A fairly common theme I hear from PMO heads is that their teams have insufficient authority to truly make a difference. This is often a legitimate complaint – some PMOs are little more than paper tigers. Other PMOs operate on a shoestring budget and are unable to secure sufficient skilled staff or tools to be able to influence beneficial change.
So what is the “right” amount of power that a PMO should possess? Of course, this question has the ubiquitous irritating answer “It depends”! As no two PMOs deliver exactly the same services it is hard to generalize.
However, if we pick three of the most common services provided by PMOs and consider the level of power needed to be effective in delivering these I believe we’ll be close to a good answer: PPM & PM methodology ownership & control, providing oversight & visibility into a project portfolio and providing Project Managers to manage an organization’s most challenging or strategic projects.
Let’s analyze the two extremes on the power scale. A PMO with absolutely no formal authority will define methodologies that no one will follow, will raise flags about projects that are going to deliver low business value and no one will pay attention, and its PMs will be treated like the aliens in “District 9”. On the other hand, a PMO with absolute power will very likely prescribe a highly bureaucratic level of methodology that may not be appropriate for all projects, may be risk averse enough that visionary projects are never initiated, and will vest its PMs with career limiting power over Project Sponsors and team members.
Of course, the right answer lies somewhere in the middle – similar to the role PMs play on projects where influence is more common than formal authority, a successful PMO will be vested by executive management with “sufficient” authority to have the final say on certain decisions that fall within its jurisdiction (e.g. selection of tools for project management, determination of which types of projects must have a PMO Project Manager involved), and it will have gained credibility and respect (through results and NOT authority) to be able to influence executive management to “do the right thing” in other areas that are outside of its sphere of direct authority.
When this type of PMO brings issues or risks to management’s attention, they listen because they know that the PMO is a trusted source of data. I have heard it said that the PMO should be like Switzerland – neutral territory. Beyond this, I feel that it should be recognized as the authoritative “system of record” for project portfolio data – that should be the goal of every PMO head.