PMO or TMO? 3 Key Differences


Everyone knows what the various types of PMO generally do. Yet, pushed by the current fad for business transformations, many simply change the name of their PMO into TMO, Transformation Management Office. This only misleads everyone since a transformation is very different from mere projects or programs. And accompanying a transformation is radically different from managing a project.

A TMO may surely have some or all of the traditional PMO roles. After all, transformations present many characteristics of large and complex programs as well as portfolios of projects. However, there are specific roles that a real TMO must play that traditional PMOs do not fulfill.

These specific roles find their origin in what transformations are as compared to project portfolios or programs.

What is a transformation?

The Cambridge dictionary tells us that a transformation is “a complete change in the appearance or character of something or someone”.

A transformation is also “the process of changing completely the character or appearance of something in order to improve it”. As a synonym, a metamorphosis is a change into a completely different form or type, a change in composition or structure.

In aerospace, switching technologies from mechanical to hydro-mechanical and then to fly-by-wire control systems are typical examples of transformations.

E-commerce is another example of a transformation that shakes entire consumer behaviors, markets and businesses. Platform companies have revolutionized the way sellers and customers interacted.

Transformations clearly belong to the domain of complexity due to the large number of agents and interactions they involve. Therefore, transformation management must develop a set of capabilities built upon complexity sciences, advanced human dynamics and new strategies.

Different types of transformations

During a transformation process, new “things” emerge. Emergence is “the fact of something becoming known or starting to exist”, or “the process of appearing”. Several types of emergence exist.

Example 1 – sugar, wheat, yeast and other components, once mixed and cooked, become a muffin.

Example 2 – a caterpillar hungrily stuffs itself with leaves, grows, and then pupates a chrysalis. When metamorphosis is complete, the pupal skin splits and a butterfly flies off.

The first example is an “emergent behavior” that characterizes properties of a system that are in some way (possibly in a particular way) not captured by the properties of the parts.

The second example is a temporal version in which a new kind of system “emerges” at some historical time without in some way being captured in the previously existing systems.

In each case, the initial system and its components are transformed into something entirely new. There is no way to run the process backwards, recover the initial state of the components, and start all over again.

Some transformations require a long and continuous process. Others are explosive.

Transformations rely on interactions between agents

Interactions between agents are more important than the components themselves.

Emergent properties are a product of the synergies between the agents (components of a system). These synergies give rise to a new macrolevel of organization. Therefore, emergent properties cannot be observed locally in the subsystems. They can only be observed at the macrolevel structure.

The key point here is that the behavior of complex systems results more from the interactions (inside and outside the system) between the components than from the behavior of the components themselves taken in isolation.

Do not conflate interactions with interdependencies. Most projects depend on other projects or initiatives to deliver some enabling capabilities that are essential to their successful implementation. This is the domain of interdependencies. An interaction is simply a back and forth action or communication between different agents with some kind of resulting effect.

Example: The properties of water are not apparent in the properties of gasses of oxygen or hydrogen. Neither does an isolated water molecule reveal most properties of water. However, a microscopic amount of water is sufficient to observe these properties.

Phase transitions occur along lines of equilibrium. An exchange of energy and various sets of volume, pressure and temperature transform the water into different states as shown by the figure below.

Whereas the solid area is well distinct from the other two, the line separating the liquid area from the vapor area ends up at some point called the critical point beyond which the liquid phase can no longer be distinguished from the vapor phase.

In the business world, production, demand and offer are similar to volume, temperature and pressure of the water.

Macrolevel and microlevel

Due to the development of the different levels of organization within a single overall system, emergence gives rise to a complex dynamic between the different levels; most notably between the macro and micro levels of the system.

A typical example is the system composed of all the restaurants in a city. There is a macrolevel looking at how the people in the city eat globally outside their homes. The microlevel considers the individual restaurants. Running a single restaurant does not say anything about how the network of restaurants in a city works. Nor why you should run this network with some kind of “gosplan”.

As a consequence, emergent macrolevel phenomena cannot be described within the vocabulary applicable to the parts. The emergent features require new terms and new concepts to categorize them.

The 3 Typical Characteristics of a TMO

TMOs do differ very clearly from the traditional PMO. Several characteristics distinguish a TMO from a mere PMO. Here are three key characteristics among all of them:

  1. Working on a complex adaptive system, a TMO focuses primarily on the interactions between the components of this system over time, space and depth.
    • This requires that the TMO be an expert in stakeholder management, in network analysis, and in human dynamics.
  2. A TMO sees transformation management as the facilitation of a local complex multiscale adaptive system development, and not at all as the management of a universal top-down one-dimensional monocultural engineering project.
    • A family is not a village, a village is not a large city, and a large city is not a country. This is also true in a business organization. Methods and tools fitting a small software development team needs does not respond to an executive committee decision-making requirements.
  3. Finally, a TMO needs to create the new terms, processes, tools, and roles required by the phenomena that emerge at the macrolevel.
    • A typical example is the introduction of a new set of concepts and words by the SAFe community in software and systems development.

Each of these characteristics deserves a dedicated article that I will develop later.

For now, if I had to summarize what a TMO is, I would say that a TMO is a sort of farmer who “prepares the ground, plant seeds, then weeds, hoes, and waters the corn, and waits until it is ripe”.

Do you agree? Your contributions to this important question are welcomed here. Thank you.


You can also read some of my most successful articles here:

High-Impact PMO


3 Laws for Anyone Leading a Transformation

Everyone leading a transformation must learn three laws:

  • The laws of project management—this is a problem that anyone directing a project must study and solve.
  • The laws of transformation management—this is a problem that anyone directing a transformation must study and solve.
  • The laws of transformation management in an organization—this is a problem that anyone directing a transformation in this organization must study and solve[1].

The original text comes from Mao Zedong. Replace war with project, revolutionary war with transformation, and revolutionary war in China with transformation in a (your) organization.

For CEOs, strategists, strategic inititiative portfolio managers, transformation and program leaders, as well as all sorts of “PMO”, the implications are exciting:

  • Managing strategy and managing change are similar. And change happens through projects. So executive sponsors, project, program and portfolio managers, as well as PMOs must first master the basics of project management.
  • Yet, transforming something is much more than a mere project. In projects, the efficacy of action is direct. The means lead to an end. But it is both costly and risky. In contrast, the efficacy of transformation is indirect. The conditions lead to the consequences. The potential of the situation accumulates during the course of the transformation. This is a completely different process. It is thus necessary to study and solve the laws of this particular process.
  • More importantly, not only is a transformation not local, as action is, but it is impossible to localize; its deployment is always global. It is also a process that affects the transformation of oneself as well as of others. So, one must consider the entire organization concerned by the change. Hence the need to study and solve the laws of transformation management in this specific organization.

There is also an important distinction between a project leader and a transformation leader.

  • The project leaders make the project outcomes visible. They get credit for the benefits.
  • Conversely, under the transformation leader’s influence, “the people day by day evolve toward the good without realizing who is making this happen”. And this applies equally to the leader’s PMO (“the court advisor”) according to the Chinese Mengzi.

Studying these three laws is perhaps one of the most important challenges to overcome in the domain of transformations!

To your continued success


High-Impact PMO