“Do you have any questions.” The interview had reached that awkward stage where you have to ask something. Anything. Just to show you’re engaged and interested. The only problem is this interviewer – a Programme Manager – had been so informative throughout the interview I was left with no questions that wouldn’t repeat an earlier point. That hardly demonstrates an ability to pay attention. 

My brain ran through some possible questions but they weren’t great… Do you guys know what you’re doing or do I have to teach you everything? Are you the kind of boss that needs a reminder – or ten – to sign timesheets? Why does this meeting room smell like a sock?

What I settled for was, “I’m hoping you’re not looking for a lackey. Would you see this relationship as a partnership?”

A fair question, in my opinion. Too many PMOs are just so grateful for a job that they become servile yes-men/women.  The attitude is wrong from Day One. They go in intending to keep their head down and do what’s asked, when asked. They don’t try to show initiative because they may get it wrong. So they play safe. And they never challenge. 

The situation is worsened by PMs who think this is the way it should be. They model their PM/PMO relationship on Dracula and Renfield – an all powerful leader and a completely dominated servant. It works in some relationships, the PM may reconcile this approach with the fact that things get done as and when they like. But they are essentially on their own and not fully supported.  Nobody shouts “STOP!” as they make an error, and nobody is sad to see them fail.

“Whatever Master wants, Master gets.” – Renfield to Dracula, Love At First Bite.

The best relationships between the PM and PMO still recognises the hierarchical difference (if it exists), and certainly recognises the PM is the senior partner. But it is a partnership

Even with the most enthusiastic PMs, this can encounter difficulties. Everybody knows the importance of having a critical friend, but it requires great self confidence for a PM to truly allow a PMO to take on that role. Any number of insecurities by the PM can cause them to raise barriers that stop the partnership from working – such as fearing they look diminished to take critical advice from a PMO or even fearing that the PMO knows more than they do (which in terms of governance, they may).  It’s very easy to resent a colleague that sometimes may have to act like your conscience. 

The PMO can damage the partnership too by misreading the relationship. The PMO is there to serve the change community, and the most direct representative of that community is the PM.  This makes the PMO the junior partner in the relationship. Whilst we can work just as hard on a project as anyone, it is the PM who is responsible for its delivery so it is the PM who makes the big decisions. The PMO may disagree with the PM, but the best you can do is give good advice and continue to support them (unless they are behaving in a manner that requires escalation). Mistaking a relationship based on mutual respect with friendship, family, democracy or any other relationship based on having an equal say can be very hazardous. Sure, you can be friends – but the PM is the PM during work hours, so don’t forget it. 

As you can probably tell, this whole relationship and its potential outcomes depend on the behaviours of the PM and the PMO.  It’s worth investing in. For the PM, having a trusted partner seeing the project through a different perspective, helping them to avoid mistakes, keeping them out of trouble and supporting the team can relieve a lot of pressure. The fear of “unknown unknowns” is reduced with there being less blind spots. Sometimes just having someone there as a witness to the scale of your work, someone sympathetic and supportive, offers some relief. 

——————————————————————————–

The interviewer didn’t seem to know how to answer. He hadn’t realised that I wasn’t the only one being judged in this meeting. Sure, he represented a great business that would look great on my CV, but that wasn’t going to be enough. He had to demonstrate that he was a partner worth working with.  And when he eventually responded, he failed at his own interview…

Written by Stuart Taylor

Born and raised in Walsall, West Midlands; currently living in Buckinghamshire; career in project management; runs a lot but isn't getting any slimmer...

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