What is the Role of the PMO in an Agile Organization

2022-06-23 14:10:39
Ian Mitchell
Translated 79
Summary : Remember that agile change must happen when the organization is running while still delivering value and without damage to reputation, quality, or stakeholder confidence. Large enterprises cannot stop in order to change their culture and practices, and this change cannot happen all at once.

What is the Role of the PMO in an Agile Organization

“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

A Question for You

If someone asked you, "what is the role of the PMO in an agile organization," what would you answer?

Well, let's get one thing clear right now. "I don't know" is a reasonable answer. If you are just a technical guy, you probably never have heard the word "PMO"; Or, if you work in start-ups and other small-scale companies, you may not have the chance to hear "PMO"; If you had some experience in large companies, you might at least have heard someone mention "PMO" at some stage. Maybe you can even think of this entity - no matter whoever he, she, or it might be - as management-related. Perhaps you’ve walked past desks or doors with a "PMO" sign on them? Maybe when you found yourself standing on a floor with an open view, the place where you can find senior leaders. You know... There are beautiful plants, fresh marker pens, and stale inspirational posters, where you can't see the curly sticky notes on the walls, where everything is too inflated to do a lot of real work.

Inside Story of PMO

Anyway, the following is the inside story of what a "PMO" actually does. Large organizations typically have many initiatives, including projects that are starting and being closed, as well as ongoing service delivery functions that need to be addressed. Usually, these jobs are not independent of each other. In other words, if any of them is done poorly, then the organization will bear at least a certain degree of risk. The organization takes all the blame. If any of these initiatives fails, there may be legal risks, compliance issues, stock price impact, or negative risks (tip: you can try to say this is "fake news") and reputation damage. The risk is not necessarily limited to the relevant employees but the whole enterprise.

In small-scale companies, executives may be able to manage these risks themselves; perhaps they even just need to do math in their heads. For this reason, they do not necessarily need special organizational functions because executives themselves are few and closely related to each other. As we all know, in a small and tight interpersonal network, work is more likely to become transparent and more likely to achieve successful and collaborative results.

In other words, what an organization need is critical oversight and governance. It's not just a matter of running projects on the operational side and ensuring that they deliver on schedule. It's about ensuring alignment with corporate standards to control the risk and being able to verify that risks are under control. In the large-scaled company, executives cannot manage all these things by themselves, so they delegate as much oversight and governance as possible. But how to do so without compromising team integrity? This is where the PMO comes in, at least as far as it constitutes an organizational function. When the auditors knock on the door, it is the PMO who invites them in and tries to steer them away from the painful place. "This way, please. How was your journey? Gosh, what nice weather! Coffee or tea? Have you had lunch?"

Source: FreePik

PMO as Process Police

For these and other reasons, agile practitioners who have heard of PMO often take a dim view of the PMO. The PMO is seen to represent dysfunctional management and its pranks. Whereas in an agile way of working, control should be localized along with responsibility (that is, it should be managed by the agile team itself). Agile teams want to ensure their quality through the definition of "done" and review and adjust their processes, while the PMO interferes with these practices. They impose certain standards when others are responsible for implementing them.

The PMO is a despotic and despicable "process policeman" to many agile practitioners. They seem to be full of powers, privileges, and irresponsible authority. However, agile practitioners cannot successfully confront the PMO as they have the power of authority behind them. PMO has skillfully taken over the organization-state. It's best not to speak their names lest you draw them in. They seem almost as inhuman as HR.

The Machiavelli PMO

Needless to say, the PMO can present certain challenges to an agile coach. In some enterprises, the PMO does operate like the "process police." For example, they may seek early reassurance from the coach, but in fact, all changes are negotiable. The PMO will usually be aware of a directive for "agile transformation," and they may regard it as their responsibility to "water it down as much as possible." Thoroughly vested in the established project culture, for them the day cannot come soon enough when this agile nonsense is kicked into the long grass。There may be an appeal to exceptionalism: "this organization is different, and this is not how things work here." In this way, the coach's responsibility is to modify agile practices rather than to expect enterprise change.

Another common technique is to try and convince the coach that things are very agile anyway. The PMO may redefine or attempt to control certain agile terms of reference to support this position. The strategy they are playing is essentially one of "embrace, expand and destroy." In addition, as defenders of organizational project management standards, so far, they may really think that maintaining the status quo is the right thing. Banks and public sector institutions have earned a certain reputation in this regard and may have a culture of bullying and highly politicized to support it. In these cases, agile change may eventually become a raw test of executive support. Is it enough to overcome organizational inertia? Not everything lies in the hands of the coach.

In such an environment, the best thing for an agile coach to do is to politely focus on teamwork, value responsibility, and reduce batch size. A deep knowledge of the Scrum Guide will be essential if Scrum is being used. The coach's duty is to provide clarity and not get involved in political intrigue. It is then up to the organization to decide whether it wants to pursue real agile improvements.


Although the "The Machiavelli PMO" is by no means uncommon, fortunately, most PMOs are not so vicious. Usually, an agile coach can cooperate with them and establish a pretty efficient and sustainable relationship that can serve the organization well and last for many years.

Usually, when they hear an agile coach present, I will find that the PMO will ask me a very simple question. In fact, this is the same question I asked you initially: "what is the role of the PMO in an agile organization?"  This time though, it's important to have an answer. We are dealing with people who have very human concerns. They see and accept that things around them are indeed changing. Agility may be just one aspect of a broader digital transformation. There may be layoffs due to re-organization, and they want to know if there is a place for PMO in an "agile" world with empowered and self-organizing teams. This situation may tug at your heartstrings. It's like a strange fairy wanting to know if there is a heaven for them, too.

My answer is "yes" for the following reasons. Although the PMO's responsibility must reduce in terms of operational project control, those empowered and self-organizing agile teams are not yet in place. In addition, these teams are not garage start-ups that can do their own things freely but part of a broader enterprise and have certain obligations to them. Remember that agile change must happen when the organization is running while still delivering value and without damage to reputation, quality, or stakeholder confidence. Large enterprises cannot stop in order to change their culture and practices, and this change cannot happen all at once. Agile transformation is a process that must be measured and managed, especially on a large scale. Governance and oversight of the change process will be essential. The coach can provide advice, but ownership of change is not really his or her responsibility. In the final analysis, the organization's officials will be responsible for the success or failure of a transformation. More than ever, there is a need for a PMO which can help.

Source:  FreePik

How to Conduct an Agile Health Check

The most basic thing you can coach an agile PMO to do is to establish transparency over the change process. Once there is transparency, constructive governance and oversight become possible. Anyone seen struggling with agile practices can be helped instead of being helpless.

One useful technique is to guide a regular agile health check, preferably at a cadence. In Scrum terms, this may check once per Sprint. The coach can ask the team to self-evaluate their progress, preferably after the retrospective when the idea is still fresh, and start working. To help them, a list of key agile considerations can be provided. It must be flexible in considering the measures that should be taken because each team will operate in its own environment, and a good coach must use his or her judgment wisely. One starting point is to consider product ownership, teamwork, events that are held, debt, and tools.

A health check like this is a useful tool for coaching agile governance to a PMO. as well as being valuable for teams that may feel abandoned. The importance of each dimension can be explained, and the RAG (Red, Amber, Green) status can be leveraged for inspiration. If the problem is highlighted and the team does not believe they can solve it, they can immediately mark it in red; If they believe they can fix it before the next check, then they may mark it as an amber; If it still remains unresolved, then turn it red. Teams are given a mechanism that can be configured to their needs for escalating reports of problems that may not be under their control through an agile health check. The PMO can then publicize its position and seek to remove serious obstacles at the organizational level. In short, the PMO assumes a servant leadership function, as the Scrum Master may lack effective authority or contact. For many agile teams, this is a revelation: they find an ally in PMO instead of an enemy.

Towards Enterprise Agility

As agile practices become normed in a team, fewer obstacles will require PMO's attention, and external oversight is not only less necessary but also less desirable. The self-organizing team can check and adjust their own process and notify the PMO only by exception. In this way, The Agile PMO has the capacity to help other teams carry out their agile journey, creating a pull-driven as a wider audience sees the obvious value (that is, they are looking for PMO to help and waiting in line for PMO time). Remember also that the newly formed Scrum Team should first look to the organization for a "definition of done," and Agile PMO may be the custodian of this definition.

Of course, the "Agile PMO" can help senior management and delivery teams. On the one hand, they can monitor the progress of transformation, ongoing quality assurance, and the degree of alignment with the strategic vision for agile change. On the other hand, they can provide evidence of organizational control during the audit. However, they can also help in ways that executives may not expect. Some organizations are notorious for falling into a passive mode of operation. Why is that so? In large part, it is because executives lack the means to distinguish between circumstantial and systemic barriers. In other words, when a problem occurs, managers do not necessarily know whether it is a one-off event or whether it indicates a problem at a fundamental level. However, they will be able to provide guidance in a timely manner if the Agile PMOs have taken key measures and can explain them.

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