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Does Agile mean the end of the PMO?

It’s a question we are often asked by our clients and one that project management forums and publications wrestle with regularly. The answer, you may not be surprised to hear, is that it depends on the size and complexity of the project, programme and portfolio.

Before outlining the detail of why that’s the case, it’s important to establish a common view of what a Programme Management Office (PMO) should do. PMOs have had a bad reputation in recent years as many organisations have used them simply as a project administration function.  However, the PMO should actually be a small group of highly skilled people who support or extend the delivery capability of the programme leadership.  As programmes and portfolios become more complex, the leadership team need help to discharge their day-to-day delivery responsibilities. This is where a high value PMO can help; by providing visibility and assurance to senior stakeholders and support and challenge to the wider team.

So how do Agile projects fit in with this? To date the vast majority of Agile projects have been in software development – the bread and butter of the Agile world.  In smaller development projects (i.e. those with two or three agile teams), there isn’t a need for a PMO. Agile teams are self-organising and value working product or tangible deliverables over reporting. In smaller projects the teams will take responsibility for all process, governance and reporting activities. As these activities were previously the heart of the PMO, there is no requirement for additional PMO resources in these projects.

However, where Agile projects are part of a wider transformation programme which uses a mixture of project management disciplines including waterfall and Agile techniques, a PMO can often act as the integrator or interface between projects that are operating in different disciplines. That is certainly our experience from operating large business transformation programmes in the life sciences and finance sectors and it is a role that has proved essential to the success of these programmes. For example we recently supported a global pharmaceutical company take their entire US$200 million change portfolio agile – this didn’t happen overnight and it was clear from the outset that interdependent  projects would still be delivered via different disciplines for some time. A strong PMO supported these projects to plan together and manage their dependencies effectively, thereby diluting the risk of differing delivery mechanisms.

A further development that affects the requirement for a PMO is that Agile projects have now moved beyond software development. Increasingly we are helping clients to deliver ‘Big Agile’ transformation programmes and portfolios. As the size and complexity of these programmes increases, we find that there is a need for PMO capabilities. In SAFe© Agile programme and portfolios, roles such as the Release Train Engineer (RTE) and Value Stream Engineer (VSE) have responsibility for steering delivery and facilitating Agile processes.  This includes escalating impediments, managing risk and driving continuous improvement – all of which are core capabilities of a PMO team.

However, as these Agile programme and portfolios increase in scale, so do the activities and they cannot be discharged by one person. In these situations, the RTE/VSE may require a small, highly skilled team to help them execute their role effectively. This team can also act as a centre of excellence, participating in Lean-Agile transformation and coaching leaders, teams and Scrum Masters in the adoption of new processes.

The key lesson is that you need to be clear about the capabilities you need to deliver your programme or portfolio successfully but worry less about what you call them. These capabilities could include:

  • Coaching people in the adoption of new practices
  • Subject matter expertise in Agile delivery or change management
  • The ability to prioritise a portfolio and align projects to strategy
  • Demand and resource planning
  • Financial and data analysis
  • Programme and portfolio planning
  • Creating and maintaining Agile reporting and governance
  • Risk, issue and dependency management

Once you have clarity about which of these you need and the resource mix, you can choose the name for the team that works best for your organisation.

We took this approach in our work for a leading global pharmaceutical company. We provided end-to-end support for the largest transition to the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe©) in the world to deliver a vision of ‘twice as much for half the cost’. A key element in the success of the programme was the Agile Centre of Excellence, which had overall accountability and set the strategy for Agile adoption. The centre of excellence also carried out some of the roles traditionally associated with a PMO, such as portfolio assessment to understand the best Agile pilot projects and providing visibility and assurance about progress to key stakeholders.

It is clear that if you take the view that the PMO is an extension of your delivery capability, it still has an important role to play in larger and more complex Agile programme and portfolios., The most important factor is the focus on the capabilities you need which should then allow you to design the right team to support the success of your particular project or program. 

Find out more about the author of this article James Davis.

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