Managing complexity in a Portfolio Management Office (PMO)

Setting up a PMO can range from a simple execution of an out of the box solution through to an enabler for transformational change. The former is often a bolt on capability which is often perceived as a data hungry bureaucratic overhead that significantly underplays the business benefits that may be realised from a PMO. Using the PMO as an enabler for transformation change is a more enlightened solution, but it brings with it a range of challenges.

The PMO is part of an enterprise with differing requirements, numerous relationships and dependencies with other parts of the organisation. The success of the implementation of a PMO will be dependent on a number of factors ranging from Board level commitment through to organisational culture. Its rare that the implementation of a PMO is simple, but there is often a desire to manage it like a simple project.  Put in place a Gantt chart, assign responsibilities, define the risks and off we go.

However, this ignores the complexity inherent within the implementation environment. An organisation that hasn’t had a PMO before will need to familiarise itself with what it can do for them, starting with the basics and expanding as the portfolio analytics begin to flesh out issues and strategic opportunities. The demand for these capabilities will emerge as the organisation becomes more proficient in exploiting the PMO service lines. Conventional project management methodologies don’t handle emergence very well and the delivery of the plan to roll out the PMO can often override the delivery of business value.

For these reasons, it often makes sense to implement the PMO in phases adjusting the plan to reflect the emergent conditions on the ground. Prioritising effort to build goodwill, develop momentum and illustrate what the PMO can do. This takes us deep into the land of complexity management, but it’s not a one size fits all solution. Implementation will need to take account of the following:

  • The level of uncertainty involved 
  •  The extent of consensus about project goals or ways to achieve them
  • The extent to which knowledge and capacities are distributed

The success of the PMO service lines will be dependent upon each of these factors, and they will vary depending on the nature of the service line being delivered. PMO analytics, reporting and strategic alignment tend to be at the complex end of this spectrum and risk management or scheduling centre of excellence services tend to be towards the more obvious end of the spectrum.

So how do we manage the complex end of the spectrum? Rolling out a solution and forcing it through can be difficult, so it may help to:

  • Probe: design a few small-scale interventions to test out ideas before fully implementing them
  • Sense: collect sufficient data to identify how the enterprise responds to the probe and select the interventions that have the impact that supports the objective
  • Respond: amplify the results that create value and dampen those that lead to undesirable outcomes, where the benefit is unproven or which can give the impression of being process centric

It’s not rocket science, but it continues to surprise how much there is a tendency to pursue the ‘obvious’ end of the complexity spectrum when the situation often requires a more tailored approach, integrating the principles of complexity management alongside more traditional approaches. Without this, the PMO can become a self serving entity that falls far short of delivering the level of measurable benefit promised in the original business case.