The Culture of a Project Management Office

As an institutional entity, a Project Management Office is more than what it does. Just like any group of people coming together around a common mission, it is characterized by a certain mindset, distinctive values, a specific vision of the world. In other words, a culture in its own right.

How do you define a PMO’s culture? What are its benefits for the organization? How does it interact with the broader corporate culture that makes every organization unique? What challenges do the Project Management Office, or Enterprise Project Management Office (EPMO), have to face to create an organisational environment in which a project management culture can thrive and flourish? Here are some of the questions that we will attempt to address in this paper. The objective is to help you gain a clearer understanding of the key constituents of a Project Management Offices’s cultural environment, grow aware of the importance of having a strong PMO culture for the success of the organization, and figure out how to nurture such a culture.

Back to Basics: what is “Culture”?

In a corporate, organizational context, this term of “culture” is as widespread as it is elusive.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines culture in a corporate setting as “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization”.

This set of collective behaviors and assumptions encompasses the ways in which the members of a social group interact and relate to each other as well as to the outside world; what is defined as desirable and encouraged, and, on the other hand, what is prohibited; in sum, the whole sphere of beliefs, knowledge, practices and customs that prevail in a given group, and that make it different from other groups. From there, we can extract key characteristics of corporate culture:

  • In a corporate environment, culture constitutes the personality of an organization or of an organizational entity. A personality is unique by essence. We should be mindful of this reality. Although this article strives to delineate the cultural traits of PMOs, we should keep in mind the fact that general definitions and categories will never perfectly fit the reality of a specific Project Management Offices or organization. In fact, Harold Kerzner famously wrote that “Project management is a culture, not policies and procedures. As a result, it may not be possible to benchmark a project management culture. What works well in one company may not work equally well in another” (in Project Management - Best Practices: Achieving Global Excellence).
  • Culture is at the core of an organization’s life. It fuels it and drives it forward. Ask some of the most recognized strategy and management gurus: former IBM CEO Lou Gerstner tells us that “Culture is everything”, while Zappos founder Tony Hsieh states that “Culture and brand are just two sides of the same coin”. As a matter of fact, firms with stronger corporate cultures tend to be more successful.
  • Culture is a collective construct that needs to be shared in order to exist and stay alive. For a corporate culture to be effective, it should be felt, experienced, and truly owned by each and every member of the group. Because of its affinity to the sphere of beliefs, values, and even emotions, culture is not something that you can impose from the top-down, although it can be shaped collectively over time.

Defining the Project Management and PMO Culture

Trait #1 of the PMO culture: Accountability

Project Management Offices frequently originate from the need or desire to bring greater consistency to the management of project execution and delivery. A process-oriented and process-driven function, the PMO is by essence highly structured. It will introduce standard KPIs and metrics into the organization. It often relies heavily on policy - either written or verbal - and on systematic procedures and methods. Such emphasis on building a framework rests on the underlying assumption that people should and will play by it. That everyone involved should be made accountable for project performance, so that practices and methods can be refined and improved over time.

By standardizing methods and ways of working across teams and departments, by making all operations repeatable and measurable, the Project Management Office makes it possible to track or trace back action in order to better analyze, understand, learn and improve. The implementation of processes to clarify the chain of command and decision also aims at increasing responsibility and ownership. From a PMO’s point of view, organizational optimization requires accountability to permeate the whole project and portfolio management chain — from the PMO’s own team members to project management populations to other stakeholders, such as executive sponsors.

When applied to the PMO itself, the value of accountability can even take the form of what could be described as ethical requirements: as an overseeing, controlling body, the PMO has a duty to enforce policy across the organization in an unbiased, objective way. It also has the responsibility to ensure the quality and reliability of the data that will be used as a basis for strategic decisions. This brings us to the second pillar of a Project Management Office culture: Transparency.

Trait #2 of the PMO culture: Transparency

Another key defining element of a Project Management Office is its commitment to making everything visible. Because you cannot improve what you cannot see clearly, PMOs usually make a point of enhancing visibility over project work and decisions. Most PMOs will consolidate all project-related data into a professional PPM platform tool offering analysis capabilities to get insights and knowledge from the information. They will also make sure that this information and knowledge is effectively disseminated throughout the company, by granting project teams access to the database and by sharing insightful reports with executive decision-makers. Generally speaking, a Project Management Office strives to increase and improve communication across the organization and promotes the transfer and sharing of knowledge.

Trait #3 of the PMO culture: Unity

Its determination to improve transparency and communication also empowers the PMO to play a key role in building tight-knit teams and improving team work. As it coordinates the work of various project teams across the organization, a PMO is an intrinsically relational entity. It can facilitate the relations and interactions between diverse populations, make sure that everyone speaks the same language, dispel misunderstandings and improve overall collaboration through the introduction of dedicated tools or new work practices.

The PMO will also empower workers and stakeholders through institutional learning and skill development initiatives, and keep them engaged and committed to attaining the collective goals and the objectives of the organization.

Trait #4 of the PMO culture: Delivery

Project Management Offices were born from the necessity to manage project constraints (budget, schedule, scope) and to solve problems. Companies usually set up a PMO in order to address challenges. One could even go as far as saying that, in a perfect business environment, in a perfect world, PMOs would likely be made redundant. PMOs exist to face and solve the problems that Project Managers may encounter on a daily basis — including unexpected issues and events that no one could have predicted — in order to make sure that the outcomes are satisfactory for the organization, no matter what. Accordingly, PMOs deal with risks, threats and issues, with a level-headed, practical approach to problem-solving and a culture of delivery.

PMO culture or cultures?

The cultural traits of the PMO as described above are foundational to the identity and ethos of this function. They have shaped the development of Project Management Offices as we know them today. However, more recently, the PMO’s culture has been evolving and growing in scope to include change leadership. In an increasingly fast-changing world where disruption is the new normal, more and more PMOs leverage their central position in their organizations and their cross-functional role to become champions and facilitators of organizational adaptation.

This may start with the adoption of new project management methodologies, veering from the traditional, control-based approach to PPM embodied by Waterfall project management to embrace Agile frameworks that value responsiveness over certainty and action over planning. On a broader canvas, Project Management Offices have proved very useful in helping transition their companies to new ways of working — implementing new technology tools, introducing new collaborative practices or new approaches to consumer value analysis. In times of heightened business and market uncertainty (sounds familiar?) the PMO’s insights will be invaluable to help the organization pivot and adapt to new challenges — which may require adjusting its very mission statement.

This new focus on change facilitation makes the role of the Project Management Office more strategic in nature and increases its ties to senior management. It has also introduced greater flexibility and adaptivity into the culture of modern-day PMOs, nicely balancing the “squareness” of traditional project management professionals.

How can you assess the culture of your Project Management Office or organization?

While corporate culture is constantly evolving, it is possible to take a snapshot at a given time, based on assessments, observations, and feedback collection. Provided you have enough time and resources, you could for example conduct employee opinion surveys to gather the comments and inputs of these people who work in the cultural environment on a daily basis and are imbued with your organization’s culture. Or, in a less formal way, just ask a representative sample of employees questions such as “Describe the organization in three words.

It can also pay to observe how the organization and its people behave in specific situations — for instance, analyzing the onboarding process for newcomers, the reasons why people are promoted and move up the hierarchy ladder, what is frowned upon or even punished, may help shed light on your organizational culture.

 

Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad PMO?

A Business Improvement Architect’s research shows that 60% of Project Management Offices find that the organizational culture is not supportive. It is in fact quite common for PMOs to have to overcome behavioral and cultural resistance within their organizations. That is especially the case in lower-maturity companies, where the natural, human fear of change is aggravated by a deeper misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of PPM. The Project Management Office’s systematic approach to management and its standard methodologies can be perceived as unnecessarily burdensome — particularly if the firm’s culture is not as process-oriented as the PMO’s. Some people would even go as far as saying that they’ve been “traumatized” by negative past experiences with project portfolio management frameworks and policy.

As a result, the Project Management Office finds itself hampered in its mission. Too marked a cultural disconnect between a PMO and its overarching organization will create information gaps or silos, misunderstandings, and a climate of inefficiency that will harm the company’s ability to conduct projects successfully. Overcoming such cultural clashes and aligning the PMO’s and the organization’s cultures is critical to the successful management of projects, programs and initiatives. For a PMO, fostering a conducive culture across the organization is as important as ensuring that projects are properly managed. And this is why it is mission-critical for a Project Management Office to make sure that some of its culture rubs off on the rest of the company.

How to grow a PMO culture in an organization?

Nurturing and maintaining a strong PMO culture requires establishing a similar mindset across the organization. And changing mindsets always involves education and training, for employees and for leadership as well.

Communicating the value

It is a fact: not everyone understands the value of project portfolio management disciplines.

To make it apparent, you may need to define and explain what is project management, what is portfolio management, and what is project strategy alignment; what is at stake, what are the advantages and the benefits; how the different strategies and methodologies implemented and promoted by the Project Management Office contribute toward the goals of the firm. Through training sessions and programs, communication material, or informal one-to-one meetings, PMO leaders can increase employee awareness and help them understand that the portfolio of projects is what drives the company toward strategy realization. Once people begin to gain a solid understanding of the value that PPM is adding to the overall strategy of the organization, they will be much more eager to embrace a Project Management Office’s values and mindset.

Cultural changes start at the top

Effectively disseminating a Project Management Office culture throughout the organization and changing the company-wide mindset about project work means that everyone in the firm needs to buy in. Starting with leaders. PMOs and EPMOs need to make sure they secure key executive support. How? Here again, by having them understand the value of project portfolio management activities for the organization. It is a good idea to leverage figures and financial metrics to help convince these key decision-makers of the worth of your PMO. Executive buy-in will do wonders, as C-level managers can act as evangelists and champions to help spread a positive projectized culture. One in which projects are included into strategic planning and actively support the realization of the company’s strategy and objectives. One in which the Project Management Office and its action enjoy the attention and support of key leaders.

An enabling and conducive cultural environment is an absolute prerequisite for a Project Management Office to successfully perform its missions. While PMOs struggle in case of cultural misalignment with their organization, it is possible to promote and spread a project management culture across the company by demonstrating the value of PPM.

Cultural shifts do not happen overnight, and this is natural. Arm yourself with patience, you’re in for the long haul! The larger the firm, the longer the process will take.

 

Key Takeaways

  • Organizational culture is the very soul of a company or corporate function.
  • The PMO’s culture revolves around the concepts of accountability, transparency, unity, delivery, and, increasingly, change leadership.
  • Many Project Management Offices suffer from a disconnect between their culture and the organization’s mindset.
  • Closing the cultural gap requires an education effort, starting at the top of the organization.

 

To learn more about the role and culture of a PMO, consider reading:

Benoît Boitard

Benoît has been a proud member of Sciforma’s marketing team since 2020. A number of former work experiences as a Digital Strategy Consultant, both in up-and-coming start-up companies and large corporations, imbued him with a big-picture understanding of Project Management in traditional and agile work environments alike.