How to set up an best-in-class PMO

An Interview with Grantley Bridge

Hi Grantley, tell us a bit about yourself.

Hi. I have been fortunate enough to work in a number of different roles and industries, predominantly in the UK, as a PMO lead. Some time ago I made a conscious decision to move from the role of Project Manager (PM) to focus on the Project Management Office (PMO). PMO is a specialist area often overlooked, although essential, in mid to large organisations where making informed decisions on change brings order to chaos. The crucial skills and experience required for the PMO function are aligned to relationship building, influencing, negotiation and facilitation.

You won plaudits at your most recent assignment for setting up a best-in-class PMO, that was cited as an example to others (at a leading life sciences company). How did you go about this?

Clarity on role and requirements is key. A PMO does not manage projects, and key to any PMO success is to provide timely accurate decision-making information in a simple, consistent format. The role needs to take a holistic view starting with a top-down approach. Once the governance model and metrics have been agreed it’s all about the detail, underpinned with quality plans, supporting RAIDs (Risks, Assumptions, Issues, and Dependencies) and clear lines of communication.

Depending on change maturity, the starting point for each organisation will be different. In my recent role, the governance and reporting function at portfolio level was well established: the challenge was at programme level around how effectively to track progress and highlight issues and delays across a range of siloed activities happening at different times across the globe, managed by a small team of just three PMs.

The solution was to agree a single combined detailed plan based on using a heat map, with activities/deliverables identified that would highlight delays or risks to delivery. The heat map was used to drive discussion in Quality Assurance (QA) reviews before commentary was agreed in status reports.

The heat map provided effective reporting across a large number of deliverables – i.e. 3,000 reporting elements across 75 countries with 40 checkpoints per country.

Constructing the heat maps required teamwork with participation from the whole team. It provided the opportunity to remove ambiguity, test assumptions, understand sequence of dependencies and agree deliverables/outcomes. On completion the entire team had a common understanding of the plan and their role in its delivery.

So what were the biggest challenges?

Two challenges stood out:

Complex large scale/global programme timelines dictated phase completion dates: the challenge was to ensure consistency in the scope of each phase across all countries.

The second challenge was a reliance on a business in flux to supply detailed requirements for a new/developing operating model whilst juggling competing priorities to run the business.

To mitigate both challenges the PMO, with the PMs and business SMEs, developed operating principles that could be referenced to build requirements. To ensure consistency the PMO developed standard milestones for the business. These milestones were then embedded in all country plans with each country responsible for delivery.

What are the benefits, and why does the client like what you’re doing so much?

Providing senior stakeholders with the right level of information is crucial. With increased PMO automation (portfolio and project management tools), striking the right balance between summary information and detail can be difficult. In my experience, successful sponsors will challenge reports if they contain gaps e.g. open questions, incomplete risks or TBC plan dates. I QA status reports with PMs to ensure they align to the plan, challenge the safety of plans for completeness and ensure risks have the correct mitigation with actions to close. Report packs or status reports should always be clearly ‘traceable’ i.e. a stakeholder should be able to pick up and read a report with clear rationale for the overall RAG, milestones under threat and corresponding issues or risks.

How important would you say is the relationship with the Project Lead when setting up and running a PMO? How did it work in this instance?

Project leads are very different and it’s important to have the right lead on a programme at the right time. The type of lead you may have at start-up may be very different to the type of person you want when a project is Red. With that in mind, I am mindful of the project lead’s style, stakeholder management and delivery experience. Based on this triangle I will move to support the “middle ground” – by which I mean that I see my role is to support the lead whilst maintaining the integrity of the plan. Most leads will have a preferred way they like information collated and presented, and as long as this can be accommodated within the organisations existing governance, I am comfortable with adapting accordingly. There has to be trust, honesty and mutual recognition for this relationship to work effectively, often built up over years and multiple assignments.

Is it all about following processes and templates?

Process and templates should be regarded as ‘plumbing’ they are basic hygiene factors required for good information flows: what is crucially important though is quality of information. To achieve consistent quality, it’s imperative you build confidence with stakeholders and mutual respect with PMs and the project team.

What are your top tips for running an effective PMO service?

It starts with making sure senior management is backing and promoting a positive change culture underpinned with investment in PMO tools, processes, standards and techniques. Real change management experience is a pre-requisite for project sponsors or leads. Articulate information requests are crucial and must be submitted in a way that the recipient will see the need/benefit for supplying the information. You need to be prepared to step in to remove any roadblocks.

Anything to look out for?

Don’t become just a reporting shop – PMOs need to understand what they are reporting.

Would you do the same things at all clients in the future?

Yes and no; some items will always remain, such as the constant need for plans and project reporting. After that, it’s very much driven by the organisation’s level of maturity and its cultural appetite for managing change. When the PMO is introducing change, it must always align to the organisation’s strategies. The PMO must specify metrics and qualitative indicators to continuously monitor the performance of the PMO function.

What one thing would you say you have learned from this particular assignment?

People want to do the right thing. You just need to ask the right question in the right way.

GRANTLEY BRIDGEThank you Grantley.
Interview by Huw Bollen, Assurance Director, Anubian Consulting in November 2021