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The future of Project Management Offices


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It was almost a hundred years ago that the first Project Management Office was set upi and with new technologies and trends evolving, we can hear more and more voices articulating the end of the PMO era.

Although I agree that the functions cannot be the same as 100 years ago, but we are far from saying good-bye to the classical project offices, and here is why.

Main trends affecting the future of PMO

You can find many predictions and studies about the future of project management and the main factors affecting it.

After reading a couple of articles you will see that the most frequently mentioned trends are the undiminished popularity of agile and hybrid methods, advancement of AI and Machine Learning. The latest one, accelerated by Covid-19, is the spread of remote working and cloud-based technologies.

Agile and hybrid methods in project management

If we are talking about IT development projects, we cannot pass without discussing the agile approaches which have grown steadily and consistently in the last years. According to PMI, even the most traditional companies use agile methods in 16% of their projects and in 19% they choose a hybrid solution between agile and waterfall.ii

Ágnes Mocsáry

Ágnes Mocsáry

Consultant, Project Manager and PMO lead

Ágnes has 5+ years’ experience in banking consultancy, during which she has provided expertise in PMO leadership and PM methodologies.

Her specialties are Banking Mergers and related services like integration management, migration reconciliation or consultancy in project coordination and governance.

In the past she has excelled in her roles and received several company awards: she was recognized as Young Talent of the Year, Consultant of the Year and Excellent Project Manager.

Agile versus waterfall is debated on many levels and some are taking it to the extremes of being in love with one or another, but the appearance of hybrid versions is showing that there is no perfect solution. Many times, you will be able to choose between the two based on the constraints you have and at other times you will need to have a mixture of them.

But how does this affect the Project Management Office? The basis of the agile concept is that diverse teams are put together and there is no need for the traditional PM’s role who is delegating and monitoring tasks, as the team members are self-driven. Documentation is kept at the minimum level and centralized management reporting is almost non existing in-between sprints.

It is clearly visible why the agile fans predict the end of PMO in such an environment – especially if they only met with a tier one PMO whose sole function was to create documentation and complicated reporting templates: they see no use of it in an agile organization.

However, we all know that there will always be situations when agile cannot be used and for these projects the existence of the PMO is not a question.

What is a PMO?

The definition for a PMO comes from every PM’s Holy Bible, the Project Management Body of Knowledge: “The project management office (PMO) is an organizational structure that standardizes the project-related governance processes and facilitates the sharing of resources, methodologies, tools and techniques. The responsibilities of a PMO can range from providing project management support to being responsible for the direct management of one or more projects”

There are different types of PMOs depending on their role and place in the organization. They can be categorized based on the authority and scope, starting from temporary PMOs assembled to support and lead one-time complex projects, to the individual departments within companies which function as a center of excellence whenever it comes to projects.i

Ok, but what about purely agile projects or hybrid ones? Can the PMO add value for them? Maybe not in the traditional way, but in mature organizations PMO will remain the center of excellence that helps in agile transformations, trains people, and ensures that the project portfolio is aligned to the strategic roles. In most of the organizations the project department will be forced to become something more strategic to provide correct methodologies, as support and documentation is less necessary for a clean-cut agile project. And with the fast spreading of hybrid solutions another important role will be left for the companies’ PMOs.

The basic idea of these mixed projects is that they are taking the most useful elements of both methodologies. There is no thumb rule for a good hybrid model, as it is taking the pros from both approach creating a new way of doing things, fitting best for the organization and for the given goal. But how do you create such new models with only experts from agile who are not necessarily familiar with the extensive waterfall methodology, or other way around with only traditional PMs? Of course, you will not be able to do that, as you will need senior experts who have seen both types of projects and can create a more iterative waterfall or a more established agile method for you.

And who could be more qualified to do this then your PMO, who has extensive knowledge on methodology and most probably experience in both ways of working?

Advancement of AI and ML technologies

The second main trend is the rapid change in technologies around us, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) being the most common buzzwords when we are talking about changes shaping our lives and slowly substituting the classical role of PMOs.

It has been the task of PMs and PMOs to manage and balance the project iron triangle (schedule, cost and scope) with planning, monitoring, and controlling to complete projects successfully. The assumption was in the last 50-70 years that the PMs are the most qualified personnel to lead these three activities, but can this role be kept in a world where machines are getting smarter than us? To be candid, on paper machines can do better – and I will show you why.

Normally project planning is performed by gathering information from experience of PMs and experts, checking industry averages, and calculating with vendor proposals. As we are living in the age of IOT, when machines can share data without human interactions, it is easy to see who will be able to provide a better estimation: a PM with broad but still limited knowledge or a machine with literally unlimited data through the Internet, reaching for averages from much wider range and much faster.

Monitoring can also be executed by AI, no matter if we are talking about IT or non-IT projects: in case of software development, we are at the age of automated testing with little or no human interaction, and from that implementing a monitoring solution to see progress is only a small step further. And there are also countless technologies around us which can enable the monitoring of any non-IT project. There are already companies out there offering the usage of LIDAR technology to monitor your constructionsiii. And this is only one technological advancement already used in everyday life that can be utilized in project delivery control and monitoring, not talking about drones, cameras with intelligent image processing, voice recognition, etc.

So, no matter if it is an IT or a non-IT project, machines can plan and monitor it better than humans could do, and the only obstacle for them is the cost which is currently tilts the tongue of the balance towards the usage of human resources. And now let me play the devil’s advocate and say: no matter how better machines are in calculations, predictions and so on, they will never substitute good PMs and PMOs. Why? Because these techniques are only covering part of complex processes and total automation is not yet on the horizon. People will be needed to create and operate machines and programs for a long time, and definitely this will require a different skill set than conveyor belts did a hundred years ago, you cannot take away the human factor from the equation.

One of my favorite anecdotes for this comes from my last project: we were doing a complex banking integration (read more about it here), where the project end date was carved into stone, so any sign of a delay was worrying. I was the PMO lead being responsible to bring the project management experience to the team, and I always felt that my job was somehow to worry about the unforeseen and try to highlight the risks for the CIO and the PM responsible for delivery. In doing so I remember our heated arguments about the need for cutting the scope, until once the CIO told me the following: “Ági, do not show me your statistics about our resource utilization and availability, I don’t want to see it. You will only prove me that it is not possible to deliver what we planned. But I know that it is possible, and I do not care what the numbers say.” You can imagine my reaction at that point, but can you guess who was right? Of course, it was him, as the project delivered everything on time with great quality. A couple of weeks ago we met again, and I asked him if he remembers this and what his opinion is in hindsight. He said what any great leader would say: he always thought that his only and main job was to make his people believe that they can deliver the project as planned.

And then I realized what PMs and PMOs must do in the future to compete with machines: focus on the human aspects of projects.

Because human capacity is not something you can predict with complete accuracy, and people can be encouraged to do things they never believed was doable, and with machines taking over the repetitive tasks, PMO should shift its vision to be leaders instead of administrators, to be the cogs in the vehicle driving people to achieve more.

New age of working

By now we all heard the joke: “Who was leading the digitalization at your company? A) CEO; B) CIO; C) Covid-19”

And let us be honest here: this joke is a hit because it’s so true. During the last year home office was widely introduced, no one knowing whether we would ever go back to “normal” and leave remote work behind us. This question is yet to be answered, but in my opinion the ways of working 9 to 5 from a company office is officially over. Working remotely is a win-win for companies and employees, and I believe that some mixed solution will stick with us: couple of days working from home and a couple from the office.

But why is this important for us? Alongside remote work another trend has accelerated: cloud adoption. And the rise of cloud computing has been instrumental in the appearance and spread of something I see as a critical factor to shape the PMOs future: citizen developers. The other two factors I talked about (agile methods and machines taking over) have been present for decades and only gaining ground recently, however this one is something fresh and exciting, and I truly believe that this is the key where PMOs can thrive in the future.

The first low code platform was introduced only 7 years ago, in 2014iv – and since then low code / no code platforms, and their usage spread wide in a pace what the world has never seen. According to the most mentioned prediction by Gartner, “By 2024 at least 65% of all new business applications will be created with high-productivity toolsets, such as low-code and no-code application development platforms. [..] By 2023, the number of active citizen developers at large enterprises will be at least 4 times the number of professional developers”v. Of course citizen developers will not take over the IT’s role, but they will be an important factor in keeping a company innovative and fast reacting for our ever-changing world.

What is a citizen developer?

A citizen developer is someone who can build applications without coding knowledge using no code or low code platforms. All citizen developers are business technologists, but not all business technologists are citizen developers.

OK, we love citizen developers, but how does it indicate the viability of the PMO? With a technology spreading and developing this fast, the main challenge companies are facing is the lack of clear methodology and proper governance. If only there was someone in our organization who is expert in these two things… Do you see where I am going? Driving citizen development culture will need similar things to what a project would need just on a much bigger scale. They will need proper platforms to work on, environment for testing, and for the company to profit from it – processes should be developed and maintained about the rules of creating new activities and practices for sharing the knowledge and elevating certain applications for a company level usage. IT can drive these, but in my opinion PMO is the organizational unit which is more suitable for these tasks. And as it seems, PMI is already working on a framework for driving and implementing citizen developments. In my opinion, with the widespread network of certified PMs they have a high chance to build a proper methodological basis for this new way of thinking, as they have the expertise and the network to spread standards helping in implementation.

And not only driving the change, but I see a high chance that in many companies the PMO members will become the first citizen developers. Having so many options of PM tools and none being perfect, why not to develop our own tools in the future? Being a citizen developer is being a problem solver, and that is what PMO has been doing for a hundred years and will continue to do so, only their tools will change.

We spent quite a time evaluating and selecting the ideal Project Management tool for MINDSPIRE

Read about it here!

Final conclusions

In the past, PMO has been one of the top reasons driving successful project delivery, especially if done right. However, in the fast-changing world we live in, many questions the usefulness of a concept born a hundred years ago. And we can see that they are right on some level: agile methodologies and the spread of automations are taking over many of the classical project management roles. But you need to look into the topic more deeply to see that there is still enough room for PMOs to thrive, no matter if it is running hybrid projects or providing value where machines cannot: by focusing on the human factors. And do not forget a less known factor rising with incredible speed which will change the digital world in only a few years: the appearance of citizen developers. Covid-19 accelerated the changes how we work, remote became standard, more and more companies are moving to cloud solutions. These rapid changes created new obstacles which can be conquered by PMOs and PMs, who are increasingly taking on the role of citizen developers and driving its spread within their companies.

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