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How to Set Up a PMO When You Have No Project Management Experience!

Everyone starts from somewhere, so it’s not totally far-fetched to think about someone setting up a project management office (PMO) for the first time. But to do so with no project management experience? Isn’t that unheard of? Maybe. Is that even possible? Yes!

I recently spoke at the PMI Lakeshore chapter in Toronto (Canada) on the topic and had to reiterate that, while it is uncommon, it’s definitely in the cards.

As my friend Russell St. Hilaire says, “You cannot become the PMO Leader by becoming a better project manager—because it’s not the same job!”

In this two-part series, you can expect insights on the following:

Part 1

  • Ways You Can Become a PMO Leader
  • Skills You Need for the Role
  • The Mindset You Need to Apply Immediately

Part 2

  • Step-by-Step Breakdown of Setting Up a PMO in 100 Days
  • Boosting Your Chances of PMO Success

Ways You Can Become a PMO Leader

What career path do you take? Is there a sure-shot way to get there? This to me is very interesting. Let’s take a look.

There are two broad categories that offer ways to become a PMO Leader.

1. The Conventional Way

You could be a business analyst who becomes a project manager and then a portfolio manager and then a PMO Leader. Or you could be a PMO analyst or a consultant (doing project management work) who becomes a program manager and then a PMO Leader. And we haven’t even thrown some other roles like software architects or designers into the mix. Even though this is a conventional journey, there’s no exact mapping to the role of a PMO Leader.

2. The Unconventional Way

And you thought that the conventional way was convoluted?

Depending on the needs of an organization, you could jump into the role of a PMO Leader straight from an Operations role—because you know these things:

  • Tthe ins and outs of the company really well,
  • Who to work with,
  • What to work on, and
  • How to get things done

Similarly, you may be frustrated with the way that projects are being managed with no common structure within your company and feel that you must take it upon yourself to rectify this by creating a PMO.

It’s rare that you would see the unconventional way pan out in a large, established firm. It’s usually not the first time that a PMO is being set within a large organization, and in their truest intent, they apply what they learnt from their previous attempts at setting a sustained, scalable PMO. These companies also typically have the resources to hire someone (consulting firms or experienced individuals) or promote someone from within (with the right mix of skills and experience) to fix issues in process, structure, and all things PMO.

It is more common to see a PMO being set up for the first time in mid-size or small companies (experiencing tremendous growth). The reasons for putting a PMO in place could vary, but all have the general theme of bringing order to chaos. There are challenges to getting started though.

Getting in consulting firms may not be the best option financially, and there may be a limited budget to attract the most qualified external candidates for the job. Monetary reasons aside, and especially for small-to-mid-size organizations, it is more crucial to put someone at the helm of forming a PMO who understands the pulse, culture, and dynamics of the firm. Positioning someone from within, who has the interest, inclination, and working relationships, is the best bet then for these companies to get a PMO set up successfully. In this instance, having project management knowledge or experience becomes a definite plus but not a showstopper.

Take the case of this PMO Leader I know:

  • Part of a small company witnessing turbo-charged growth
  • Had a new CTO who wanted to see a PMO set up
  • Had no project management background—had strategy consulting experience and was working within the firm with a strong knowledge of the company’s culture
  • Armed himself with a 5-day crash course on project management and, with the right support structure, was off to the races

Are you in a similar situation? Do you know anyone else who is?

Skills You Need for the Role

So what do all these permutations tell us about the role?

  • There are countless ways to get the opportunity,
  • It requires different facets, and
  • Every organization has varying needs and requires a different skill-set.

Let me be clear: Before starting the role of a PMO Leader, you need to have a basic understanding of the processes, standards, and techniques involved in project management.

But you can still skip away without having prior project management experience. It is not your job as a PMO Leader to manage projects.

It is your job to do the following:

  • Set standards and governance
  • Align the project portfolio to the organization’s strategies
  • Prove the need and value of the PMO
  • Support your team by removing roadblocks out of their way

While these responsibilities do need project management understanding, they also require these things:

  • Organizational knowledge: strategy, culture, regulatory needs, pain points, etc.
  • Business-specific know-how: HR, marketing, procurement, etc., especially if it’s a function-based PMO
  • People skills: relationship building, influence, negotiating, facilitation, etc.

People skills and project management understanding are non-negotiables for the role. Organizational skills are a strong nice-to-have, while possessing business-specific knowledge truly depends on the nature of the PMO.

The Mindset You Need to Apply Immediately

Even if it’s your first time setting up a PMO, you’ll be considered the expert immediately within your organization as soon as you get your foot through the door. In order to prove that you’re the right choice for the role, you must demonstrate your readiness by doing the following:

  • Showing awareness: Bring your big-picture thinking to the table and also quickly identify the context of the PMO setup; assess the immediate challenges you may face and know who you can possibly count on.
  • Having the right attitude: This is everything! Your willingness to have a “can-do” attitude and be flexible where required will serve you well throughout your PMO setup journey.
  • Moving with urgency: Time is of the essence and the success of your PMO lies in your organization’s perception of it. Take actions quickly and don’t hesitate to show that you’re on the move. In fact, make it a point that you’re sharing your plans, actions, and results with the right audience.

In part 2 of this article, we’ll go straight into how you can make a mark.

In the meantime, if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact me.

About Hussain Bandukwala

Hussain Bandukwala is the Chief PMO Coach and Adviser at Parwaaz Consulting (http://www.parwaazcc.com/), which provides coaching, support and resources to facilitate the success of Project Management Office (PMO) leaders at high-growth small- and mid-sized organizations. He has led and facilitated the PMO setup at several companies and advised numerous PMO leaders through their PMO establishment. He has authored several PMO-focused publications, speaks at Project Management Institute (PMI) events and holds a Bachelor's degree in Computer Science from The College of Wooster (Ohio, USA).

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One comment

  1. Michael A. Capovilla

    Are you serious! Yes, guessing you are since you wrote the article and trying to create business in the process. I will not go over the many years of mine delivering as a program manager and developing / managing PMOs, but I have seen PMOs fail due to the PMO Manager not knowing what they are doing, especially when they have no knowledge, or interest in the work that the PM is responsible for achieving.

    It is similar to when I am asked to implement a Project Health Check (PHC) process in a company to assess and document how well a project is performing and devise recommendations as to how best to get the project on track to deliver; without the experience and knowledge of the person performing the PHC, the evaluation and recommendations are useless, nevertheless not respected by the PMs and others in the business that will be responsible for implementing those changes to improve the project.

    I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this since I have a few other things on my plate right now, bus suffice to say that anyone saying that you don’t need PM experience to be an effective PMO Manager has not done this role successfully in the past, or the company in which it was implemented by that person is not aware of how well a smooth and well-run PMO can operate to drive the companies objectives and have an empowered team too.

    Good luck and regards, Mike

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