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What is an Agile PMO? Is it Possible? How Would it Work?


I recently saw a question on a LinkedIn discussion group asking: What is an Agile PMO?

  • There are many people in the Agile community who might say that there is no role for a PMO in an Agile/Lean environment and
  • That the whole concept of a PMO is obsolete and inconsistent with Agile.
  • That opinion is based on a stereotype that the role of the PMO is heavily associated with controlling and enforcing rigid, waterfall-style policies for selecting and managing the execution of projects and programs.
  • Very thorough and detailed upfront planning to justify the ROI on projects to support rigorous project/product portfolio management decisions
  • Rigid control of project execution to ensure that projects meet their cost and schedule goals and deliver the expected ROI

The traditional emphasis of a PMO has been primarily on:

  • Providing control of spending to ensure that individual projects were well-managed from a fiscal responsibility perspective and
  • That the overall portfolio of projects produced an acceptable return

There is no doubt that some PMO’s have played that kind of role to some extent in the past; however, it is a stereotype to believe that is the only possible role for a PMO to play.

  • A PMO can play a value-added role but it is a somewhat different role than what a PMO may have played in the past.
  • It’s a difference in emphasis between providing control versus producing value

Understanding the Truth About “Agile versus Waterfall”

The key to understanding this issue is to first understand that there is not a binary and mutually-exclusive choice between “Agile” and “Waterfall”.  It is better to think of this as a range of alternatives between heavily plan-driven at one extreme and heavily adaptive at the other extreme. That looks something like this:

Range of Agility

And, the right approach is to fit the methodology to the nature of the project and business environment rather than going in the other direction and attempting to force-fit projects and business to some kind of canned approach (whatever it might be – Agile or not). The approach you select for your business will have a big impact on the role of the PMO. Here’s an article with more detail on this:

What’s the General Role of a PMO in Any Organization?

Before we get into the role that an Agile PMO might play, it’s useful to review the general role of a PMO. The general role of any PMO is to:

  • Align the selection and execution of projects and programs with the organization’s business goals. That includes:
    • Project/Product Portfolio Management,
    • Providing oversight of project execution and
    • The overall interface for management and reporting of projects and programs to senior management and the business
  • Coordination, guidance, and training to project teams as needed in the organization’s methodologies and standards for project management.

Those general functions probably don’t change in an Agile/Lean project environment. However, how a PMO performs those functions may change significantly depending on the organization’s overall strategy for implementing an Agile transformation.

  • Some organizations may choose to implement a relatively complete top-to-bottom Agile transformation for their business
  • Dean Leffingwell’s Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is an example of such a model
  • However, that can be a very ambitious and gut-wrenching change for many organizations. And, it may also may not be the best solution

It may be a mistake to believe that you have to force a company to do an extensive, top-to-bottom Agile transformation in order to adopt an Agile process at the development level.  There are many ways to adapt an agile development process to a company whose overall business may not be totally compatible with an agile approach at the enterprise level.

If you accept the notion that you need to tailor the approach to fit the nature of the business, it should be evident that:

  • The design of a PMO should be consistent with that approach and
  • There isn’t a single “canned” solution for what an “Agile PMO” is.  However, there are some general guidelines that should be useful

Traditional PMO Role

What Does a Traditional PMO Look Like?

A traditional PMO organization that is oriented around a heavily plan-driven approach might look something like this:

Typical Traditional PMO Structure
Reference: Cobb, Charles, “Making Sense of Agile Project Management”, Wiley, 2011

In this kind of environment:

  • The PMO typically takes almost complete responsibility for the execution of projects on behalf of the business sponsors
  • The emphasis in this kind of organization is typically on planning and control of projects

This kind of organization would be consistent with a heavily plan-driven approach. However, how does that role change as an organization moves towards more of an adaptive approach?

What’s Wrong With the Traditional PMO Role?

What’s wrong with that picture? We’ve learned that many projects may seem to be successful from a financial perspective yet fail to deliver business value. Business value is a much more elusive target that is much more difficult to measure. So what is the answer?

  • It’s a significant shift in emphasis for a PMO to put more focus on producing value versus providing control; however, that’s not an all-or-nothing proposition.
  • Many people tend to see things in black-and-white, binary terms. Either you’re focused on value or you’re focused on control and there’s no middle ground. I don’t believe that to be the case

Future PMO Direction

How Do You Find the “Middle Ground” to Get to a Future PMO?

It takes a lot more skill to find that middle ground” but it definitely can be done. It requires seeing “control” in a different perspective – it’s a more dynamic kind of control. There’s a lot of similarities to the difference between traditional plan-driven project management and a more dynamic form of Agile Project Management at the project level:

  • Instead of having very well-defined plans at the project portfolio level that aren’t expected to change at all, plans are much more broadly defined and are expected to change and become further defined over time
  • It also requires a partnership with the business and much more active participation in the development and implementation of the project portfolio strategy by the business

What needs to happen at the project portfolio level is very similar to what needs to happen at the project level; it’s just at a higher level. There is a direct parallel between the role of a modern, PMO and the role of an Agile Project Manager.

  • Both need to play much more of a facilitation role and add value based on a much more dynamic style of management rather than a controlling role
  • They both need to put in place the right people, process, and tools to execute the strategy and intervene only as needed

What is an Agile PMO?

A more adaptive version of a PMO organization might look something like this:

What is an Agile PMO?
Potential Agile PMO Structure
Reference: Cobb, Charles, “Making Sense of Agile Project Management”, Wiley, 2011

Key Differences

Here’s what some of the key differences might be as an organization moves towards more of an adaptive (Agile) approach:

Advisory Role

The role of the PMO becomes more of an advisory role and a consultative role rather than a controlling role. The function of the PMO should be to:

  • Put in place well-trained people coupled with
  • The right process and tools
  • To make the process most effective and efficient and
  • To keep it well-aligned with the company’s business

Primary Responsibility

The primary responsibility for providing direction to projects:

  • Shifts more to the business side represented by the Product Owner in the projects and
  • There is a much more of a closer coupling with the business side, and
  • There is more emphasis on the PMO providing business value rather than simply managing project costs and schedules

Role of Functional Organizations

The role of the functional organizations (Development, QA Testing, etc.) also changes to providing more of an advisory function as the resources are more committed to project teams and the project teams become more self-organizing

Key Challenges

This model can be a very big change for many businesses because:

  • It puts a lot more responsibility on the business side of the organization to provide direction to projects. And, the business organization may not be well-prepared to take on that responsibility
  • It requires developing a close collaborative relationship between the project team and the business rather than using a PMO as a “middle-man”
  • It also relies much more heavily on self-organizing teams

For those reasons and others, a totally adaptive approach may not be the right approach for all businesses. And, even if it is, it may take time to migrate an existing organization to that kind of approach. Fortunately, there are many ways to develop a hybrid approach to blend a traditional plan-driven approach with a more adaptive approach to fit a given business and project environment.

Hybrid Environments

The role of the PMO should be aligned with supporting whatever the overall business strategy is. That might require a hybrid of an Agile and traditional plan-driven approach. For example, here are some of the ways that a hybrid approach might be implemented:

Project/Product Portfolio Management

The PMO may still be the focal point for Project/Product Portfolio Management. However, a more agile approach might be used to perform that function.

  • Instead of very rigorous upfront planning that might be required to analyze project ROI to support a more traditional, plan-driven project/product portfolio management approach,
  • A more dynamic decision-making process might be used at that level with a much more limited amount of upfront planning and less-detailed ROI analysis.

Project Execution

In the other functions related to managing the execution of projects, the PMO:

  • Probably would probably delegate more responsibility to project teams and
  • Play more of a facilitative and consultative role to support the project teams rather than playing a controlling role.

Overall Summary

In summary,

  • Agile certainly forces some rethinking of the role of a PMO. However, it doesn’t necessarily make the whole concept of a PMO obsolete and irrelevant
  • There are a wide range of strategies an organization can choose for implementing an Agile transformation at an enterprise level. It isn’t necessarily a binary choice between a pure “Waterfall approach from top-to-bottom or a totally “Agile” approach from top-to-bottom. You have to choose the right approach to fit the business rather than attempting to force-fit the business to some kind of “textbook” approach.

The important thing to recognize is that this is not a “one size fits all” decision. What is the right approach for one company may not be the best approach for another.

Related Articles

Check out the following related articles on “Agile Business Management”:

Additional Resources

Resources for Agile Project Management Online Training.

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