TTE Strategy named HIDDEN CHAMPION 2022 / 23


Pierre Michaels

The Role of the Project Management Office in Agile Organizations


Flexible, innovative, self-organized: Agile methods are considered the new gold standard when it comes to ensuring organizations enjoy a successful journey into the digital future. “How Agile Teams Can Help Turnarounds Succeed” was the title of a very readable article by Harvard Business Review, which highlighted the potential of agile methods for large transformation projects.

On the way to a business meeting, you will see the train station bookshop filled with colorful brochures and magazines claiming to offer the ultimate crash course for Scrum and the agile business world.

The topic of agile working is not only on everyone’s lips during business meetings; it has also found its way far beyond the realm of software development into the practice of project management. However, there are proven good reasons for this: Correctly implemented, agile methods accelerate the market launch of products (time to market), strengthen a company’s ability to innovative, boost the motivation levels of employees, and ultimately lead to a higher amount of sales.

This is at least the case if everything works out well. As project management experts, reality often confronts us with a different picture. Many companies are in danger of draining their internal resources when switching to agile methods such as Scrum or Kanban. This results in frustrated employees and desperate bosses, who are sick and tired of hearing about the wonderful promises of the Agile Manifesto, which was written by 17 software developers in 2001.

In our experience, this is all too often due to the fact that the baby is literally thrown out of the bath. This applies in particular to the handling of a valuable organizational instrument in the company: the Project Management Office (PMO).

How the Project Management Office Got Caught in the Middle

The reason for this is easy to spot. In most guidebooks, management seminars and training courses on agile methods, the Project Management Office simply isn’t mentioned. This is understandable if you know anything about this subject. After all, many PMOs themselves are partly to blame for the incrustation and sluggishness of their organizations. Their function is too often limited to that of a supervisory body, primarily monitoring costs, guidelines, specifications and processes. For this reason, the importance of the Gantt charts is far greater than the question of whether the entire project is well-balanced.

On the other hand, the absence of a PMO in many agile approaches leads many PMOs to react extremely critically and defensively when agile transformation is just around the corner in their organization. And this scepticism is also very understandable. Many business leaders actually ask themselves this question: Will the PMO become redundant when agile coaches start their work?

This is how the myth that the PMO and agile working are not compatible with each other has arisen in recent years. However, it is based on a misunderstanding and wrong idea of the PMO’s function. A PMO should not adopt a background role in the company as an administrative field office. Instead, with the right strategic direction as an Activist PMO, it can play a decisive role in initiating, advancing and accelerating changes in the organization.

How the Activist PMO Can Contribute to Agile Transformation

In order to be able to take on this important task, the Project Management Office must be repositioned as a center of excellence for agile transformation where creating value, rather than cost control, is at the heart of a more strategic way of thinking. It is important to involve PMO employees in the transformation process at an early stage.

In addition to their project management skills, which are of course still required, they usually also demonstrate a good “political” instinct, which is crucial for the coming changes. The revised task description also shows, however, that the role of the employees in the Project Management Office can change somewhat with agile transformation. They are increasingly adopting the role of moderators (rather than controllers) and, in addition to the new tools and processes, must also master a more dynamic cooperative management style.

There is a second reason for the intensive involvement of a PMO in agile transformation: No organization can turn its structures upside down overnight and work in a completely agile way. Rather, becoming agile is a process that can extend over a long period of time. In practice, this means that both agile and classically managed processes, teams and projects run in parallel within the company. In this transition phase, the Project Management Office can mediate between stakeholders, product owners as well as other players and teams.

Responsibilities of an Agile Project Management Office

The areas in which an Activist PMO specifically supports agile transformation within a company vary from organization to organization. However, an agile PMO should always consider activities in the following three areas:

  • Activating employees: The switch to agile methods like Scrum or Kanban requires investments in the know-how of employees. This starts with training courses, for which coaches have to be recruited and training sessions organized. During this process, for example, employees can be trained to become Scrum masters, while teams are introduced to new ways of working, such as how to plan sprints. What’s more, the teams should continue to be supported even after the switch to agile working. This way, you ensure that the path taken is not thwarted at any point along the journey.
  • Supporting teams: Agile methods can tempt individual teams to focus on their own goals as an isolated unit. The PMO can ensure that cross-team tasks continue to be performed within the organization. This applies, for example, to the formation of communities of practice, the management of common tools, the coordination of teams among each other or their cooperation with departments such as human resources.
  • Managing projects: The PMO can assist product owners with their weekly status reports or provide agile teams with information about compliance regulations. In addition, the PMO can act as a gatekeeper when setting up new projects, ensuring that the project volume does not exceed the company’s workload for the entire organization.

Goodbye, PMO: New Age, New Name?

Some companies try to set an example internally by virtually renaming the PMO overnight e.g. to “Scrum Center”. Such a step is intended to reinforce the strong desire to restructure the organization. From our experience, however, this strategy quickly turns out to be an own goal from a psychological perspective.

In almost every company, the switch to agile methods is viewed with scepticism by some employees, or at least initially. It is therefore of paramount importance to foster trust among all those involved right from the outset. A simple change of name would be counterproductive - unless all PMO employees managed to become Scrum experts overnight? Furthermore, this only weakens confidence in the PMO because the renaming will turn it into “enemy territory” for critical employees.

Do you want to know how you can more effectively advance agile transformation in your company by adopting a modern PMO approach? If so, do the PMO health check!



The Team


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