For the past week, I have been doing a deep dive into a literature review on project management offices (PMO), and one thing that I found very peculiar but seems to be a recurring theme is where they provide the most value. While many software developers derive great value from using agile methodologies, it turns out that having a PMO can increase the likelihood of a project’s success. (I plan on posting my literature review on here in the next week or two if you would like to see the much longer version of this post with works cited.)

Project-based organizations with mature processes and experienced project managers working on low-risk projects may not seem to derive any type of benefit from the presence of a PMO. Think about a construction company that cranks out houses: while they may be similar, each is a project with different materials, different locations, different stakeholders, and possibly even different zoning and code requirements! After a few dozen houses though, the PM’s intuition will guide the project through uncertainty.

Some of the studies conducted indicated that when a PMO is established to improve project management practices in such an organization, they tend to fail. The return on investment is minimal because the room for improvement is minimal! The organizations that can benefit the most are those that have immature processes and high-complexity.

I am a big fan of agile methodologies. I think that they have demonstrated how well they can work when they are properly implemented. The problem is that some situations do not allow such implementation. There are countless examples available, but one organization that I am fond of examining is the FBI and their two major software projects in the past 17 years: Virtual Case File (VCF) and Sentinel.

Scrum is meant to have self-organizing teams complete items from a prioritized backlog of requirements, and at the end of a 2-4 week sprint, the team delivers something of value to the customer for review. Then they can make adjustments, if necessary, and then perform another sprint. What happens when the customer doesn’t want to wait 2-4 weeks? What happens when the customer gives you a defined scope on the front end, and more than one change request every day – 400 in the course of one calendar year? Scrum fails, and then the project fails.

An appropriate PMO can allow projects to use an adaptive lifecycle to deliver value to the customer. It offers governance and structure where there may not be any. In this way, the PMO can help reduce a high-complexity project’s risk through effective change control and reducing scope creep.

Karl Cheney
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