Why and How PMOs Should Be “Ahead of the Wave”

PMOs should stay “ahead of the wave”. Only then can they provide the support one expects from them to make a strategy and its vital initiatives and projects a success.

I remember the time I took a PMO role in a great marketing team. I came with methods and tools that succeeded in information systems. Yet they simply did not work there. This marketing function was very advanced and effective. People cooperated closely with innovation teams and many others, especially customers all over the world. They all prepared the future. And they needed a very specific support from me, a support I was not prepared at this time to give. My mission ended rapidly…

I became later the PMO of a variety of large and complex transformation programs. I learned there that complex systems develop more through the interactions between their components than through these mere components. I also detected that living systems cannot be reduced to underlying laws of traditional “scientific” project management. Complex systems generate novel and coherent structures, emerging patterns and properties, during self-organizing processes. They are an exciting playground for innovative PMOs.

Therefore, I decided to spend the rest of my life to study and learn how to stay “ahead of the wave” and to support more effectively strategy, portfolio, and program execution.

A strategy prepares an organization to move successfully into a sustainable future. It requires advanced portfolio and project leadership. An effective PMO contributes to this leadership by staying “ahead of the wave”.

My message today: You stay “ahead of the wave” when you complement the fundamentals of the capability (technical, business and strategy, leadership) triangle with studying, learning, and exploring three domains: complexity sciences, innovative strategies, and human dynamics.

Complexity Sciences open new perspectives to project practioners. They explore nonlinearities, acceleration in dissipative systems, or unpredictability. They explore emergence, phase transitions, and avalanches. They compare system resilience and efficiency, order and lack of order. Yet these are only a few domains that challenge complex projects.

Innovative Strategies challenge direct routes and develop more roundabout approaches. They introduce multimodal strategies with a mix of high-risk low-probability events and low-risk high-probability events. Power laws, fat tails, and optionality are their domain of predilection.  They compare intertemporal approaches with temporal ones.

Human Dynamics go well beyond traditional leadership. Human Dynamics deal with extended social sciences, both hard (like social network analysis for example) and soft (like cultural understanding for example). What are the social structures, cultures, languages, behaviors, influence networks concerned by a project? What is the Procrustean bias? Why buddy systems are so powerful? How do synergies and antagonisms play a role? Do you need an enemy to succeed?

Yes, my message today is: project practioners, and especially PMOs, stay “ahead of the wave”.

To your continued success


High-Impact PMO

Characteristics of an Agile PMO

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:

  1. Oriented by the ends of a system more than by its structure
  2. Adaptive more than predictive
  3. Favoring innovation more than status quo
  4. Incremental and iterative more than cascading and waterfall
  5. Explorative and experimental more than analytical and descriptive
  6. Systemic and heuristic more than discursive
  7. Holistic more than reductionist
  8. Interested more by the effect than by the nature of interactions
  9. Thriving to reduce their entropy (being open to the outside) rather than increasing it (being closed)
  10. 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[1]. Agile brings together numerous methods, roles, processes and tools. The Manifesto states that the four Agile values are the following:

  1. Individuals and interactions are over processes and tools,
  2. Working software [or product] is over comprehensive documentation,
  3. Customer collaboration is over contract negotiation,
  4. 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[2]:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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]


[2] Five Secrets to Scaling Up Agile, BCG, Feb. 2016


Become an Agile High Impact PMO in a Complex World

This article reviews how you can become an agile high impact PMO in a complex world. It is the new version of an article I wrote July, 24 on LinkedIn and that got some success. It takes now into account the numerous comments I have received from LinkedIn members since then. It is part of a book: “The High-Impact PMO, How Can Agile PMO Deliver Value in a Complex World” I have published in October 2017, revised in August 2018 and that is available on Amazon.

High-Impact PMO

The Black Label Burger Bottom Bun

Did you ever ask yourself why burgers had a bun as a foundation?

There is an excellent reason revealed by two friends, Johann and Blandine. That was a sunny and cool autumn day in New York. Both were enjoying a lunch together at Minetta Tavern where they ate Black Label Burgers. Both Blandine and Johann were working at a well-known Aerospace business where Blandine served as Director of a Transformation Program and her good friend Johann was a Business Unit Project Management Officer (PMO). They inquisitively pondered the question of the burger’s foundation and compared the burger and its bun to a project and its PMO.

They found that the bottom bun, like a PMO, was the most important part required to eat the burger properly or in the case of PMO, to manage a project successfully. They shared the conviction that PMOs were the indispensable foundation of any complex project, program, or portfolio and without them; a high quality experience would be lost.

Some projects taste better than others. Some PMOs deliver a higher impact than others. Yet, they imagined what the burger would be without the indispensable component compared to what a project would be without a PMO. The picture on top of this article visualizes what Blandine and Johann had in mind. On top are stakeholders like sponsors, customers, or product owners. In-between are project teams, project managers, and all sorts of contributing stakeholders. The bottom bun is the PMO.

The PMO Challenge

If the PMO is such a critical element of any project, program, or portfolio’s success, why are they so often considered small players and low value added actors?

Several recent surveys found that PMOs were often considered “paper tigers” because of their apparent lack of recognized contribution to a project success, other than being administrative assistants to the project leader. Their fundamental and indispensable influence on project outputs (products, services, and any other result like The Great Wall of China or a book published) and outcomes (benefits and value provided to the sponsor and all other beneficiaries, like the reinforcement of a strategic position or great sales of a published book) is too often ignored.

Nevertheless, like in the case of Black Label Burgers, complex projects or portfolios of projects have a greater chance of being successful when their mix of components is supported by a PMO capable of navigating complexity. A great PMO is the number one key success factor of any large and complex endeavor.

PMOs and Complexity

Blandine and Johann had a conviction that originated in their long career in project management and in their deep understanding of the challenges project managers and PMOs face every day.

This conviction is that the primary challenge in project management comes from the characteristics of complexity all projects, programs, and portfolios show. Complexity has many sources. Among these sources are three fundamental characteristics that make an endeavor complex:

· The high number of variables involved. Just think of the number of stakeholders, within and outside an organization, that are working on a large project.

· The nonlinearity of the interactions between these variables. Have you ever accelerated by two a project by putting twice as many team members?

· The irreversibility of phenomena within complex systems. When a project roadmap has been implemented in an organization and then stopped because of its failure to achieve the intended results, can the organization really go back to its initial state before the project launch?

Blandine and Johann know intuitively that the role of a PMO needs to be elevated and developed to navigate this complexity. The search for agility in project management is a favorable move. However, this is still largely insufficient to confront the complexity of our world, complexity that requires a real openness to the immense variety of this world.

PMOs capable of putting in place innovative processes, tools, and competencies adapted to our Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (VUCA) environment not only allow projects, programs, and portfolios to better deliver promised benefits, but also are recognized as High-Impact PMOs by peers, managers, and generally speaking all stakeholders.

The High-Impact PMO

Project, program, and portfolio management capabilities are often structured around three domains: the domain of Technical knowledge in project management, the domain of Leadership, and the domain of Strategic and Business management. These domains are what everyone needs to master in order to have a chance to manage successful projects.

However, these traditional capabilities obviously do not suffice to make every project successful in a VUCA environment.

The book The High-Impact PMO, How Agile Project Management Offices Deliver Value in a Complex World proposes to explore innovative practices that can be grouped in three domains of knowledge, which I believe should be taught in the project management world.

These three domains are the following:

· The domain of Complexity Sciences.

· The domain of Indirect Strategies.

· The domain of Human Dynamics.

Complexity Sciences complement what you already practice in the Technical project management domain. Indirect Strategies complement what you already practice in the Strategic and Business management domain. Human Dynamics complement what you already practice in the Leadership domain.

Once studied and learned, these domains make you much more comfortable in navigating complexity. They offer you two benefits. As a first benefit, you become more than ever able to deliver an impact in your projects, programs, and portfolios. As a second benefit, you also become more than ever recognized as an indispensable buddy to any large complex project team. In the end, you will especially love to be a PMO, a High-Impact PMO, and a recognized value-adding PMO.

Philippe Husser

October 12, 2017


Comments and new inputs are welcomed on Linkedin or on my site at