What’s In a Name?  The “PMO” – Does the name cause more trouble than it’s worth?

September 30, 2015

The “PMO” has always been a bit of an enigma to organizational theorists.  There’s dozens of reasons for that, but it mainly stems from the endless questions that surround them:

What exactly does it stand for – Does the “P” stand for “Project” or “Program”?  Both?  Neither?  And does that “O” stand for “Office” or “Organization”?

  • Who’s on the team?
  • What’s their main function?
  • What organization does it live in?
  • Can there be multiple PMOs?
  • How broad should representation be?

To make matters even more complicated, a new ingredient has been thrown into the mix over the last few years, the birth and growth of the “Enterprise PMO” or EPMO.  These higher level organizations are often made up of multiple PMOs across multiple divisions in a roll-up, umbrella-type situation.  But sometime they are standalone organizations looking at a completely different set of problems.

At Decision Lens, we often work with PMOs from different industries and organizations.  Our software is well-tuned to be used heavily by PMO groups to make their lives easier in areas such as resource prioritization and optimized scheduling across years and projects.  (Personally, we love working with PMO groups, so please don’t confuse this post for anything but an inquiry.)  So, it’s been interesting to watch the debate and discussion surround this seemingly innocuous group.

Originally, it’s generally accepted that PMO groups were created to aid in the reporting and tracking of an on-going set of projects, especially in large organizations.  They served as valuable groups targeted at making sense of all of the different activities and resources, reporting up to executives, and solving problems for project managers.  They led regular reviews at the project level with all of the different team leads and at the executive level with the C-suite.  They built the reports that were delivered to the Board and used by Executives in their private meetings and shareholder calls.  Their importance had no debate.

But then a few things happened…

First, they exploded in volume.  Even inside a single organization, there were often 5, 10, or more PMO groups, focusing on different portfolio sets.  While on paper this may have made sense, it made it very difficult for project managers who may have been working across sub-organization, executives who managed multiple groups, or resources who could be assigned across portfolio sets.  How could one group plan for resources when others may have been planning on the same?  How did an executive make sense of multiple PMO reports covering a similar set of resources and priorities?  It started to get confusing at best.

Second, they lost their way.  The original charter of a PMO – to optimize the use of resources and to prioritize projects and investments – was abandoned in favor of status meetings and reporting.  By no direct intention or fault of anyone involved, their priority became building the reports the executives needed and badgering the project managers to get it done.  They started to be viewed as a bureaucratic group and “overhead” at its worst.


And with those two things going on, smart organizations took notice and made changes.  One of those changes was to create the Enterprise PMO group – a layer of PMO that would work across all of the existing PMOs and all of the different business units to organize the portfolio at the enterprise level, taking into the true priorities and value of the company.  They were formed to make actual strategic resource decisions and make the hard choices between investments and projects, across all business units.  To Decision Lens, this was a smart change, one that had a good effect in many of the organizations where it was executed.

But a funny thing followed suit…  Many of those groups never received the full buy-in from the teams and business unit heads.  And when asked, do you want to know why?  One of the main reasons was simple – the name.  “We already have enough PMOs”, they said.  “We don’t need any more PMO input”, they complained.  And it makes sense, right?  Without true organizational change management, this was a logical conclusion they reached.  So many of these groups are failing from a lack of institutional support.

So, what could be done?  What if they had never been called an EPMO in the first place, and didn’t bring ANY of the baggage of that phrase with them?  Our analyst friends at Gartner have espoused some possible names for these groups, including “Strategy Realization” or “Strategy Execution”, which completely abandon the “PMO” acronym.  While I’m not sure I’m in love with those options, I do appreciate getting away from anything that distracts from the purpose of the group.

What do you think?  Should the name be changed?  Does your organization have a team with that title anymore?  We’d love to hear from you!