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The Tipping Point for the PMO

Have you ever experienced a tipping point with your PMO? Has there been a single event, a point where you can look back and say, “Yes, it was here when things really started to change”

It’s the APM awards soon and another of the finalists for the newly formed PMO of the Year Award is the Portfolio Office at the Open University. Susie Palmer-Trew is the Portfolio Office Manager and we caught up for a chat about what’s been happening for her and the PMO team of five, who sit within the Strategy and Information Office, supporting major change.

The tipping point for the Portfolio Office here took place in October of 2016, but it took almost seven years to get to this point. Was it the seven-year itch that tipped the balance? More an accumulation of experience and determination to do the best work they can for the 170,000 customers they have across the University. In the beginning, the PMO provided the “strategic project support”, what many still refer to as the administrative support of projects. Over time, the PMO began to evolve, lessons were learnt, experience starts to accumulate, knowledge becomes more mature and trust starts to be earnt.

The PMO developed the methodology for delivery and the tools to support it. They established development pathways for staff. They created a community of practice for over 500 staff across the university. This community – the change community –  helped the PMO to actively demonstrate their purpose of “to support the OU to make the right change and make the change right” (a cute change of phrase substituting ‘project’ to change!) Another consequence was the PMO – and the work they do, and what they are capable of doing – became much more visible. Building credibility was going to be crucial if they were going to get to their tipping point.

The PMO then started work on the portfolio – making visible what the university was working on and starting to solve what had become an institutionalised problem – the volume of change was too high, impacting the University’s ability to deliver change successfully…

The PMO by this time had developed their capability to a point where the relationship between executive level and the PMO were identifying problems and designing solutions together. When the PMO was able identify £10 million savings across the University’s change portfolio– it became evident that the PMO could really say they were “adding value” to the organisation.

The cost saving came as a direct result of reviewing the whole portfolio of change activity and making recommendations to the executive team about which projects could be stopped – and where the focus should be based on the capacity and capability available. They also identified the difference between projects delivering their agreed outputs with the delivery of the intended benefits – kick starting a new benefits management approach to address it. They also identified that change initiatives were failing to engage staff and stakeholders and as a result their tipping point moment was about to emerge.

At the end of 2016, the PMO working with the executive team decided to put the brakes on the volume of change that was taking place – recognising that they were falling of short of their purpose of make the right changes and make the change right.

They agreed to concentrate on what mattered most and to do so they created a single Change Board. This is their tipping point moment.

Open UniversityThe Change Board has delegated authority from the executive – the PMO has been instrumental in the development of the Board and the underpinning project management best practice. With a membership of 14, it is this group that takes the biggest decisions with regards the portfolio. The role the PMO plays here is both business support – providing expertise, guidance and advice to all the business units submitting business cases for consideration and review. They ensure the business cases are robust and contribute towards strategic goals. They also provide the portfolio analysis and assessment of initiatives – acting as an honest broker, forming opinions based on the capacity and capability to lead and land the change.

They have been able to make this step change due to the combined experience within the PMO – and also the diversity of roles in the PMO too. They have expertise in change management; business case formulation; centre of excellence, best practice project management approaches and the portfolio analysis skills. They also recognise the importance of the people aspect of change – finding the balance between cultural and procedural change – moving forward they’re currently looking at a combined project and change management framework to improve the delivery and embedding of change.

Their mindset or approach to the whole Change Board is also intriguing – the board operates with an ‘institutional view’ and was developed through a ‘test and learn’ approach– try it and if it fails, let’s all learn together what happened and let’s do it differently. The strength – or importance of relationships is evident here. There isn’t a us and them mentality – it isn’t the PMO merely supporting the Board – it is about everyone working together to keep finding better ways to reach and maintain the purpose of the right changes and the changes right. There’s also a customer-centric mindset at play here too – not just about the thousands of students that are impacted with the change that is delivered but also with the various departments and services across the whole University.

The big change here for the PMO over the last seven years has been about authority. The first step towards the tipping point was being able to demonstrate that the PMO can really make a difference. First through a robust platform of project management expertise – then through portfolio management; business case creation; project assurance, establishing prioritisation and so on. With this accumulation, the authority to set up a new Change Board was granted. The story so far is all about the stepping-stones to providing a greater level of service – from the humble beginnings of project support.

What’s also interesting about this award nomination is that it’s not a celebration of having cracked it – that everything is in place and is working perfectly. This is a celebration of multiple successes that has brought them to a stage of deep trust and delegated authority. The next steps are about what this authority enables the PMO to do next.

So what is next for the team? There will continue to be learning and evolution in the Change Board, there’s also that work in developing and embedding the project and change management framework. Next areas include expanding the functionality and reach of the PMO into the University’s transformation programme providing independent assurance There’s also resource planning on the wanted list plus looking at prioritising the IT projects.

Perhaps the final word should be left to the PMO’s most senior supporter – the Vice Chancellor:

“The University’s success depends on our ability to lead change and create real impact.

Our PMO is a vital part of the future of the University and continues to make an increasingly valuable contribution to how we manage change.

The team are energetic and challenging, and I’m proud to endorse them for this award.”

Good luck to the team at the Open University at the Award on the 20th November – will it be another feather in their cap?

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