Strong PMO Model

The Strong PMO Model

It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out nor more doubtful of success nor more dangerous to handle than to initiate a new order of things – Machiavelli 1446-1507, Italian statesman and philosopher


believe there has been a disturbing trend lately. One where the “Strong” PMO model has been eliminated, mischaracterized or incompletely defined.
That includes the definition below from PMI where they describe the “Directive” model. As I have a bit of experience in all of these I would like to suggest that the “Strong” or “Directive” models work far better than its counter parts.
I will explain the definition gaps and reasons for my preference below.
Following the project management framework established by the Project Management Institute (PMI), the types of PMO Structures can be classified in:

  • Supporting: Provides methodologies, procedures, templates, best practices, training and other resources.
  • Controlling: Establish procedures to ensure adherence to methodologies, through monitoring metrics and performance reporting to Management.
  • Directive: Leads the recruiting of project management staff, assignment of resources to projects (including project managers themselves), project selection in alignment with the organization strategy, cancelation of failed projects, resource management across projects, among others.

The problem with the definition of the “Strong” or “Directive” definition above is that in many cases, especially in larger organizations, PMO utilizes personnel provided to them by the functional organizations through a matrix. Therefore they do not assign resources. (While they should and do have an input on that).
Additionally the definition does not mention that PMO holds all of the budgets and is primarily responsible for all project execution and that the functional groups support them.
Lastly they represent or actually are the “customer”. If there is no outside customer they become the internal customer representing the interests of the whole company or if there is an outside customer they become their internal representative.
As I am sure you can see there is a world of difference between the all too common “Weak” models (Supporting and Controlling) and the Strong Model (Directive). And that has primarily to do with responsibility and authority.
To stress these differences and provide my reasons for the Strong model being greatly preferred I will list the specific differences.
Before I do that I would like to make one more observation.
I have worked in and with many industries and companies. I have discussed best practice adoption with Gartner. I have conversed with many others across a broad array of industries.
There is one other glaring and almost black and white difference between the Strong and Weak models. Best practice use. In almost every case, commercial IT being the best example, very, very few of the PM best practices are used in organizations that have the Weak PMO model.
The opposite is obviously prevalent for the Strong model.
I do not think this is by accident. I think this happens because companies that use Weak PMO organizations allow functional managers to be in charge or budgets, people and practices. (Whether a Weak PMO suggests them or not).
This creates a massive conflict of interest.
Functional managers rarely create processes that would wind up holding themselves more objectively and measurably accountable. These missing processes include: EVM, PBS, WBS, schedules with dependencies and critical paths shown, Productivity and Quality Metrics. (And before anyone thinks about responding with the suggestion these things do not apply. They always do. Regardless of what industry you are in. Especially for those creating software. But they have to be used properly. Most often you will find those who say these do not apply have never used them correctly and/or are using scare tactics to avoid that objective and measurable accountability I mentioned. And yes they work for Agile).

Weak PMO Characteristics

Devolves PMs down to Coordinators at best in many situations.

  • Authority – Held by Functional Managers not PMO.
    1. Budget
    2. Product
    3. Process
  • Reporting
    1. PMs report to Functional Managers. I believe there is a conflict of interest. When people work for, are paid and appraised by managers whose organizations they are driving (or testing in the case of QA) those personnel are under passive or even aggressive pressure to align with those managers not necessarily what is right for the company.
    2. Functional Managers share power. This creates a power sharing democracy. I believe this rarely works. Without objective measures subjectivity, opinion and spin rule the day and increase politics. Now we make that worse by thinking co-equal management will work things out in the company’s best interest. With their own interest being secondary. That rarely happens

There is no such thing as a perfect process set or organizational structure. But there is what works best most often.
Some degree of poor practice use can be overcome by great teams (which are rare as well. Even though we like to think otherwise) and great practices can be wiped out by bad leadership.
But Apples to Apples I believe the Strong PMO structure is far better than the Weak model.
The primary reason there is inherently less politics and as such inherently less selfishness, stonewalling, delay and settling in order to further individual leader’s personnel interests.
Lessening those politics and counterproductive levels of “democracy” results in better and faster decisions in the company’s best interest.
This structure also usually leads to use of actual best practices which in many cases is even more important than the Strong PMO model being in place. I believe this occurs because the PMO is acting as the company/customer. As such imposing objective measures on those who support them is always easier than leaders doing so to themselves. (As for the Strong PMO having to much power and being held accountable themselves. Those functional managers should have C-Level representation as well as the Strong PMO. They should have say in how affective the PMO and their practices are. Additionally all of those objective measures I have been talking about also reflect on the PMs ability to do their jobs as well. They own cost and schedule. The functional groups own the people and processes that create the product.)

Michael DeKort
Michael DeKort has been a program and engineering manager on program of all sizes and in various industries. Including DoD, DHS, aircraft simulation, banking, healthcare, manufacturing and insurance. This included my being a Senior PM and then Software Engineering Manager for NORAD while working for Lockheed Martin


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