As an institutional unit, a project management office is more than what it does. Just like any group of people who come together on a common mission, it is characterized by a certain way of thinking, special values , and a certain vision of the world. In other words, a culture of its own.
How do you define the culture of a project management office (PMO)? What are its advantages for the organization? How does it interact with the overall corporate culture that makes every organization unique? What challenges does the project management office face in creating an organizational environment in which a project management culture can flourish? These are some of the questions I will try to answer in this post. The aim is to give a better understanding of the key components of a project management office's environment, to understand the importance of a strong PMO to the success of the organization, and to figure out how to promote such a culture.
1. Back to the basics, what is organizational culture?
In a corporate, organizational context, the term “culture” is as widespread as it is elusive.
The dictionary defines culture in a corporate environment as “a set of common attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterize an institution or organization”.
This set of collective behaviors and assumptions encompasses how members of a social group interact and relate to each other and the outside world, what is defined and encouraged as desirable, and what is otherwise prohibited. Taken as a whole, the entire sphere of beliefs, knowledge, practices, and customs that prevail in a given group and that distinguish them from other groups. From this starting point we can extract key characteristics of corporate culture:
- In a corporate environment, culture forms the personality of an organization or an organizational unit. A personality is inherently unique. We should be aware of this reality. While this article attempts to describe the cultural characteristics of PMOs, we should keep in mind that general definitions and categories are never a perfect fit for the reality of any particular project management office or organization. Indeed, Harold Kerzner wrote: “Project management is a culture, not a guideline and not a procedure. As a result, it may not be possible to identify a project management culture. What works well in one organization may not work so well in another” (Project Management Best Practices: Achieving Global Excellence).
- Culture is the core of an organization's life. It drives it and moves it forward. Ask some of the most famous strategy and management gurus: Former IBM CEO Lou Gerstner tells us that "culture is everything", while Zappos founder Tony Hsieh states that "culture and brand are only two sides of the same coin". Organizations with a stronger corporate culture tend to be more successful.
- Culture is a collective construct that must be shared to exist and stay alive. For a corporate culture to be effective, it should be felt, experienced, and genuinely possessed by each member of the team. Because of its affinity to the sphere of beliefs, values , and even emotions, culture is not something that can be enforced from top to bottom, although it can be shaped together over time.
2. Define project management and PMO culture
Feature # 1 of PMO culture: Accountability
Project management offices often arise out of the need or desire to manage project execution and execution more consistently. The PMO is a process-oriented and process-controlled function and is essentially very structured. Standard KPIs and metrics are introduced into the organization. It often relies heavily on written or oral guidelines, as well as systematic procedures and methods. Such an emphasis on building a framework rests on the underlying assumption that people should and will adhere to it. That all stakeholders should be held accountable for project performance so that practices and methodologies can be refined and improved over time.
By standardizing methods and working methods across teams and departments as well as the repeatability and measurability of all processes, the project management office enables the tracking or tracing of measures to better analyze, understand, learn and improve them. The implementation of processes to clarify the chain of command and decision-making also aims to increase responsibility and personal responsibility. From the point of view of a PMO, organizational optimization requires that accountability permeates the entire project and portfolio management chain - from the PMO's team members to project management groups and other stakeholders.
When applied to the PMO itself, the value of accountability can even take the form of ethical requirements: As a governing body, the PMO must enforce policies across the organization in an unbiased, objective manner. It also has a responsibility to ensure the quality and reliability of the data used as the basis for strategic decisions. This brings us to the second pillar of the culture of a project management office: transparency.
Feature # 2 of PMO culture: Transparency
Another important element of a project management office is its obligation to make everything visible. Since you can't improve what you can't see clearly, PMOs usually make a point of improving the transparency of project work and decisions. Most PMOs consolidate all project-related data in a professional project portfolio management (PPM) platform tool that turns data into information and offers analysis functions to gain insights and knowledge. They also ensure that this information and knowledge is effectively disseminated across the organization by giving project teams access and sharing insightful reports with senior executives. In general, a project management office strives to improve communication throughout the organization and promotes knowledge transfer and exchange.
Feature No. 3 of PMO culture: Unity
By being determined to improve transparency and communication in an organization, the PMO can also play a key role in building close teams and improving teamwork. A PMO coordinates the work of various project teams throughout the organization and is an intrinsically relational unit. It can facilitate relationships and interactions between different groups, ensure that everyone speaks the same language, reduce misunderstandings, and improve overall collaboration through the introduction of dedicated tools or proven work practices.
The PMO also empowers employees and stakeholders through institutional learning and skills development initiatives and ensures that they are committed to achieving the organization's collective goals and objectives.
Feature # 4 of PMO culture: delivery
Project management offices grew out of the need to manage project constraints (budget, schedule, scope) and solve problems. Typically, organizations set up a PMO to address challenges. You could even say that PMOs would likely become redundant in a perfect world. PMOs exist to solve the problems project managers may encounter daily - including unexpected problems and events that no one could have predicted - to ensure that the results are satisfactory for the organization no matter what. Accordingly, PMOs deal with risks, threats, and issues, with a level-headed, hands-on approach to problem-solving and culture of delivery.
3. PMO culture in a changing environment
The PMO cultural characteristics described above are fundamental to the identity and ethos of that role. They shaped the development of the project management offices as we know them today. More recently, however, the PMO culture has evolved and expanded and now also includes change leadership. In an ever faster changing world, in which disruptions are the normal order of the day, more and more PMOs are using their central position in their organizations and their cross-functional role to become champions and facilitators of organizational adjustment.
This can start with the introduction of new project management methods that deviate from the traditional, control-based approach to PPM of Waterfall project management and include agile frameworks where responsiveness takes precedence over planning. On a broader level, project management offices have proven very useful in transforming their businesses to new ways of working - implementing new tools, introducing new collaborative practices, or new approaches to consumer value analysis. In times of heightened business and market uncertainty. The insights of a PMO are invaluable in helping the organization adapt to new challenges - which may even require an adaptation of its mission statement.
This new focus on facilitating change makes the role of the project management office more strategic, thus strengthening ties with senior management. Furthermore, it has also introduced more flexibility and adaptability into the culture of modern PMOs.
How can you judge the culture of your project management office or organization?
As the corporate culture continues to evolve, it is possible to take a snapshot at any given time based on reviews, observations, and feedback. As long as you have enough time and resources, you can, for example, conduct employee surveys to collect comments and contributions from people who work in the cultural environment daily and “live” the culture of your organization. Or you can use a less formal approach and simply ask a representative sample of employee questions such as "Describe the organization in one sentence".
It can also be worthwhile to observe how the organization and employees behave in certain situations. For example, analyzing the onboarding process for newcomers, the reasons people are promoted, the ranks of the hierarchy move up, what is frowned upon or even punished, can help explore your organizational culture.
4. Resistance to PMOs
Recent researches have shown that 60% of project management offices believe that organizational culture is not supportive. Indeed, it is quite common for PMOs to have to overcome behavioral and cultural obstacles in their organizations. This is especially the case with lower maturity Organizations, where the natural human fear of change is compounded by a deeper misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of PPM. The systematic management approach of the project management office and its standard methods can be perceived as unnecessarily burdensome - especially if the corporate culture is not as process-oriented as that of the PMO. Some would even claim that they have been "traumatized" by negative past experiences with frameworks and guidelines for project portfolio management.
As a result, the project management office is hampered in its mission. The excessive cultural separation between a PMO and its higher-level organization leads to information gaps or silos, misunderstandings, and a climate of inefficiency that affects an organization in the successful implementation of projects. Overcoming such cultural conflicts and aligning PMOs and corporate cultures is critical to the successful management of projects, programs, and initiatives. Fostering a supportive culture across the organization is just as important to a PMO as properly managing projects. Because of this, a project management office needs to make sure that every part of their culture has an impact on the rest of the organization.
5. How to implement a PMO culture?
To nurture and sustain a strong PMO culture, a similar mindset needs to be developed across the organization. Rethinking always requires a certain amount of training, both for employees and for management.
Communicating the Value
Not everyone understands the value of PPM disciplines. To make this clear, you may need to define and explain what project management, portfolio management, and project strategy alignment mean. What is at stake, what are the advantages and benefits? How do the various strategies and methods implemented and promoted by the project management office contribute to the organization's goals? Through training and education, communication materials, or informal one-on-one meetings, PMO executives can raise employee awareness and help them understand that the project portfolio drives the organization to strategy implementation. Once employees gain a solid understanding of the value that PPM adds to the overall strategy of the organization, they will be much more concerned with considering the values and mindset of a project management office.
Cultural changes must be implemented from top to down
Effectively spreading a PMO culture across the organization and changing the organization-wide attitude towards project work means everyone in the organization must participate. And that starts at the top with the management. PMOs need to make sure they are getting the support of key executives. How? By explaining the value of project portfolio management activities to the organization. It is beneficial to use numbers to convince these key decision-makers of the value of your PMO. When even the leaders join in, it works wonders as higher management can act as evangelists and advocates to spread a positive projected culture. A culture in which projects are included in the strategic planning and these actively support the implementation of the organization's strategy and goals. A culture where the project management office and its work enjoy the attention and support of key executives.
An enabling and conducive cultural environment is an indispensable prerequisite for a project management office to be able to fulfill its tasks successfully. While PMOs struggle with their organization in the event of a cultural misalignment, it is possible to nurture and spread a project management culture throughout the organization by demonstrating the value of PPM.
Cultural changes don't happen overnight, and that is also quite natural. Be patient and prepare yourself for a long journey! The bigger the organization, the longer the process takes.
- Organizational culture is the soul of an organization or a corporate function.
- The PMO culture revolves around the concepts of responsibility, transparency, unity, delivery, and, increasingly, change leadership.
- Many project management offices suffer from a disconnect between their culture and the organization’s mindset.
- Closing the cultural gap requires an educational effort that starts at the very top of an organization.