Can and Should a PMO Be Agile?
Becoming an agile PMO is a hot topic today in an ever more complex and fast changing world.
There is no doubt that reality shows PMOs looking like horses and PMOs looking like squirrels. Both have value. However both do not add the same value when you want to climb trees or when you need to pull the plow. Horses and squirrels do not show similar levels of agility.
“Why label a PMO as agile? Isn’t agile merely a delivery method and shouldn’t a PMO be much more focused on helping projects deliver organizational strategic value” recently asked a project manager. This sort of question is very usual indeed. It shows how difficult it is to use the word agile when speaking of PMOs.
A PMO is an organization serving a project, or several projects, programs, portfolios, and a whole organization. As such a PMO can and must show certain characteristics of agility in what it does. What are these characteristics?
An Organization Is Agile (More or Less)
An agile organization?
Lower case “a” agile is a characteristic of who we are. Something agile is able to move quickly and easily. Someone who has an agile mind is able to think quickly and clearly. A squirrel is agile, a cow is not really. A trader has a mental agility, a back office bureaucrat from the social security has not. An agile business like Alibaba is always in a position to take account of market changes, while a more traditional business like […] is not (anymore).
Agile organizations or agile systems present specific characteristics. They are, among many characteristics:
- Oriented by the ends of a system more than by its structure
- Adaptive more than predictive
- Favoring innovation more than status quo
- Incremental and iterative more than cascading and waterfall
- Explorative and experimental more than analytical and descriptive
- Systemic and heuristic more than discursive
- Holistic more than reductionist
- Interested more by the effect than by the nature of interactions
- Thriving to reduce their entropy (being open to the outside) rather than increasing it (being closed)
- Confronting continuously their model with the reality rather than confronting test proofs or copies of this reality
An organization sustainably develops through the degree of excellence of its operations and the degree of excellence of its projects. The degree of agility of an organization is by construction related to the degree of agility of its projects.
Projects Are Agile Too (More or Less)
An Agile project?
“Upper case “A” Agile is more often used to define what we do. It is born from an iterative approach to software development and project management with articulated principles (12) and values (4) defined by a Manifesto for Agile Software Development. Agile brings together numerous methods, roles, processes and tools. The Manifesto states that the four Agile values are the following:
- Individuals and interactions are over processes and tools,
- Working software [or product] is over comprehensive documentation,
- Customer collaboration is over contract negotiation,
- Responding to change is over following a plan.
At its heart, Agile with “A” upper case is a set of characteristics that can be summarized into five:
- Agile teams complete manageable chunks of work and produce a minimum viable product within rather short fixed time periods. On the basis of feedback on the prototype, the team moves forward to a new set of tasks.
- The team develops its knowledge by means of observation and experimentation, often without due regard for system and theory. Frequent testing is a cornerstone of the Agile approach. It ensures that product quality remains high and development activities are run efficiently.
- Cross-functional. The idea is to put on board the different functions required to develop a product, while limiting membership to those individuals who possess essential and complementary skills so that the team remains lean and can accomplish real work.
- The “product owner” is empowered to make decisions about scope, timing, allocation of budget, and product features. He or she is ultimately responsible for delivering value to the customer. He or she divides his or her time between working with the team and coordinating with key stakeholders.
- Continually improving. Agile teams rely on retrospectives, obstacle removal processes, and lean experts or scrum masters to continually identify opportunities to enhance productivity by tweaking and tuning their environment and way of working.
The Agile PMO At the Crossroad
An agile PMO?
Agile, lower case “a”, organizations are capable to handle the pace of change in a manner that is effective and minimizes disruption, resulting in sustainable competitive advantage. Organizational agility belongs to the DNA and the culture of the organization. A squirrel is more agile than a horse.
Agile, upper case “A”, methods are effective at increasing visibility and adaptability, quickening business value, and reducing risk over the duration of an initiative. Agile methods can be put into practice quite quickly, so long as the team is adequately prepared and has effectively engaged the users who will be involved.
“Agile” and “agile” are related so much that in reality they form only one family that is agile. Developing the use of Agile makes an organization more agile, at least partially within the domains where Agile is practiced. On the other hand, an agile organization uses Agile as a preferred set of project approach. However both Agile and agile approaches develop in a ceaseless oscillation around critical points. Such critical points exist for example at each interface between a waterfall program like a plant construction and its Agile components in the domain of the plant information systems or between two departments being at different maturity degrees of agility.
Therefore, to go back to the initial interrogation about what an agile PMO is, I would propose that an agile PMO is an organization presenting the 10 characteristics of an agile system, embodying the 4 Agile values and its 12 principles, and promoting any specific state-of-the-art methods and tools required to make projects successful.
An agile PMO wants to deliver valuable increments early, frequently, and to a robust level of quality. It works in small increments rather than in a big planned way. It wants the opportunity to learn as it goes along, to test assumptions, and to make changes in what it does when needed. By working in an iterative and incremental way, such an agile PMO can evidence a better control of risk and get an earlier return on investment than otherwise done.
Your reactions and comments are welcomed.
To Your Continued Success!
[This article is inspired by the book: “The High-Impact PMO, How Can Agile PMO Deliver Value in a Complex World” I have published in October and that is available on Amazon]
 Five Secrets to Scaling Up Agile, BCG, Feb. 2016