinka.

"Before the project office, we would guess about how much more work we could [do], and the discussion would devolve into work efforts, estimates, and workers 'working smarter not harder' ... by using the consistent approach across projects, we could take the project queue and resource availability to our governance team and strategize about which projects to cut, or when to add more resources."