Why Do PMOs Fail?

Why Do PMOs Fail?

The Red Pill Executive, the book recently released by Think principals Tony Gruebl, Jeff Welsh and Bryan Wolbert, begins from this unfortunate truth: 70% of PMOs fail. Succeeding three out of every ten attempts will make you rich if you’re a major-league hitter, but not so much as an executive. And it gets worse: According to McKinsey.com, 17% of IT projects threaten the very existence of the organization.

PMOs are carefully planned and executed (usually), and we have more tools at our disposal than ever before, from Microsoft SharePoint and Project to collaboration tools like WebEx and Zoom. And yet that 70% failure rate lingers. Why?

The authors examine a list called The CHAOS Ten, the top 10 reasons projects fail, noting that it reads “like a list of poor excuses.” Poor excuses or not, they are a reality, and that failure rate is clearly not an acceptable state of affairs.

Let’s take a closer look at where things go south:

Executive Support

 Dr. Harold Kerzner is known as The Godfather of Project Management. In an interview subsequent to the failure of the health exchanges in the early days of the Affordable Care Act he noted: “My personal belief is that the resistance sits at the most senior levels of management.” This lack of buy-in, Dr. Kerzner proposes, stems from a fear of actually empowering Project Managers with the authority they need to be successful. In other words, not all leaders are secure enough to allow PMs to make decisions that might have been made at the executive level.

Lack of Buy-in

This is an issue across all levels of an organization. Clearly, if senior management lacks belief in a given initiative, it’s probably doomed to failure. But middle management needs to be on board as well. Often these mid-level managers outrank the PMs, whose requests for additional resources may be cheerfully ignored or perceived as trying to tell a seasoned manager how to do his or her job.

Buy-in needs to reach down to the front lines also, lest the effort be perceived as more red tape and hurdles put in place by the “project police.” An initiative that fails to communicate value to stakeholders across all levels will find team members actively – or passive-aggressively – working against it.

Lack of Alignment

The tail wagging the dog. The cart before the horse. Choose your metaphor, but any initiative that doesn’t begin from a place of organizational mission and culture will have a greatly reduced chance of success. Over and over again we see organizations going about this backwards, often with new software initiatives. The result is new processes shoehorned into – and often working against – the company’s core competencies.

Experienced Hands

Even when all of the above are handled properly, pitfalls remain. Chief among them is the expectation that a manager, even one with substantial subject matter expertise on the project, will transform into a successful PM. To return to the software initiative example, a manager may understand the technology backwards and forwards, but without the communications skills they’ll need to achieve buy-in from all levels of management and staff they’re likely to have a rough go of it.

Impartiality is vital in these circumstances, also, which is why there’s a strong case for bringing in outside help. A seasoned PM from outside the organization should be able to operate independently, free of the office politics and infighting that can hamstring any project (for more on that, see this recent post).

There are always more ways to go wrong than to go right, from poor methodologies to unclear objectives to an overly ambitious project scope, and many of these are further detailed in The Red Pill Executive. With a better understanding of the pitfalls and how to avoid them, organizations can and should improve on that 30% PMO success rate.

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