Challenges Emerged from Disruption. Learn from PMO Experts who Prevailed.

A recent PM Underground virtual gathering examined the disruptions wrought by the pandemic and commonalities among the PMOs that thrived despite the many challenges. Here’s a summary:

The moderator was Kevin Palmer, Strategic Operations Problem Solver for Monster Lead Group. Kevin facilitated a discussion with panelists and PMO veterans Brian Scheeler of 14 West; Jessica Smith, Director of the Project Management Office and Technology Services at Loyola University of Maryland; and Richard Sigler, Director of the Project Management Office at the American Urological Association.

Kevin launched the proceedings by noting that PMOs are often seen by organizations as overhead. What are the most important adaptations for PMOs to demonstrate value … and would the question have been answered differently a year and a half ago?

Speaking for 14 West, Brian responded that thanks to the pandemic more organizations are realizing the value of centralized project management, especially relating to large-scale changes like the switch to a remote workforce and SaaS solutions.

Rich pointed out the textbook methodologies of demonstrating value via metrics, like assessing project success rates before and after PMO involvement. But the real value, he added, comes when an organization begins to view a PMO as a partner in achieving its goals rather than an additional layer of bureaucracy. That in turn results from day-to-day building of relationships, and the challenge there will be maintaining those relationships going forward, in what is certain to be at least in part a virtual environment.

Kevin then posed the next question: In a world where workers went home one day and didn’t return to the office for more than a year, what has been the biggest factor for your organization in keeping up with the pace of change, and what has hindered it the most?

Jess responded that the top priority for her was keeping team members engaged by sticking to a regular schedule of meetings and check-ins of various types, even when there was less to talk about as certain projects were put on hold. These sessions included brainstorming on ways to keep projects moving forward. For her team at Loyola, this daily communication was key to overcoming both the isolation of remote work and the new project hurdles that cropped up. The difficulties for Jess’ team came in the form of sudden changes in funding when the pandemic hit, and the consequent necessity to reprioritize projects.

For Rich, the main change was a shift from bottom-up to top-down prioritization of projects. Knowing that the resources were no longer available for every project, his organization counted on upper management to identify those that were most critical.

Kevin continued by noting that agile project management stresses co-location of teams to improve communication and team-building. After navigating the past year in a fully remote environment, do our panelists have a different opinion on co-location?

Brian responded that for his organization, the remote environment leveled the playing field by putting everyone on the same footing regardless of their location. An investment in technology allowed his team to do the best job possible of recreating the co-located environment.

Jess answered that her team was not entirely co-located to begin with, and in some ways remote participation was improved from pre-pandemic efforts. She cited her CIOs insistence on a ‘cameras on’ policy for virtual meeting as one important factor in fostering team engagement.

For Rich and his organization, it was a fairly simple shift to add agile technology tools to support communication, but the daily routine of standup meetings continued as before.

Kevin asked whether the panelists foresaw a shift in budgeting towards more remote working tools. Jess said she didn’t think so as she sees a return to the office on the horizon, as well as a backlog of unfunded projects. Rich believes that certain organizations have seen that a bricks-and-mortar environment is less important than they might have believed, and does think more money will be funneled toward remote technology.

Brian noted the double-edged sword of budgeting, in that physical spaces will have to be adapted to accommodate increased remote participation. He feels that only a small percentage of companies will go either fully in person or fully remote; the remainder will employ some combination of the two. He further stated that especially for tech companies like his, the remote environment allows a widening of the geographic net when searching for new talent.

Kevin then asked the final question: With most teams still fully remote, how do you keep connected with your project managers and team members?

For Brian, not only maintaining regular stand-up meetings in a virtual environment but setting aside time for ‘water-cooler talk’ was key. He feels he learned more about the non-work lives of his team members over the past year than he knew before simply by virtue of spouses, children or pets wandering into Zoom calls and the discussions that followed.

Rich felt that maintaining relationships with project teams was the easy part, accomplished by sticking to a regular schedule of meetings. More difficult were the informal relationships across an organization, which lead to successful project outcomes. Those ‘kitchen conversations’ can’t be formed when every interaction is targeted, defined and scheduled, as in a remote meeting environment.

Kevin and Jess both noted that virtual happy hours helped to foster those cross-departmental relationships, especially in the early days of the pandemic, and Jess also deployed a ‘water cooler’ channel on MS Teams where people could share photos of their home workspaces, hobbies and the like.