Agile PMO Why is it so confusing?

by Aki Namioka, Sr. Agile Consultant

Agile consultants often work in large IT organizations, and are frequently asked, “What is an Agile PMO?” The answer seems simple: “A PMO that supports Agile”.

The real issue seems to be “How does a PMO fit in an Agile organization?” Traditionally, a PMO is the owner of the project management process, which includes creating project plans, tracking and mitigating risk, managing budgets and other project resources, and reporting status to project stakeholders. They also manage “stage gates”, carefully guiding a project through the entry/exit criteria for each phase of a project. This type of project management tends to work well in the “waterfall” paradigm where projects typically go through a sequential series of phases that have clear entry/exit criteria. E.g.

However, in the agile paradigm some of the traditional roles of a PMO change. Here are some changes that a PMO may encounter:

  • Project Plan – on agile projects, the project plan is created as a whole team effort, with the Product Owner guiding the priority and release planning. Release planning is followed up with regular iterations or Sprint planning, which is often facilitated by the Scrum Master.
  • Project Phases – agile projects deliver business value in small incremental pieces, where a little bit of design, development, test, and deployment happens at the end of short regular iterations. This is in contrast to a sequentially phased approach illustrated above.
  • Delivery Process – self-organized agile teams control how they deliver projects, including changes to processes through constant retrospection and adaptation.

Because many of the traditional responsibilities of the PMO have been shifted to self-organizing agile teams, some organizations have redefined the role of the PMO to focus on responsibilities outside of core team activities e.g. budget, risk mitigation, and status reporting. However, this falls short of what an Agile PMO could be. Instead of reducing the responsibilities of a PMO in an agile organization, the PMO should embrace agile.

Reading the “Agile Practice Guide”, jointly released by the Project Management Institute (PMI) and Agile Alliance, it seems clear from their perspective that the definition of an Agile PMO is a PMO that supports agile. A traditional PMO may wonder, ‘What does this mean and how do we evolve to become agile?’ Mike Cohn, a founder of the Scrum Alliance, wrote an excellent article titled “The Role of the Project Management Office in Scrum”. He suggests that a PMO could be responsible for Scrum & agile training, staffing and training agile coaches, and guiding an organization to adopting an agile mindset.   In short, the Agile PMO would be responsible for the organization’s agile journey, in the same way they have been responsible for the care and feeding of the traditional project management process. Whether the organization is just starting its agile journey, or has already adopted agile, an Agile PMO would be supporting the organization’s needs every step of the way.

However, given the reality of many PMOs, we have to acknowledge that a traditional PMO, like any other organization going through an agile transformation, needs the training, coaching, and support of the organization to be able to fulfill its role as an Agile PMO.   They have the additional challenge of not only going through their own agile transformation, but also ensuring that they have the right people to guide their organization on their agile journey. Adopting agile is not as simple as moving from one set of processes to another — it is truly a change in mindset. A successful Agile PMO understands the agile values, as articulated in the Agile Manifesto, and will apply them at the organization, project, team, and individual levels.

As a musician once told me before a performance “own the mic!”

So, PMOs – “own agile!”