Executives depend on the work accomplished by project management offices for their own success, and conversely, project management offices depend on executives for their success. In a provocative 1999 article in Fortune magazine that addresses why executives fail, the authors get directly to the point and state that the number one reason for executive failure is “bad execution … as simple as that … not getting things done … not delivering on commitments.” The article also states that executives who do not deliver are three times more likely to get fired than their counterparts who are delivering. Of course, the dominant purpose of a project is getting things done.

Projects deliver products and services, and they do so according to a schedule. Projects deliver on commitments. Executives need projects so they can deliver on commitments, thus avoiding the number one reason for executive failure.

Projects also require executives. The scope of projects and the judgments made about their success have expanded over recent years to the point where project success is almost always beyond the sole control of those running the project. Project success is highly dependent on the availability of resources typically not under the direct control of the project manager. Similarly, the project manager does not have direct control over the networks and systems that their project must fit into. Really, the project manager doesn’t have direct control over much of anything upon which the project’s success depends. The days of the small, relatively simple, standalone project are mostly over. These dependencies, which are essential for the success of the project, are less often the domain of the project manager and more often the domain of the executive. The project manager must establish a PMO that is run with a direct two-way supportive relationship with the executive.

A Real-World Example

To illustrate how pronounced the dependence between executives and project management offices is, and needs to be, consider the following story, which illustrates how effective a strong co-dependent relationship can be. Prior to the creation of the PMO with a co-dependent executive relationship, trouble was the norm, but the situation improved with the creation of the PMO.

The story is associated with responsibilities that Michael O’Brochta (co-author of this article) had when he worked as an employee of the Central Intelligence Agency. He spent decades there managing hundreds of projects, managing project managers and leading efforts to advance project management within the organization. The story begins with a strategic need within the organization and an executive who recognized this need and made a commitment to take action. (Note that this is not a unique story. In the 2009 book “The Project Management Office (PMO): A Quest for Understanding,” author Brian Hobbs highlights a global study of project management offices and describes the PMO best practice of tailoring the PMO function to match the needs of the executive, just as happens in this CIA story.)

“I don’t understand it; I have staffed my new organization with hundreds of highly skilled project managers, yet even after our first year in business, we can’t seem to deliver enough projects on time or to the satisfaction of our customers.”

These were the words that O’Brochta first heard when the director of the organization asked for help. The director went on to describe the gap between his vision for his organization and the current reality: “I’m confident that running this organization as project-based is the way to go, but I never thought it would be this hard,” said the director. “I periodically review project schedules, and find them to be ever changing. No one is happy about a moving target -- not me, and least of all, not the customer. Quite frankly, I do not see why anyone would come to my organization if they had a decent alternative.”

The project-based organization described here was formed to advance the mission of the CIA. The best engineers, the best IT professionals, and the best project managers were combined into a single organization focused on delivering new and better intelligence analysis systems and capabilities. One of those systems, named Fluent, was described a decade ago in a Reuters article titled “CIA Using Data Mining Technology to Find Nuggets.” This was cutting-edge technology focused on critical CIA mission needs at the time.

Finally, the director got to the point of the conversation: “Will you come and help?” 

During the following year, O’Brochta built and ran a strategic-level project management office. Although the published knowledge associated with successful PMOs was rather limited at the time, enough was known for him to select a couple of starting points. O’Brochta started with one initiative focused on the project managers and one initiative focused on the executives. For the project managers, he led the building of a standardized project lifecycle methodology complete with milestones and documentation tailored specifically for the nature of their work. For the executives, he led the building of a standardized governance system complete with reviews, decision-making criteria and change management strategies tailored specifically for their work.

Previously, the roles and actions of the executives and the project managers were out of sync. Project managers were doing their best to draw upon their extensive backgrounds to create and follow project plans, but no two were the same. Likewise, executives were doing their best to support the project managers with resources and decisions, but inconsistency and unpredictability were common.

O’Brochta routinely met with executives and others in the management chain to ensure that decisions about the PMO’s focus matched its needs; he did the same with project managers and the various PMOs. Both the executives and project managers learned that each group performed equally important, but different, roles. The executive’s role included supplying a standardized project lifecycle methodology for the project managers to use and holding them accountable for using it. The project managers’ role included tailoring the provided lifecycle methodology and putting it into practice. The executives established and followed a routine for project reviews and associated decisions. The project managers prepared for each of the project reviews with the information needed to support the scheduled decision-making. Predictability and consistency became the norm. Effort that had been directed toward “figuring out what to do” was now directed toward more productive activities associated with running the projects and meeting mission needs.

The value of the project management office was established because of the success of the initiatives. Others followed, all targeted at the co-dependent relationship between the executives and the project management offices. These initiatives included training for both the project managers and the executives. They reflected the maturing of project management within the organization and the value of strengthening the co-dependent relationship between executives and project management offices. It was learned that this relationship is, in and of itself, a project that can be planned and managed within a PMO for the strategic long-term benefit of the organization.

What’s the Result?

A 2007 PMI-sponsored report titled “The Multi-Project PMO:  A Global Analysis of the Current State of Practice” states that PMOs are frequently closed or restructured with only about half of them surviving for two years. This statistic can most likely be attributed to the fact that failing PMOs are either not flexible enough to keep up with the needs of the company or else they do not communicate their contributions well.

The performance of successful PMOs matched to the needs of the organization. Key performance indicators were established and achieved. And not just any key performance indicators, but ones that were relevant and meaningful to the executives with whom the PMO had a co-dependent relationship. Like two parties in any relationship, PMOs and executives need to work together to keep things running smoothly.

(Editor's note: This is part one of a two-part series. In part two, we will describe specific key performance indicators that a newly-established PMO can use to measure itself to ensure alignment with the needs of the organization.)

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