Imagine a company where several business units are collaborating on a new portfolio of products. Multiple development teams are working autonomously, while the Project Management Office (PMO) supports lean and agile practices, coordinates execution and removes impediments.

The constant interplay of real time data, analytics and customer feedback allow this company to bring the products to market faster and gain a competitive edge. The agile PMO is able to translate enterprise-wide agility to:

  • Accelerate time to market
  • Drive innovation
  • Achieve higher returns on investment
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The Agile PMO
The Agile PMO can implement scale across the enterprise to yield tremendous benefits.

Too good to be true? In reality, the PMO oversees multiple projects, programs and/or portfolios at various locations with diverse, cross-functional team members. On any given day, the PMO brings order to chaos with centralized identification, prioritization, authorization and management of projects within a portfolio.

Standardized processes and consistent governance traditionally lead to predictable outcomes. But high demand, shorter delivery cycles and shifting priorities are jeopardizing the PMO’s ability to be timely and responsive. To keep up, the PMO has to change its focus from methodology-driven project execution to value-driven business outcomes.

Enter the agile PMO. By adopting agile practices and introducing these practices into the enterprise, PMOs will be in a better position to help achieve strategic business goals and objectives. An agile PMO can ensure work is aligned with strategy, and teams work on the right thing, in the best way. In turn, an agile way of working maximizes value and minimizes risk for the enterprise.

Be an Agile PMO or Be Left Behind

One of the major obstacles to on-time, on-budget delivery is over commitment of resources. The PMO is often caught in the middle, trying to prioritize projects that are all considered high-priority and allocate resources that are committed elsewhere. It’s a bureaucratic nightmare that slows things down to a crawl. Something has to change if the enterprise is to keep up with today’s fast-paced business environment.

The PMO needs to manage and approve high-value work quickly and deliver results faster – all while exercising transparency and sound governance.

The PMO has to adopt a more agile mindset before it can lead the change toward becoming an agile enterprise. Being agile means turning into creative problem-solvers, rapid responders, and iterative collaborators who turn feedback into innovation. An agile PMO thrives on complex problems and changing conditions, preferring team empowerment to top-down autocracy. If this describes the way you want to operate, then the opportunity to lead change in the enterprise is yours for the taking.

In the Harvard Business Review article, Agile at Scale, Scrum co-creator Jeff Sutherland, along with global innovation partners Darrell Rigby and Andy Noble, noted that leaders have to be agile to lead agile organizations. That means operating like an agile team and viewing various parts of the organization as customers. The agile PMO:

  • Is more in tune with what customers want
  • Sets priorities to optimize work delivery
  • Removes constraints
  • Promotes the freedom to develop solutions as well as the accountability for outcomes

Being agile also means using different ways of working at different times. It is not uncommon for some projects to be managed in a traditional waterfall fashion, with requirements defined up front and deliverables due by a given date. Other projects may be driven by agile teams that use continuous feedback loops to adjust their course and make incremental deliveries. There are also hybrid ways of working that may prove to be the best way to achieve the desired outcome. The agile PMO has to be nimble enough to monitor progress, track performance, and measure value no matter how it was delivered.

8 Success Factors in Leading the Charge

There are numerous factors in the successful adoption of agile practices across the enterprise. Here are eight that the agile PMO can influence:

Team collaborating - The Agile PMO
Once you define what agile means to you and your organization, be that representation of agile.

Define what agile means to your organization

There is no right answer, no one way of working and no best method, only best practices. Working in an agile way can simply mean:

  1. Having the ability to move with quick coordination; for example: an agile athlete
  2. Having a quick resourceful and adaptable character; for example: an agile mind
  3. Having the ability to create and respond to change; for example: an agile company

The authors of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development chose to label this way of working “agile” because it also means being able to quickly adapt to uncertain conditions. Whether your PMO serves a single business unit or the entire enterprise, you can model agile principles by anticipating and leading change in the organization.

Once you define agile and what agile means to you and your PMO, be that representation of agile. As one Gartner report points out, “The first deadly sin is failure to be agile.”

Use the right measure of success

In the iron triangle, on-time, on-budget is the primary (and tried-and-true) measure of project success. Now, with agile teams delivering continuous value in smaller increments, the measure of success is something else entirely – customer satisfaction or market disruption, for example. Define the roadmap of all the work that is involved in:

  • Delivering an outcome
  • Ensuring they have the right resources
  • Marking progress toward those goals

Ultimately, an agile PMO’s success means fewer unfinished projects and more completed high-priority programs.

What color is the check engine light?

The PMO traditionally flags a project as Red, Yellow, or Green as a way to track health and progress. Now we know that while a project may be green, it could also be going fast in the wrong direction. Instead, ask: Is the team working on the right thing, and will it be delivered at the right time (with the understanding that maximizing potential value is more important) – not just an arbitrary date on a Gantt chart, but a timeframe that is in sync with related or dependent work? Don’t set teams up for failure by tracking towards metrics that are not aligned to meaningful outcomes.

Status meetings are dead. Long live agile progress reporting!

The agile PMO doesn’t rely on checklists, milestones, and basic status meetings to know whether a project is on track. Rather, they focus on outcomes, while leaving project execution to the team.

Many agile teams employ the daily stand-up method of status reporting to reveal what has been accomplished and what will be accomplished next. This approach offers a way for team members to commit to the work they’ll do themselves, as well as to support the team’s commitments, including dismantling roadblocks that prevent work from being completed, all in a more iterative and repeatable way.

An agile team can determine for itself how to track progress, leverage lean metrics, and use and share reporting practices. Leveraging the right analytical tools and dashboards provides transparency for all – giving the team the autonomy to represent progress in the manner it sees fit and giving the PMO a way to keep teams accountable towards achieving overall goals.

Deliver value

Rigid workflow processes, inflexible project plans, and complex documentation are an anathema to the agile way. Agile teams value individual ingenuity, collaboration and purpose-built deliverables. They can generate a continuous value stream in the form of successive, incremental product releases.

The agile PMO measures value in terms that are meaningful to stakeholders and customers, not auditors and accountants.

Consider the value it brings to customers, for example: Delivering a software update 5 percent under budget may ultimately be less important than getting 99 percent of users to actually download and install it.

Govern with a light touch

A PMO accustomed to top-down control may find it hard to loosen the grip and grant teams self-rule. Find middle ground where project and product teams can make their own decisions, in partnership with the PMO when warranted. The agile PMO is there both to serve and to moderately govern – giving rise to a new breed of servant-leaders.

The Project Management Institute (PMI) says servant leadership defines the vision and sets boundaries, then empowers teams to self-organize around completing the work. The PMO listens, removes impediments, and provides support. It does not dictate rigid requirements and solutions.

The Agile PMO
The agile PMO gives rise to a new breed of servant-leaders.

Don’t parse the work

Gartner suggests using the word “work” instead of “project:” Project is “a word that has disappeared from a true agile practitioner’s vocabulary, replaced by ‘products,’ ‘business capabilities’ and ‘outcomes.'” Rather than micromanaging projects and their execution, the agile PMO can start to manage products and portfolios, and the delivery of work to create value for the organization. When you can begin to think in terms of funding value streams, you free development teams to figure out what customers and the market want, and how to give it to them.

Mind the backlog

Understanding the roles of teams in an agile organization, the PMO can help teams manage capacity while giving them the autonomy they need to manage their story backlogs. The PMO’s job shifts from focusing on execution activities to managing and allocating funding for the value streams in the product portfolio.

The PMO helps identify the desired investment outcomes and optimize team allocation in order to achieve those outcomes without becoming overloaded. Teams are then responsible for allocating their time such that they can work on the backlog of features expected for delivery.

PMI recommends creating a ranked backlog for the enterprise, referring to themes and epics as a guide so that the portfolio and teams are moving in the right direction across the enterprise. The PMO can coordinate multiple teams and address dependencies, while the teams manage their own detailed backlogs of the work committed for delivery.

The Agile PMO as (Trusted) Advisor

In the end, it’s about being less of a control freak and more of a concierge, smoothing the way and letting the players make things happen in their own way. An agile PMO can be a model for servant leadership, with all the characteristics of agility and none of the command-and-control posturing of the past. From this vantage point, the PMO can assume a more strategic role and be involved in capacity, portfolio, and strategic planning. The teams assume more operational responsibility such as planning the product backlog, incremental releases, and iterations.

In an agile enterprise, the PMO sheds the mantle of the process police and becomes an agile coach, offering constructive oversight and advocacy:

  • Provide ample training for team members in the principles and practices of agile and lean methodologies such as Scrum, Kanban, or a hybrid approach, then give teams the flexibility to interpret and execute the practices on their own.
  • Allow cross-functional teams to stay together from one project (or batch of deliverables) to the next, so they can get into a rhythm for working in sync.
  • Look for continuous improvement but expect some lessons learned through experimentation, until the processes become second nature.
  • Establish communities of practice with like-skilled people to encourage sharing best practices and good ideas, as well as gaining consensus on appropriate tools.

Agility is a mindset, an intention to deliver value more quickly. As a champion of change, the agile PMO has an opportunity to lead by example. In its report on mastering a business agile mindset, Gartner notes:

“The point is: Adopting an agile mindset will improve your business outcomes. If this mindset is adopted and rigorously applied, it can enable all areas of the enterprise to move faster and become more focused on ensuring that actions and decisions lead to planned outcomes.”

Becoming agile – and being agile enough to lead others in the journey – is akin to making constant course corrections during a transcontinental flight. Inclement conditions can force you to think fast and react unexpectedly. The agile pilot steers clear of hazards and can even get passengers to their destination earlier than scheduled. An agile mindset will get you where you’re going, no matter what challenges you may encounter.