Building more agile project management offices

Shutterstock image (by Sfio Cracho): businessman looking at the city.

(Image: Sfio Cracho / Shutterstock)

While completing projects on time and on budget is a priority for federal project management offices (PMOs), business partner satisfaction often suffers. In fact, CEB research found that, in both the public and private sectors, 70 percent of projects are delivered according to the original budget and deadline, but only 38 percent meet stakeholders’ expectations.

Furthermore, our research determined that most PMOs have a significant percentage of portfolio value that is at risk due to troubled projects. In addition, a Government Accountability Office audit determined that federal CIO risk ratings are often inconsistent with the actual risk profiles of their projects, suggesting that many “low-risk” federal projects are misclassified.

The key to overcoming those challenges lies with project managers (PMs); their performance is the largest driver of achieving business outcomes. However, PMOs have historically been staffed with people who are overly process-oriented. Such PMs struggle to meet the pressures of a more dynamic portfolio of projects, which include more diverse project types and increased stakeholder scrutiny.

Today’s demands require moving from a workforce that is focused strictly on meeting requirements to one with a more entrepreneurial orientation. Such PMs possess a willingness to forge partnerships and approach scope change as an opportunity to deliver greater value. They also possess key entrepreneurial skills in the areas of stakeholder partnership, judgment, risk management and team leadership. Those are precisely the types of skills needed to facilitate government’s increasing adoption of agile development methods.

The rewards for shifting to an entrepreneurial PM workforce are significant. The most effective entrepreneurial PMs are nearly 1.5 times more successful at delivering business outcomes than the average PM. However, our research indicates that fewer than 30 percent of PMs have that entrepreneurial skill set.

Process-oriented project managers struggle to meet the pressures of a more dynamic portfolio of projects.

Although building such a workforce is not easy, there are strategies agencies can use that don’t break the bank and don’t require clearing their existing PM benches:

* Structure job descriptions to attract better candidates. PM job descriptions that focus on technical skills and certifications discourage candidates with entrepreneurial skills from applying. Progressive organizations write job descriptions that depict leadership opportunities with a broad scope and a strategic focus.

* Use on-the-job learning to build skills. CEB research shows that on-the-job learning is three times more effective in boosting performance than formal training programs. Therefore, 70 percent of PM development efforts should be geared toward experiential learning, such as making difficult decisions or working with people who have competing views.

* Develop criteria for assessing entrepreneurial performance management. Aligning PM performance to specific guideposts that reflect entrepreneurial skills and business outcomes helps encourage PMs to develop those skills. For instance, one of our clients sought input from the PMO community in identifying specific behaviors related to a PM’s ability to influence others. The feedback included ensuring fewer vocal stakeholder opinions were considered and setting and defending clear boundaries for project roles and responsibilities.

* Define a PM career path. At many organizations, unclear role progression stifles the ambition of talented PMs, who are forced to seek opportunities elsewhere inside (or outside) the agency. Developing a clear pathway for advancement within the PM space will help attract and retain talented professionals.

The demand for strong business outcomes is placing new and challenging conditions on federal PMOs. However, creating an environment that encourages and rewards entrepreneurial behavior will result in more effective PMs. By equipping the PM workforce with the skills to be agile learners, capable problem-solvers and masters of process proficiency, the PMO will be more responsive to those mounting pressures.

About the Authors

Kris van Riper is a managing director at CEB.

Lulio Vargas-Cohen is a senior analyst at CEB


  • Federal 100 Awards
    Federal 100 logo

    Nominations for the 2021 Fed 100 are now being accepted

    The deadline for submissions is Dec. 31.

  • Government Innovation Awards
    Government Innovation Awards -

    Congratulations to the 2020 Rising Stars

    These early-career leaders already are having an outsized impact on government IT.

Stay Connected