Notes from 4th International PMO Symposium

I had the wonderful opportunity to attend recently concluded 4th International PMO Symposium at the beautiful Loews Royal Pacific Resort in Orlando, Florida from 6th to 9th Nov 2011. I was invited there as a speaker, and more on that in a little while, but let me share what I learnt there.

PMO Symposium is organized annually by the PMI PMO COP and is the largest and surely the best such event globally. This year saw over 435+ attendees – double from the last year! Though the participants were predominantly from the US, there were folks who flew down from Switzerland, Finland, Mexico and Saudi Arabia just to listen to various experts and practitioners talk about the thoughts, trends and advances in PMO profession. The largest participation still is perhaps from the conventional industries – utilities, nuclear power plants, construction, government regulators, confectioners and then the good old IT departments in many such industries.

This year’s theme was aligning execution to strategy and going by the issues addressed and the participant interest; it seems that is the hottest topic in most organizations globally.

Pre-conference Workshops There were four pre-conference workshops on Day 0, which happened to be a Sunday. While there were far more interesting Universal Studios attractions and thrill rides tempting and teasing us from a very close distance, I chose to use my Sunday afternoon productively and signed-up for “Essential Considerations for PMO Design and Development” by Terry Doerscher and Mark Price Perry, Founder BOT International. Both are industry-recognized experts and speakers on strategic planning, PMO and portfolio management. All four workshops were overbooked, and at $89 pricing apiece, it was a great way to learn of new ideas and trends from the practitioners and experts alike. Terry and Mark reminded us that PMO is a service organization that serves unique needs of organization through servant leadership. As per them, the core PMO functions are:

  • Gather and distribute information
  • Manage Demand
  • Reporting and Analytics
  • Coordination and collaboration
  • Issues and Opportunities
  • Capacity Management
  • Process and Tools
  • Specialized expertise and reporting

The prerequisites for PMO, in their words, are:

  • Significant chronic opportunity for improvement
  • Common to multiple areas of organization
  • Unaddressable by current structure
  • Expected ROI outweigh estimate costs

I think this is a very interesting articulation of why, when or where do we need a PMO. Having seen many instances where executives or other stakeholders struggle to figure out why exactly they need a PMO, it could serve as a simple and smart way to check if a PMO could help them. Significant chronic opportunity means we don’t simply jump with a PMO solution to every problem that comes our way. Also, there could be very specific problems that are perhaps best addressed by other conventional means than having a PMO in place. And finally, the current means must have been tried and exhausted before we turn to a PMO as a panacea (which it surely isn’t :)). The Cost-benefit analysis is simply good business decision-making at work. If any of these are missing, we might perhaps be solving the problem sub-optimally. That is not to say the problem can’t be solved by PMO, but that the PMOs would typically create maximum value when all these ‘prerequisites’ are present.

And finally, the PMOs drive values by:

  • driving consistency and alignment
  • create economies of scale
  • mechanism to provide new service or capabilities

A key thing here is that PMOs of the past were the dreaded and shunned lot because they drove consistency and alignment via ‘process terror’ (not Terry or Mark’s term, but rather my own take at it), but today’s PMOs are really all about facilitation and collaboration. Instead of the conventional ‘push’ approach that hardly works anymore (if at all it ever worked!), the PMOs today are expected to ‘pull’ the organization together and create an alignment.

Overall, it was a good workshop where we strangers got working together on each table and got to know each other as we identified and discussed PMO functional roles and responsibilities, structure and reporting, operating assumptions critical success factors and PMO development and operation in our respective organizations and learnt a great deal in that process. I would always recommend signing-up for such pre-conference workshops irrespective of your experience level – there is always something new we can learn in such sessions J, and it is such a wonderful networking opportunity, especially if you traveling out of town to the conference venue.

Keynotes I am a big fan of keynotes because they allow prominent thought leaders in the subject space to come forward and share insights and also create some controversies. To me, a keynote is not worth it if all the speaker does is confirm the conventional thinking. It should bring new ideas to the audience and dare to raise pertinent issues that set the tone for the conference and beyond.

There were two wonderful keynotes. Iain Fraser, an internationally recognized thought leader and a PMI Fellow, talked about governance and Jim Furfari, and ex-airforce pilot and instructor regaled the jam-packed Pacifica Ballroom in his unique way. Iain shared the mantra for good governance in his keynote “Governance: What does it really mean for a P3M Environment?” as – Future Focus, Identify Issues and Communicate, Compliance and Risks, KPI Monitoring, and Skills and Succession. He also shared some findings from the EIU Survey of 600+ C-level execs where the most important skills at individual level was identified to be ‘Execution: the ability to get stuff done’ and the most important capability for organizations is to find leaders to implement change. 72% of the respondents stated their organizational performance suffered due to lack of skills. Now, that’s lot of food for some serious thought! Finally, to sum it all, he elucidated the key attributes of successful governance, and two of them that resonated extremely well for me were – align horizontally and vertically, and use balanced scorecard approach to align policy, people, process and performance to create roadmap to excellence. This was music to my ears as my recent work has been on these lines and I have come to believe that organizations that can scale-up and sustain their success can only do if they are able to create and maintain such alignment and lockstep processes and people to create blueprint for excellence. Even my talk at the PMO conference had this alignment as one of the key themes and a critical success factor – it was a great validation of the approach from an expert.

Jim is an ex-airforce-pilot who used a lot of humor in his talk “Finance is Not an Option! The PMO Role in Enterprise Strategy” to talk about what maturity (rather, the lack of it) can do. He claims to have a unique expertise on both – building and bombing bridges! If you don’t believe in ‘maturity’ of your project managers, all you had to do was look at five video clips of airplane landings that he showed with progressive competency to handle higher complexities and constraints. If you don’t want to be piloted by a lower maturity pilot, why should expect your customer to accept his project being managed by a lower maturity manager? In his views, PMOs should be seen as ‘tough and competent’ – tough when the situation demands them take-over the situation and lead from the front.

Presentations There were 29 speakers from Australia, Greece, India, New Zealand, South Korea, Switzerland and the US. The presentations were top-notch and represented the growing importance of PMO in today’s business, especially concerning alignment of strategy to execution. It was pity that one could only choose one presentation from the three simultaneous ones, but the program guide and the symposium CD circulated at the registration provided enough information about the presenter and synopsis about the talk.

After every presentation, there was a generous 15-minute transition time for the next speaker to set their session. This gave ample opportunity to audience to network among each other and also catch up with the speakers.

My presentation was around my current work on business excellence where we are looking at creating a holistic program and not just focus on hard metrics. We have identified four pillars – culture, execution, innovation and operations as the key drivers of organizational excellence, and creating the lockstep is the key to achieving holistic results. The organization goals are broken down into horizontal and vertical goals which are then executed and tracked in quarterly reviews using a homegrown scorecard that allow us to track holistic progress for the organization. You can view my presentation “Orchestrating Excellence – The Yahoo! India way” and also the paper “Strategic Alignment of Horizontal and Vertical PMO Goals” that was earlier selected at the PMI National Conference, Bangalore, 2011. The paper talks about the approach taken in more details while the presentation is a high-level introduction to the framework.

Networking and Socials Microsoft hosted the day one social at the beautiful Hard Rock café. We pretty much had the entire care at our disposal and provided great opportunity to mingle with like-minded PMO professionals from all over the world over cocktails, fun games and Xbox. I met some very folks who are doing business with India and some of the very interesting learning was that almost everyone had similar situation – I have a team in India and these guys never open up. They remain quiet in meetings and I can never get them to participate enough in proceedings of the team. How do I change this situation? Not meaning to sound rhetoric, I did offer my 2 cents, but it left me thinking – on one hand where we are talking about raising the game for PMOs to get a seat at the table, most of them are also struggling to get their India teams to get onboard. Are we, the India teams, going to be the bottleneck? I hope not, but I also realize that I haven’t seen much change in this situation in last twenty years. If only we had a magic formula!

Vendors Vendor participation was simply fabulous. Right from Microsoft, Oracle, Planview, Eclipse, BOT International, to IIL, George Washington Universtity and even the PMI Bookstore, they were all there. Most of them were competing in the PPM tools and I thought Planview was the
only one where I saw the good old familiar “product funnel”. However, if you were shopping for the latest and greatest PPM tool in town, that the place to be. It indeed was an excellent forum to compare and contrast vendors and tools.

The highlight of vendor booths was the to-die-for sweepstakes! With iPads, Kindles and Laptops up for grabs, it sure made it even more worthwhile to go over to booths and check their offering out. I waited with bated breath to hear my name among winners, as were most of us, but alas, perhaps some other time :).

Conference Organization and Logistics If ever there was a conference going to be organized by the PMO professionals, it was only expected that it lived up to the highest expectations of meticulous planning and flawless execution that the PMO profession has come to be  synonymous of. And it surely exceeded expectations on every count! From the initial call for presentations to the selection of venue, scheduling of events, organizing logistics, not only everything was on time, it was also done absolutely error-free.

The venue choice was superb and the hotel service was flawless. The lapel mikes and on-screen projectors simply worked without any support staff! The break-out areas were large and allowed good resting places for those tired legs. I especially liked the small device that converts Blackberrys into handheld scanners. Whether you went to a presentation or to a vendor booth, your name card was scanned and lo and behold, all your contact information was instantly loaded in their back-end system. Vendors used it for their own visitor data, and of course, the sweepstakes. The conference organizers used it to record the attendance for PDUs! Their promise is that the PDUs will be uploaded for all participants! How about that?

Lessons Learnt This was a unique session that I never thought could be such a powerful way to end such a wonderful conference. We were down to the last hour on the last day and with less than 80-odd participants left who got together in this last session that stood between them and their flights home or Universal Studies park tickets, I for sure didn’t know what to expect. At best, a boring session and at worst, people walking out of the session!

Rommy, Frederic and Craig got us together and asked us to make groups of 5-6 folks sitting together and share what we felt came across as the two most compelling takeaways and then whittle it down to 4-5 per group. I think it was only apt to do some introspection, both individually and as a group, to condense so much of knowledge download over the past four days into the most important learnings. Then we went round the room and each group shared their views, and here are the themes and ideas that came up loud and clear:

  • Strategic role of PMO
  • Focus on organizational PMO – not just methods and consistency but benefits realization
  • Show value of PMO to organization
  • PMO is really to solve a problem, not to find a problem
  • Strategic attractiveness is not just about money
  • Change driver within the organization
  • Importance of communication – eve level and with stakeholders
  • Focus on strategic alignment
  • Involve more than just the leadership team
  • Focus on value provided to business
  • Org structure: where should the PMO report – it is important to adapt to reporting level
  • If you can drive your strategy through the organization, you make yourself valuable
  • Integrating agile in the org
  • Ingantibles can be part of the expectations
  • Project management is not a certification but a profession
  • Need to move out of the weeds and become more strategic and ask org how they can provide more value
  • Don’t just track the deliverable but the value of deliverables
  • Move forward from measuring project metrics to business value
  • Voice of the customer
  • Raising the level of PMO to influence the org

Hopefully this gives you a flavor of what was discussed and what people walked away with.

Road Ahead I was fortunate that my presentation was accepted and event organizers extended me the opportunity to come and present. To sweeten the deal, they waived off conference fee, offered complimentary hotel accommodation during the conference and even offered to reimburse the airfare to the venue (though my company picked that up as I was traveling for work at the same time)! Could there ever be a better incentive to become a presenter! I am thankful to my employer Yahoo! for allowing me to make my presentation. I got some good takeaways from the conference that I intend to put at work. I also hope reading these notes will inspire you to put up a proposal for next year, and if I could be of any help to you in this regard, I will be happy to oblige. I am surely looking forward to making another good proposal for the next year’s conference…

More details You can get more details at or Frederic also wrote about it in a blog post.

2 thoughts on “Notes from 4th International PMO Symposium

  1. Mick Gavin

    Many thanks for this comprehensive synopsis of the Symposium, particularly for those of us who were unable to attend. Maybe someday . . . .


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