What’s a PMO Got to Do with It?

Synergized Program Management Approaches Show Promise for Delivery of Complex, Domain-driven Technology Projects


Structured, controlled approaches to technology delivery from Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) through development and integration continue to gain traction and momentum across both the public and private sectors.  Budget pressures, sustainability needs, IT portfolio management discipline and past failures of technology investments continue to drive organizations towards structured technology management.  Structured technology management focused on measurable, repeatable processes (i.e. CMMI ®) following prescribed architectures and detailed, actively managed development/ enterprise lifecycles are the norm in the public sector and are growing in prominence across the private and non-profit sectors. Domain-heavy disciplines, such as healthcare life sciences, financial services and aviation, have struggled to develop, integrate and adopt/accept software and systems due to process complexity (i.e. scientific discovery), human-capital intensity (i.e. personnel intensive workflows) and high-cost of failure (i.e. one error can lead to loss of life or millions of dollars).  Increases in technology management discipline and intensity readily provide improved resource management, better transparency and improved accountability.  The use of tighter more measured technology management tools and approaches often creates challenges and friction between domain end- users who measure success through the achievement of a complex mission and technology professionals who measure success through developing a solution that meets technology delivery imperatives that may not always align with end-users business practices. It can be, and often is, argued that highly structured development and integration processes are, and will continue to be at odds with meeting the needs of domain/mission focused end-users due to the fact that they are focused on different priorities and measure success in drastically different ways (i.e. stemming a public health crisis vs. deployment of low-defect software).

Structured measurable technology development and project management need not be at odds with domain/mission attainment.  At the heart of each discipline are fundamental philosophies that are at their core: aligned.  For example, the scientific method and the processes supporting discovery are not philosophically different from CMMI® processes and principles (each focuses on ensuring that results are measurable and reproducible to meet a set of goals and objectives).  Challenges arise in “translating” the approaches, methods and means of each discipline in a harmonized manner that allows for stakeholders and end-users to feel that the outputs and products of structured technology management and delivery align to their needs and imperatives.  Life sciences and aviation, for example, are very complex disciplines that require significant knowledge, education and training focused on core knowledge that is significantly distant from information technology in most cases. The same generally holds true for information technology in terms of divergence in education and training from mission-focused disciplines.  Ensuring that technology and program management meet the needs of domain/mission heavy disciplines requires a collaborative approach where the domain and technology expertise and structures work transparently as a means of ensuring that end products are adopted and thus satisfy end-user needs.  A synergized PMO (Program Management Office) represents an approach for effectively delivering domain-driven technology solutions in a manner that meets structured technology and project management imperatives.

The Challenge

Domain-driven IT projects often fail due to the natural tensions between domain/mission stakeholders and the imperatives of structured technology development and project management goals.  The challenges are especially profound in health, life science, and other science-based industries where standardized (often centralized) system development approaches  and IT management methodologies struggle to inherently account for and integrate the complex, specialized and mission-critical needs of the stakeholder community.  All too often projects are managed at either end of the spectrum, too domain-driven or too technology delivery centric, leading to unusable/un-adopted solutions and/or massive cost and schedule overruns with poorly documented inefficient use of technology.  At the crux of the challenge is the divergence that occurs when systems or software development management “locks in” needs and requirements and the needs of the business/mission evolve causing requirements to “drift” while a solution is being developed or configured.  The domain and mission stakeholders, particularly in the health and scientific disciplines, by nature constantly adapt, tune and change the way they work and their needs evolve iteratively as part of the process of discovery and the scientific method, often quickly making requirements obsolete or inappropriate. The divergence is compounded by the domain/mission stakeholder expectations and needs to work with tools in a tangible manner where prototypes or proof points help them refine their understanding of needs and the capabilities a technology can provide.  Program management, in such cases, usually defaults to being either domain-centric or PMO-centric, as shown in Figure 1, providing some benefits but some significant limitations as well.

Figure 1: Domain and IT Centric PMO Comparison

Domain-heavy programs struggle to serve two masters and usually fail to meet the need of end- users or don’t comply with enterprise needs and standards required for sustainability and overall program success.

The Path Forward

With so many domain-centric initiatives failing by following one of the above models, the question of how to articulate an approach to meet the needs of science and domain stakeholders while embracing the benefits and efficiency of diligent, modern technology development practices can be raised.  The synergized approach where “IT is informed by science” allows for IT management methodologies and processes to adapt to integrate with the domain-driven needs of an organization and its stakeholders. Figure 2, below highlights the role of a synergized PMO.

Figure 2: Profile of a Synergized PMO

To implement a synergized PMO, an organization must establish a balanced leadership structure that honors both domain and management disciplines equally.  A successful approach to solving the riddle is to establish a Milestone Decision Authority (MDA) responsible for final approval and decision making.  Co-Project Managers are responsible for the work and report to the MDA.  One Project Manager is cut from the PMP cloth and responsible for budget, schedule, and performance metrics; and the second Project Manager responsible for engagement with the stakeholder community from a domain perspective.  Decision making authority and conflict resolution processes and procedures must be established during the initiation and planning phases to ensure the project isn’t paralyzed with indecision and infighting.

A synergized PMO is more than a theory.  While complex to instantiate and requiring an overall enterprise culture that is supportive, embraces collaboration and shared responsibility and accountability, the benefits are significant as a synergized PMO leads to effective and timely deployment of technology solutions that are accepted by end-users.  Our work with laboratory information management systems has provided valuable case examples on the benefits and practical implications of the synergized PMO approach where life science and technology leaders collaborate in a PMO structure to deliver a nationwide complex domain technology solution.

With proper planning and attention paid to communication, a synergized PMO approach to managing domain IT projects can yield significant impactful results.

Look for future ZapFlashes on the synergized PMO approach as it relates to managing project functions (requirements, testing, performance metrics, project control, etc.) and case-studies highlighting successful implementations and the benefits realized.