Tangoing Your Way Through the Executive/PMO Relationship

Project Management Office | By Michael O'Brochta & Curt Finch | Read time minutes

A couple dancing the Tango

This is part 1 of a 2-part series. This first article focuses on the co-dependent relationship between executives and PMOs. In part 2, we will describe specific key performance indicators that a newly-established PMO can use to measure itself to ensure alignment with the needs of the organisation.


"It takes two to tango." This idiomatic expression, which originated in a 1952 song by Pearl Bailey and was later popularised in 1982 when President Ronald Reagan quipped about Russian-American relations, is an accurate description of the relationship between a project management office (PMO) and an executive. At the end of the day, success for either of them is dependent on the other. Executives depend on the work accomplished by project management offices for their own success, just as project management offices depend on executives for their success.

In a provocative 1999 article in Fortune magazine that addresses why executives fail, the authors get directly to the point and state that the number one reason for executive failure is "bad execution…as simple as that…not getting things done…not delivering on commitments." The article also states that executives who do not deliver are three times more likely to get fired than their counterparts who are delivering. Think about it. What is the dominant purpose of a project? Getting things done! Projects deliver products and services, and they do so according to a schedule. Projects deliver on commitments. Executives need projects so they can deliver on commitments, thus avoiding the number one reason for executive failure.

The opposite is equally true. Projects need executives. The scope of projects and the judgments made about their success have expanded over recent years to the point where project success is almost always beyond the sole control of those running the project. Project success is highly dependent on the availability of resources typically not under the direct control of the project manager. Similarly, the project manager does not have direct control over the networks and systems that their project must fit into. Really, the project manager doesn't have direct control over much of anything upon which the project's success depends. The days of the small, relatively simple, stand-alone project are mostly over. These dependencies, which are essential for the success of the project, are less often in the domain of the project manager and more often in the domain of the executive. The project manager must establish a PMO that is run with a direct two-way supportive relationship with the executive.

A Real Story

To illustrate just how pronounced the dependence between executives and project management offices is, and needs to be, let's consider the following story. This story illustrates just how effective a strong co-dependent relationship can be. Prior to the creation of the PMO with a co-dependent executive relationship, trouble was the norm. After the creation of the PMO with a co-dependent relationship, the situation improved. The story is associated with responsibilities that the co-author of this article, Michael O'Brochta, had when he worked as an employee of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He spent decades there managing hundreds of projects, managing project managers, and leading efforts to advance project management within the organisation. The story begins with a strategic need within the organisation and an executive who recognised this need and made a commitment to take action. Note that this is not a unique story. In a 2009 book by Brian Hobbs, PhD, PMP, titled "The Project Management Office (PMO): A Quest for Understanding," he highlights a global study of project management offices and describes the PMO best practice of tailoring the PMO function to match the needs of the executive, just as happens in this CIA story.

I don't understand it; I have staffed my new organisation with hundreds of highly-skilled project managers, yet even after our first year in business, we can't seem to deliver enough projects on time or to the satisfaction of our customers.

These were the words that O'Brochta first heard when the director of the organisation asked for help. He went on to describe the gap between his vision for his organisation and the current reality: I'm confident that running this organisation as project-based is the way to go, but I never thought it would be this hard, said the director. I periodically review project schedules, and find them to be ever changing. No one is happy about a moving target -- not me, and least of all, not the customer. Quite frankly, I do not see why anyone would come to my organisation if they had a decent alternative.

The project-based organisation described here was formed to advance the mission of the CIA. The best engineers, the best information technology professionals, and the best project managers were combined into a single organisation focused on delivering new and better intelligence analysis systems and capabilities. One of those systems, named Fluent, was described a decade ago in a Reuters article titled "CIA Using Data Mining Technology to Find Nuggets." This was cutting-edge technology focused on critical CIA mission needs at the time.

Finally, the director got to the point of the conversation: Will you come and help?

During the following year, O'Brochta built and ran a strategic-level Project Management Office. Although the published knowledge associated with successful project management offices was rather limited at the time, enough was known for him to select a couple of starting points. O'Brochta started with one initiative focused on the project managers and one initiative focused on the executives. For the project managers, he led the building of a standardised project life-cycle methodology complete with milestones and documentation tailored specifically for the nature of their work. For the executives, he led the building of a standardised governance system complete with reviews, decision-making criteria, and change management strategies tailored specifically for their work.

Previously, the role and actions of the executives and the project managers were out of sync. Project managers were doing their best to draw upon their extensive backgrounds to create and follow project plans, but no two were the same. Likewise, executives were doing their best to support the project managers with resources and decisions, but inconsistency and unpredictability were common.

O'Brochta routinely met with executives and others in the management chain to ensure that decisions about the PMO's focus matched its needs; he did the same with project managers and the various PMOs. Both the executives and project managers learned that each group performed equally important, but different, roles. The executive's role included supplying a standardised project life-cycle methodology for the project managers to use and holding them accountable for using it. The project managers' role included tailoring the provided life cycle methodology and putting it into practice. The executives established and followed a routine for project reviews and associated decisions. The project managers prepared for each of the project reviews with the information needed to support the scheduled decision-making. Predictability and consistency became the norm. Effort that had been directed toward "figuring out what to do" was now directed toward more productive activities associated with running the projects and meeting mission needs.

Initial Reaction

Because of the success of the initiatives, the value of the project management office was established. Other initiatives followed, all targeted at the co-dependent relationship between the executives and the project management offices. These initiatives included training for both the project managers and the executives. They reflected the maturing of project management within the organisation and the value of strengthening the co-dependent relationship between executives and project management offices. It was learned that this relationship is, in and of itself, a project that can be planned and managed within a PMO for the strategic long-term benefit of the organisation.

What's Next?

As satisfying as it might be to establish a successful PMO, the question arises about how to keep them going. This is a serious question. It appears that keeping a PMO going is not so common. A 2007 PMI-sponsored report titled "The Multi-Project PMO: A Global Analysis of the Current State of Practice" states that PMOs are frequently closed or restructured with only about half of them surviving for two years. That's a grim statistic. Executives need projects, project management, and PMOs. Yet, the PMO often struggles to survive. Why? According to the same study, the successful PMOs were the ones that responded to and adapted to the ever-changing needs of the organisation. In other words, the successful PMO's performance was matched to the needs of the organisation. Key performance indicators were established and achieved. And not just any key performance indicators were achieved, but ones that were relevant and meaningful to the executives with whom the PMO had a co-dependent relationship.

Coming up in Part 2: Specific key performance indicators that a newly-established PMO can use to measure itself to ensure alignment with the needs of the organisation.

Michael O'Brochta, PMP has been a project manager for over thirty years. He is an experienced line manager, author, lecturer, trainer, and consultant. He holds a master's degree in project management, a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering, and is certified as a PMP®. As Zozer Inc. President, he is helping organisations raise their level of project management performance. As senior project manager in the CIA, he lead the maturing of the project management practices agency-wide. Since his recent climb of another of the world's seven summits, he has been exploring the relationship between project management and mountain climbing. Mr. O'Brochta's papers and presentations at PMI national, international, and regional conferences have consistently been popular and well received; his last three PMI Global Congress presentations have drawn the largest audiences at those events.

Curt Finch is the CEO of Journyx. Founded in 1996, Journyx automates payroll, billing and cost accounting while easing management of employee time and expenses, and provides confidence that all resources are utilised correctly and completely. Curt earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science from Virginia Tech. As a software programmer fixing bugs for IBM in the early '90s, Curt found that tracking the time it took to fix each bug revealed the per-bug profitability. Curt knew that this concept of using time-tracking data to determine project profitability was a winning idea and something that companies were not doing - yet…Curt created the world's first web-based timesheet application and the foundation for the current Journyx product offerings in 1997. Learn more about Curt at Journyx


What's Next?

You may also be interested in