A few years ago I attended a webinar titled “The future of the PMO” from a widely recognized technology prognosticator. The point of the webinar was that the future of the PMO is that there is no future. The presenter went on to state how the project management field had become stagnant with process lethargy, the value of project management certifications is eroding and the world is moving towards an operations mindset where the inherent efficiencies of process engineering would mitigate the need for project management services. He even made the point that, as a result, he was letting all his project management certifications lapse.

Since that webinar I’ve gone on to train well over a thousand PMI certification candidates in exam prep classes and have personally heard the stories of over 600 that successfully earned their certifications. The PMP® remains the most sought after project management certification in job postings, with the PMI-ACP® and CAPM® showing up frequently on job boards. Although my experience may be anecdotal, there remains a market for project management certifications, and the Project Management Institute (PMI) is still the globally recognized body for project management standards.

While it could be said that many PMOs have struggled to add value, as I’ve discussed in a previous article, the institution remains. This is because the world of project management is evolving. The inclusion of Agile and Lean methods and practices into the project management field has broadened the applicability of the role rather than see it contract. What PMO leaders have learned, and to their credit many have always known and operated accordingly, is that they succeed by ensuring projects deliver value to the organization and their customers. Value in ensuring the strategy and goals of the organization are being accomplished by doing the right thing at the right time in the right way.

In fact, the research shows there remains a significant demand for project management skills and capabilities. The Job Growth and Talent Gap study published in 2017 by the PMI estimates that by 2027 there will be 87.7 million workers in project management roles worldwide. This will require filling 2.2 million new project-oriented roles to avoid losing up to $207.9 billion in GDP for the 11 largest countries for the technology industry. These roles represent an 82% pay scale premium over non-project management oriented occupations.

In fact, the PMI has doubled down on the need for project management in what they are calling “The Project Economy”. Their acquisition of Disciplined Agile has broadened their reach significantly and placed them squarely as the global leader with more tools and delivery options for PMOs and project managers than ever before.

“Project: A temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result.”

 

We still need to deliver unique products, services and results. The core of the definition of a project, in my view, is the word “unique”. There are many different ways to deliver products, services and/or results, but it is project management that has evolved to master when uniqueness is inherent. What uniqueness does is introduce levels of uncertainty, or risk, as to what we’re going to get, when we’re  are going to get it and how much it’s going to cost. The bedrock of project management skills is found in that “triple constraint” (or as some of us PMs call it – “the iron triangle”), delivering by defining the scope, schedule and cost of the endeavor.

One of the most interesting observations I’ve had about PMOs is that they are often led by people that who have a background in process efficiency rather than in project delivery. In fact only a few that I’ve met have any project management background and experiences. That may very well be a gross generalization and I don’t want to insult anyone in that role, but why are there not more PMs in PMO leadership roles?

One of the reasons, I believe, is that Project Managers are great at getting work done, but maybe not so great at running an organization. This is fair, and a PMO leader needs to be able to implement and run an organization as their primary responsibility. Project managers are great at running projects, and the demands of working in the two areas can be quite different. However, the weakness in this approach is that the PMO leaders may seek to have their projects run as if they are operational endeavors rather than projects. The goal becomes Implementing repeatable processes efficiently in delivery projects, which often makes little sense due to the uniqueness of each project.

Those PMOs who have a future, and those PMO leaders that are creating effective project delivery organizations, are those that recognize their primary purpose is to ensure value delivery, not process optimization. Much of what we do in projects can be considered very inefficient, such as prototyping, multiple iterations, research and other efforts that are designed to reduce the uncertainties driven by the uniqueness of what we’re trying to accomplish. But, all is necessary for effective delivery of value and the process toolkit of the PMO should be reflective of the breadth of unique products, services, results and situations the organization takes on for delivery.

We still need to adapt to unique business and environmental situations. It may be tempting to confuse speed of delivery with operational tempo. What I mean by that is organizations need to be able to rapidly respond to all kinds of dynamics, whether they be market, environmental, financial, employee, technological or transactional – or, for that matter, a combination of these at any given time. So, speed is of the essence, and management will often correlate that “need for speed” with efficiencies in process, hence operational effectiveness. However, the uniqueness of the dynamic is what can be missed in that we may only see the date and it’s always too soon.

In other words, it’s the decision whether to launch the effort as a project which must be arrived at swiftly. The next, equally swift decision is then by which appropriate methodology. This is where PMOs can sink or swim. If a PMO takes more of an authoritative approach and forces their version of methodology on the organization then it misses an opportunity to add value to the process. The PMO, if not nimble itself, becomes a barrier that the rest of the organization works around, rather than a supportive element that the rest of the organization wants to work alongside.

The PMO leader then says, “But we have accountability for project controls!”. This is true, and imperative to the organization, increasing in need proportionate to the level of regulatory requirements. I would propose, though, controls and delivery methodologies are two different things. For example, I’ve had some great successes running Agile scrums in “waterfall” organizations by showing the audit team the controls are essentially the same, just more frequent. The team will make sure they are working on approved deliverables – because of regularly grooming the backlog – and getting the appropriate approvals of the deliverables through the sprint review session.

Back to the discussion point on when a project is the best delivery mechanism and then by what method. The answer lies within the inherent complexity of the effort. In the past, many PMOs have set a dollar amount as to when a project is appropriate. In order to do that there is a significant organizational overhead on estimating and tracking staff member’s time in order to fairly cost the project. This helped to also capitalize the projects once they were put in service. As the technological landscape has shifted towards hosted services, which are typically leased and at a relatively low cost to initiate, a dollar limit can be very deceiving as to whether the initiative is project-size complex.

Complexity is rather derived from a number of factors, all in some way related to uniqueness. The more we organizational elements involved, the distribution of the team, regulatory environment, the technological newness and/or stability, the skill sets needed, and the maturity level of the organization are all factors that come into play. If it were a simple answer, well, it wouldn’t be complexity!

Enter the Disciplined Agile framework. This is an excellent decision-making framework that essentially solves both problems, it has a toolkit that helps the organization quickly assess the complexity and then choose an appropriate lifecycle (both project and operational), then choose from a library of practices that can allow the delivery team to nimbly shift to deliver most effectively to that situation. PMOs can take the role of facilitating the discussion and help the organization arrive at the decisions swiftly.

We still need to put unique teams together. Not only are we seeing rapid cycles of change and adaptation in our deliverables and our business strategies, but our ability to deliver is being impacted by a higher degree of specialization in the skills of our workforce. Projects depend on those more highly specialized skills to deliver in cross-functional teams. However, in order to hire, train and maintain that workforce the organization will likely choose to organize their staff and management by skill set rather than by initiative. There are some exceptions, but where this is the case those resources must be formed into those cross-functional teams for project delivery.

To form those project teams we then need a specialized skill as well – and that is the nature of today’s project management role. The ability to efficiently build and maintain strong cross-functional teams in project delivery organizations is a key development in the field of project management over the past decades. Many project managers were placed in the role based on their technical expertise and then had to learn the nuances of forming and managing project teams as a secondary skill set. In today’s project management training, the emphasis is in reverse, we focus on the leadership skills required to be successful as much or more as to the technical project management skills of managing scope, schedule, and budget. Least valuable to most project managers today is technical expertise in their original field, we have assigned project team members for that need.

The soon to be released version 7 of the PMBOK® emphasizes the leadership qualities needed in today’s project manager on par with the skills to effectively manage scope, cost and schedule. Not only that, but the emphasis is on agility as one of the primary characteristics of a project manager in today’s “Project Economy”. Agile methods and practices are equal part of the project management toolkit alongside traditional delivery methods and the entire structure of the PMBOK® Guide is being transformed from a process focus to one of principles to follow. This shift is in full motion and the field of project management, led by the continued evolution of the PMI, is long removed from the stagnant processes as perceived by the prognosticator.

Taken together these impacts have resulted in a different type of project manager. One that has a large toolkit of various practices that can be appropriately applied to any number of products, services, results and business situations. And with complexity increasing, the need for skills that can handle the resulting uniqueness is needed all the more.

In closing… As we have seen in this past year there have been many different factors that have accelerated change dramatically. If anyone of us had thought back in January that most all professionals would be working from home throughout the summer, and for the foreseeable future, it would probably have been laughed off. What is interesting in this dynamic, though, is how rapidly technology teams were able to respond and put the infrastructure in place to make this happen. That is in large part, I believe, because those same teams had become accustomed to being rapidly put into project situations.

These scenarios drive what I call “hyper-projectization”. This is where the demand is so acute and the timing so severe that we have to accelerate the delivery process significantly. There certainly was not time to do a “BRD” or “Requirements Traceability Matrix” or such (at least not on those I am aware of) but instead we focused on tight collaboration with our customers, rapid and frequent gating of deliverables, management setting the direction then becoming supportive rather than command and control – in short, Agile. And, if the PMO was not ready to support the effort with effective and diverse tools, knowledgeable people and helping to drive the value I would suppose they were likely sidelined. This is the challenge for today’s PMO and one that I know many are pivoting towards, or are figuring out how to do so in the future.