February 8, 2021

The evolution of the PMO

Evolution of the PMO
Evolution of the PMO

The evolution of the PMO is unknown by many of the professionals working in this area today. However, the PMO’s history holds important lessons for us all.

Watch the full video interview

Not many tech entrepreneurs are on a mission to go back in time… and whilst that sounds counter intuitive, it is a strategy that’s absolutely working for one of them.

As a seasoned leader of transformational change programmes, Rupert Taylor became so frustrated by the complexity of available Project Management Office (PMO) tools, he decided to build his own and founded software firm Kivue.

The PMO is a often a misunderstood function within a business. In fact, many people do not know what a PMO is or associate it with adding bureaucracy that gets in the way of project delivery. And the way the PMO has evolved means that it often does!

Rupert Taylor, Change Programme Leader & PMO Expert and Founder of Kivue

For this reason, Rupert sees his purpose as making life easier for executives, sponsors, project managers and PMO leads alike, by ensuring the PMO provides the information and service they actually need, in the form they want it, when they want it.

And simplicity is the reason he journeys back almost a century in time for inspiration, shaping a vision that’s partly informed by the past and the evolution of the PMO.

Origin of the PMO

“The term PMO dates back to the 1930s, at least as early 1939 and possibly much earlier that decade.” Taylor says. “It was actually invented by the US Air Corps, which wanted to corral its projects and gain visibility and transparency to enable good decision-making, specifically around finances.”

“It was very manual in those days, people sitting in an office with scheduling cards on the walls and all of the finances were written on ledgers. You were doing two things, you were working out manually the cost and financial implications of your projects, and then that was feeding up into an overarching programme. The PMO provided the ability to roll up several silos of project financials into an overall single picture.” 

“It was successful, and it certainly went on to help the war effort.”

Simplicity over complexity

Taylor’s quest for simplicity and harking back to a bygone era lies not in nostalgia, but in the frustration felt by many who shoulder today’s responsibility for Change delivery, at the impenetrable complexity of current PMO tools and structures.

“In many cases, we’ve forgotten the core values of the PMO and I think we need to go back to those people that were sitting around that table in the 1930’s and remind ourselves why they wanted that project office in the first place, that logical approach that made complete sense.”

When did PMOs diverge from their original vision?

He skips half a century and winds forward to the 1990s where he believes the PMO started to become a profession and really take off. But paradoxically, this is also the point he thinks that the evolution of the PMO started to diverge and disconnect from its original purpose and started to become more method and mechanically driven and less outcome and value focused.

“The brand ‘PMO’ has almost overtaken the original purpose of the function and in my opinion the perception of the ‘PMO’ brand has gone down as a result. I spend a lot of my time talking to people about PMOs. When I ask execs in organisations what PMO means to them, I invariably hear the words; reports, administration, forms, bureaucracy…and those are all the wrong perceptions.

“The PMO needs to be a brand that engenders trust and is seen as an enabler and accelerator of delivery.”

PMO evolution: mechanics over function

Taylor puts part of the reason PMOs have attracted this reputation down to some over professionalisation of the PMO during its evolution, where ‘PMO certified’ and ‘PMO trained’ have become key criteria for hiring, rather than good project delivery experience.     

“It’s become too much about the mechanics, do you have a strong risk and issues register, a dependency register? Are you adopting the latest methodology? Do you have a tool for managing your projects?”

This is a view supported by Darren Tolhurst, CEO of Change Partner, Practicus who’s seen many instances where the PMO has been over-engineered for the needs of the business’ change portfolio. He points to an Oil and Gas client who engaged Practicus because they thought they had a broken PMO.

“When our team got on the ground we quickly realised this wasn’t about a broken PMO, it was about a highly sophisticated PMO with everything you could possibly want, run by a Big Four consultancy. But this was a ‘sledgehammer to crack a nut’, a PMO that was everything about looking and sounding right, but very little about enabling delivery. It was over-engineered and holding things up.”

“I think the key word is ‘appropriate’. If the organisation is at the immature end of the project management capability scale, then tying them up in admin and reports they don’t need or understand is not going to support delivery.”  

Evolution of the PMO should focus on real value

So how is Taylor’s ‘Perform’ software the answer to reigniting the core value of PMO? What is so special about his tool that separates it from the rest of PMO’s history?

He answers the question with the kind of brutal honesty that would appeal to many a corporate executive trying to grapple with slow progress on their change portfolio.

“We have a great tool which is very outcome focussed and really impacts the perception of the PMO brand, but it is just another tool. And our tool, like the others, is not on its own going to sort out all of the challenges of running a portfolio successfully.  What it does do is provide a good quality solution that answers the question, what does leadership really want as outcomes from the PMO? And how do we present to them in the easiest possible way? If they want transparency on their handheld device, then it gives them that, if they want concise visuals rather than lots of text and words because they don’t have time, it gives them that too.

“If there’s one thing I feel most proud about with Kivue Perform, it’s not the functionality. It’s actually the fact it helps organisations evolve their PMO capability and maturity around delivering projects and portfolios successfully. And that, for me is far more engaging. It is driving outcomes rather than just a pretty picture at the end of every week or month about how a project is doing.”

Rupert Taylor is a man on a mission to give those responsible for Projects transparency on what actually matters. It’s a refreshing common-sense approach that those who founded the PMO almost a century ago would no doubt appreciate.

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Boyd Kershaw

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