What PMO leaders and executives are doing to secure their seat at the strategy table


I was privileged to lead the discussion  on what successful project management office (PMO) leaders and executives are doing to secure their seat at the strategy table at the recent Gauteng PMO forum. The forum is an invitation only interest group under the umbrella of Project Management South Africa (PMSA) that  provides members with a regular opportunity for discussion and knowledge transfer by means of case studies, best practices, research outcomes and lessons learned and is presented by senior project professionals and other knowledgeable individuals.

PMI’s Pulse of the Profession™ reports over the last couple of years consistently indicate that an organisation’s success can be directly linked to its project success. For this reason, more and more organisations are realising that the PMO has so much more to offer. The PMO is no longer just the secretariat, executor or auditor, but also the strategist, analyst and trusted advisor with the required knowledge and experience to advance the organisation’s strategic agenda. But what does it take to get there?

Critical skills for the Strategic Project Office

During lively group discussions, the session’s attendees made up of PMO professionals across various industries firstly considered what skills and capabilities the Strategic Project Office (SPO) should have and secondly, how they would go about building the required skills and capabilities. Some interesting themes emerged.

The ability to act and think strategically was highlighted by most of the groups as a critical skill for the SPO. The SPO should be the strategic facilitator, the corporate storyteller that not only understands the bigger picture but is also able to turn available data into meaningful pictures and stories that enable executives to make the right portfolio decisions. The SPO should be able to assist senior management in the translation of their vision and strategy into tangible programmes and projects. From the discussions it emerged that this step is often missed or neglected, leading to misalignment between what the executives expect and the work actually being done on the ground.

The SPO further needs a deep understanding of the business to unpack the real business need and whether it makes good business sense to invest in the initiative. The group felt that this would require understanding of the current and possible future policies, practices and trends affecting the business. There was further consensus that an absolute focus on the customer is essential. The SPO should play a key role in ensuring that the planned changes will meet the expectations and requirements of both internal and external customers. Additionally, the group recognised that experience cannot be forced or dictated and that the SPO would only be able to effectively question and challenge if it has the required experience.

In thinking about the SPO’s broad range of stakeholders, there was mention of the importance of stakeholder management and interpersonal relationships skills. The SPO should have the ability to establish and build high performing delivery teams, whilst building and maintaining effective relationships with the other services areas in the organisation, such as Human Resources, Information Technology and Finance, that are critical role-players in effective change execution.

With the increasing emphasis and focus on benefits realisation management, attendees felt that the SPO should have more advanced financial skills and should excel at risk management. When taking on new initiatives, the SPO should have the ability to facilitate and support benefits identification, performing business case scrubbing where required, and ensuring benefits are aligned to the expected strategic outcomes. The SPO should also conduct a solid risk assessment to derive a complete picture of the potential risks and ensure that this is taking into consideration in investment decisions.

In today’s rapidly changing environment, agility and flexibility is top of mind. Whilst the group agreed that an important role for the SPO remains the provision of standards, methods, frameworks and tools, the SPO should allow for more flexibility to tailor and adjust approaches and have the agility to re-align at speed to meet changing organisational requirements.

There was also discussions about the need for the SPO to have deeper change management knowledge and skills, promoting change management as essential leadership tool, ensuring that the compound impact on business is measured and understood, and that staff are appropriately equipped and enabled to execute and/or absorb the portfolio of change.

Building the required skills

In the next part of the session, attendees considered how they would go about building the required skills. Most attendees felt that conducting a formal gap assessment is a great starting point to identify gaps and derive steps to bridge. Suggested interventions included:

  1. Developing a comprehensive on-boarding programme for project staff
  2. Development of clear development and career paths taking care to develop and promote the ‘right’ people into the ‘right roles’ ensuring staff are not set-up for failure
  3. Ensuring in-house Leadership Programmes include project management training at various levels, such as Sponsor Training for Executives
  4. Creation of internal Communities of Practice and other appropriate Forums for business and project staff to share experiences and knowledge
  5. Setting-up formal coaching and mentoring programmes
  6. Having regular performance reviews with staff, giving timeous and honest feedback
  7. Implementing job shadowing, where more junior level staff can observe and learn from more experienced project resources
  8. Recruiting the ‘right’ people, with a broad range of skills, experience and personalities
  9. Establishing reward and recognition programmes that drive outcomes based delivery and the right behaviours
  10. Creating a Learning Environment, where it is safe to make mistakes

Successful PMO leaders have a clear understanding of the skills required, the current gaps, and develops a clear roadmap for improving capability.  They understand that the Strategic Project Office (whether a single office, or multiple ‘connected’ offices) needs a different set of skills than the traditional PMO. The SPO must have the ability to see the bigger picture, facilitating and influencing strategic conversations from a skilled viewpoint and through deep analysis and understanding of the business.

The SPO should encourage and apply agility and flexibility in its approaches in order to adapt and change at speed. These skills may very well exist within the organisation, maybe in other service functions. The last thing the SPO should do is duplicate skills or roles that are already embedded in the organisation but rather focus on its role as the integrator and connector between change the business and run the business. It makes me think of a ‘connect the dots’ activity (for adults of course). Yes, some dots may be connected (functionally/divisionally/regionally) making parts of the picture visible, but it is only when all the dots are connected and the whole picture reveals itself, that the real value is unlocked.

Have you tried any of these interventions in your PMO environment? Get in touch, I would love to hear your thoughts…

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Author: Daléne Grobler

Daléne is the PPM Executive Consultant at PPO. She is passionate about project, programme and portfolio management and her mission is to assist PMOs unlock their strategic value. In her free time she can be found taking long walks, reading murder mysteries and running with fellow Helderberg Harriers running club members, for which she is the Member Secretary.

3 thoughts on “What PMO leaders and executives are doing to secure their seat at the strategy table”

  1. Given the uphill battle many PO’s face in just getting a clear mandate I’d be interested to know how many present felt their PO was living in or even moving towards this space…. It makes a whole lot of sense, but I’m wondering about the extent to which Executive Leadership are open to partnering with their PMO’s to achieve this kind of truly value enhancing capability. The level of trust required for Business Leaders to willingly co-operate with this level of scrutiny seems to be lacking in many organisations at the moment.

    I’d LOVE to be told the tide is turning! It certainly sounds like an energetic discussion took place and some stimulating thinking for those present to take back to the office.

    1. Even if the PMO position within the organisation is not where it needs to be (and the mandate is not clearly defined) it is just one of the components that drive the PMO’s influence. I do think that 2017 has been a tipping point for PMOs and that PMOs need to take ownership of their destiny in a rapidly changing environment. This includes focusing on two of the critical components that is within their control, i.e. people and capability. A PMO can only ask for more executive support and influence if it has the right people with the required capability to question, analyse, challenge and influence from a skilled viewpoint. PMO Leaders need to ensure that they source, develop and retain team members that are not only sufficiently skilled but also closely attuned to the organisation and the wider environment within which it operates. It is only then that executives will recognise the PMO as a critical link between their strategy and its execution.

  2. PMO also needs to be responsive in a multi-stakeholder environment; the Executives are likely to notice you if you provide value, solutions to what is in their radar – making a difference to bottom lines and depending on the project – social responsiveness that might just affect the bottom line. Oh yes strategist is a key element across the life cycle of the project

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