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Navigating Without a Project Management Office: A Bold Strategy for HR Programs

Explore a bold shift from traditional PMO-led structures to uncharted waters using direct communication-centric project management offices in evolving (and wavy) business landscapes.

Picture yourself sailing across the ever-changing corporate sea, where the maps are constantly being redrawn and navigated by new courses. This is what project management in the modern world feels like. Recently, I came across a startup that decided to sail these waters without a traditional compass. Instead of having a Project Management Office (PMO) guiding their way, they tried to appoint a ‘senior technical program manager’ as their navigator.

I never considered this approach, and it intrigued me. In addition, it aimed to bridge the vast oceans between the C-suite and People Operations, the heart and soul of what traditional enterprises call “Human Resources.” *wink*

What This Post Is About

Today’s post isn’t about a role or a title; it’s about a paradigm shift in how some businesses (in this case, a startup) lead projects and/or foster communication across their highest echelons. It emphasizes prioritizing dialogue over directives, innovation over tradition, and adaptability over conformity.

As we explore this uncharted territory, we’ll dip our toes into the implications, potential, and pioneering spirit required to manage projects in a realm where PMOs may not (consistently) chart the course.

Note: the goal is to keep this post light and engaging. To do that, I won’t mention the company’s name because I follow ethical and professional guidelines – for both clients and potential clients. Plus, finger-pointing doesn’t solve world problems, and that’s what I want to do!


It’s Dynamic, Wavvy Project Management Office World

Traditional structures are constantly reevaluated in the dynamic worlds of project and program management. For example, I recently interviewed with an organization taking a bold step in their talent strategy. They were trying to appoint a “senior program manager” (note: there’s a difference between project and program managers) to streamline C-suite processes and communication across People Operations (AKA Human Resources).

In a nutshell:

Interests We’re Assessed

  • They knew that communication should come before technology.
  • It involved citizen development (they weren’t familiar with it, and I needed to get better at “selling” such things).
  • Our values aligned.
  • Plus, it would be a step forward toward gaining additional experience that broadens how I use tech for good.
  • It was also a step closer to scaling my dream impact goals (❎regional > ❎statewide > ????multiple states > ????nationwide > ????globally).
  • And a whole lot more!

Questions We’re Asked

Of course, throughout the interview, I asked questions:

  • Are there project managers already at your company? (A: “Yes and Business Analysts“)
  • Do their titles contain the words “project manager?” (A: “Absolutely“)
  • Do you have a PMO (Project Management Office)? (A: “No, and we don’t foresee needing one. Individual departments have their own project managers and business analysts. However, since this involves the C-suite, and the projects are different, we’re intentionally steering clear of establishing a PMO.“)

And things We’re (Somewhat) Clarified

To cut to the chase, I wasn’t 100% sold on the idea. Was this approach a stroke of genius or a potential misstep? Something else?

Research time!

Why Skip the PMO?

For clarity’s sake, I first thought this “PMO phenomenon” was unique. Then I read this article from the PMI written in 2014 (you live and you learn)! So, the currents are still shifting.

Traditionally, a Project Management Office is the compass by which organizations navigate their project management journeys (if they’re trying to strategically align them with business goals). Furthermore, establishing one standardizes processes, ensures alignment between projects and portfolios, keeps project management on schedule, helps with strategic planning, etc.

So, why would a growing organization choose to sail without it? In this particular case, it was a nuanced approach. In general, the top reasons were flexibility, agility, and the desire for a more direct line of communication between the project frontline and the executive suite. It’s like choosing a speedboat over a cruise ship for specific missions — sometimes, the ability to quickly change direction is more valuable than a larger vessel’s stability.

And that made sense for a moderately sized startup!

So Why Choose a Principal Program Manager, You Ask?

/start rant

I’m mentioning this because many similar roles have job description templates with “PMP preferred.” It’s okay for project management positions. However, take a minute and edit if it’s for program management.

The PMI also has a certification for program managers called the PgMP. The kicker is that it’s a step up from the “project manager gold standard,” known as the PMP! Who knew?

When you compare the two, the PgMP requires more experience, a panel review, and more! Why? Because Program and Project Management are different and should not be used interchangeably!

/end of rant

Back To It

Imagine navigating a ship through uncharted waters without a compass. That’s the challenge project managers encounter in today’s “fast-paced” environment.

Now, enter the principal program manager. Let’s look at them like the ship’s captain, tasked with guiding it safely to shore. This role isn’t just about overseeing projects; it’s about being a visionary, a communicator, and a strategist, especially regarding the nuanced realms of HR and workforce development and getting it aligned with the C-suite.

The Perks of a Focused Approach

Focusing on HR and executive communication through a principal program manager comes with perks. It ensures that efforts to scale (one of my intrinsic “tech for good” motivators!) the workforce and improve governance are meticulously overseen. It’s akin to having a specialized chef for a gourmet dish — the outcome is often superior due to the focused attention and expertise. Moreover, this approach promises streamlined communication, cutting through the noise and ensuring that messages aren’t lost in translation.

Potential Project Management Office Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

However, every strategy has its potential downsides. The absence of a PMO might lead to a lack of standardization across projects, akin to musicians playing without a conductor. To mitigate this, organizations can invest in cross-departmental training and shared tools, ensuring everyone is at least playing from the same sheet of music.

Another challenge is the risk of creating silos, where departments become islands unto themselves. Encouraging cross-functional teams and regular inter-departmental meetings can bridge these gaps, turning isolated islands into a cohesive archipelago.

Lastly, resource allocation without a Project Management Office can feel like a juggling act. To keep all balls in the air, a principal program manager can use prioritization frameworks, ensuring that resources are allocated based on strategic importance rather than the loudest voice in the room.

Scaling Without a PMO: Is It Possible?



It depends.

As organizations grow, the absence of a PMO might raise concerns about scalability. Can the flexible, agile approach continue to work when project numbers balloon?

This is where the role of the principal program manager becomes crucial. Organizations can maintain agility by adopting scalable methodologies like Agile and Lean (correctly and if necessary) and leveraging technology for collaboration and communication while ensuring that projects remain aligned with strategic goals. For example, if a company wants to create a PMO to better “standardize” internal processes with governance, it’s something to consider.

Referring to My Situation and The Role:

The Future of Project Management Offices (PMOs)

As with everything, the landscape of project and program management is constantly evolving, and the absence of a Project Management Office, while unorthodox, is a testament to this change.

Organizations are seeking ways to remain agile, responsive, and innovative. This principal program manager role, especially within the context of HR, stands at the forefront of this evolution, embodying the qualities needed to navigate the complexities of modern project management.

The Takeaway: Project Management Offices Are Evolving, Too

Project Management Offices aren’t disappearing; they’re evolving. Moreover, organizations are rethinking how to manage projects best to stay competitive in a dynamic business landscape. This means reshaping or even moving beyond the traditional PMO model for some. The choice depends on the organization’s size, industry, and specific challenges. As project management continues to adapt to modern business needs, the role and structure of PMOs will likely continue to change, reflecting the balance between the need for control and agility.

Lastly, choosing to forgo a Project Management Office in favor of a principal program manager focused on HR and executive communication is a bold strategy, not suited for every organization but potentially transformative for some. Like any strategy, its success depends on execution, adaptability, and the willingness to evolve. As organizations navigate the choppy waters of project management, this approach offers flexibility and targeted oversight, promising to steer those who adopt it toward uncharted territories of potential efficiency and strategic alignment.

As the saying goes, “In the waves of change, we find our true direction.” ~Anonymous

Engage With Us

What are your thoughts on navigating project management without a PMO? Have you seen this strategy in action, or are you considering it for your organization? Please share your experiences and insights with us in the comments below. Let’s explore the future of project management together, one bold strategy at a time.

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