U.S. federal agencies, like the private sector, have been adopting new Agile scaling frameworks and ways of working to make product development more responsive to evolving business and technical needs for better outcomes.
Implementing a new framework sends ripples into the rest of the agency, affecting many parts of its ecosystem. Many times, these ripples disturb the existing framework, causing more problems than the solutions that framework promises to bring.
The Program Management Office (PMO) plays a significant role for many agencies that experience changes as they adopt new frameworks. The PMO can help guide transitions as the shepherd who understands the agency’s context, acting to maximize the effectiveness and efficiency of the framework.
The evolved, and evolving, PMO
The PMO has evolved over the years, with several variations emerging to meet specific needs including five most common:
1. Project Management Office / Program Management Office (PMO) / Enterprise Project Management Office (EPMO): The traditional form of PMO, the project management office, has matured into program management in many cases. This PMO follows standard waterfall and project portfolio management approaches, but will often bring in some Agile elements under a blended waterfall framework.
2. Agile Project Management Office (APMO): The APMO follows the heart of the Agile Manifesto and the often-overlooked 12 principles of Agile software. The APMO seeks continuous improvement rather than periodic, large-scale upgrades. The APMO supports self-organizing teams and helps remove impediments, rather than forcing consistency.
3. Product Management Office (PMO): The Flow Framework, popularized by the Project to Product movement, has given rise to a more recent type of PMO. This form provides Agile and Lean guidelines to address flow-based bottlenecks. The PMO forms teams that move from project to project, rather than forming ad hoc teams for a project that disband when finished. This supports better outcomes and predictability, since new teams do not perform as well as those that stay together over time.
4. Scaled Agile Framework’s Agile Project Management Office (APMO under SAFe): When combined with the portfolio level of SAFe, the APMO evolves into a framework support role. SAFe’s Lean Portfolio Management (LPM) introduces Lean principles such as maximizing delivery flow, visualizing value streams and favoring epics over projects—that is, work that carries over across multiple projects. However, it also adds more steps, with portfolio operations and execution. The direct modeling of the PMO based on SAFe is the main differentiator here.
5. Value Management Office (VMO): Arguably the most advanced PMO variation, the VMO acts like SAFe’s APMO, focusing on Value Stream Mapping and emphasizing business agility, reducing waste, identifying and addressing bottlenecks, and constantly measuring and optimizing value delivery. However, unlike the APMO in SAFe, the VMO will create its own ways of working specific to its own context.
(Note: For convenience, I will refer to all of these variants collectively as the PMO.)
Embracing the Agile PMO
U.S. federal agency leaders should explore available PMO options and implement the type that works best in their own environment, aligning with their business stakeholders. For most, if they are not already operating from an Agile mindset, that should be the first consideration. For an agency to successfully transition to an Agile PMO, it must first ensure that its staff and stakeholders are adaptable and open to provide sufficient time and space for innovation and change.
Unfortunately, most federal agency leaders do not have experience in co-creating new frameworks with PMOs. Experience shows that co-creating change results in more durable and beneficial results than imposing it and expecting buy-in. The latter approach often backfires, failing to create anything enduring.
We have a saying in the Change Management world: “Those who write the plan don’t fight the plan.” Co-creating means involving the people affected by the change early, so that they have visibility and a sense of control.
Solving problems as we go
In a traditional PMO, the contract covers everything. In Agile procurement and an APMO, the final product emerges through a joint effort during the process. The contract isn’t really the key to success; rather, contract management and execution through an APMO makes the difference. Agile Portfolio Management focus on discovering a solution to a problem during post-award execution, rather than specifying the detailed solution up front as part of the Statement of Work. This is the essence of agility, enabling teams to choose the details of the solution based on the individual situation, and to pivot quickly as circumstances change.
Improving your PMO
So, the new PMO is not the same as the old PMO--and that’s a relief!
Your PMO, in general, should evolve ahead of your agency, adopting productive change and avoiding wrong turns. It should act as an interface between the industry and government to bring in best practices, and evolve its processes continually. Consider the PMO as the opportunity to experiment and move to a new way of working, based on your current and upcoming planned frameworks.
When the PMO takes the lead, continually training its team and updating its processes, it can bring tremendous efficiency and agility to organizations as they try to meet their customers’ needs and expectations.
For more insights into increasing efficiency and accountability, explore our Operational Excellence pages.