The Agile PMO

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In all organizations of any size there is a need to manage the work of the organization and guide the efforts of the people involved in the work. Traditionally, in larger organizations, this guidance was organized under the title of Project Management Office, or PMO. The PMO usually consisted of senior project managers, along with some representation from the executives, accounting, and possibly even HR. This group had a fistful of critical roles to fill:

  • Work definition
  • Prioritization of various streams
  • Budgeting for the work
  • Approval to begin work on selected projects
  • Tracking and reporting of the work as it progresses
  • Documentation of the work done
  • Maintaining work standards 

All of these efforts served to keep the organization aware of what their workforce was doing and how various projects were coming along. They also served to ensure that the organization was not spending its efforts on low-prioritiy work when other, more valuable work, was ready to be done.

Flex on practices, but stand on principles.

As agile project management techniques come to dominate the modern workforce, many agilists have run into conflict with the pre-existing PMO's in their work places. Traditional PM's and agilists have substantial differences regarding how work is viewed, managed and tracked. During a major transformation there are a lot of questions to be answered:

  • How do we translate WBS's and Gantt charts into backlogs?
  • What role do our existing PM's play?
  • How do we fund these things?
  • Are we going to lose control of our work?

Any one of those could be (and should be!) another blog post, but the one thing that this article​ is focusing on is: How do we translate from a PMO to an Agile PMO? In this situation, I like to use my favorite touchstone; the one I teach all of my classes and all of my clients to reach for in most all situations: Flex on practices, but stand on principles. In other words, get past the specifics of any practice and instead look at what principles are brought into play by that practice. Once you understand the principles you can then alter the practices into new ways of working, while still maintaining the principles that made the practice valuable in the first place.

With that in mind, let's consider a pure agile shop where there never has been any PMO. Who, in this shop, is holding down the same duties listed above? For a single team working on a single product this is pretty straightforward: The Product Owner is responsible for the definition and prioritization. The org finances the Dev Team, who then meet with the PO at sprint planning to approve the work. Once the work is started the Scrum Master manages the tracking and reporting via the burndowns and kanban boards. Documentation is handled by the team, as the work is produced, and the entire sprint team maintains the work standards via Reviews and Retrospectives.

Work definition
is done by... ​the PO and Dev Team
Prioritization of various streams is done by... ​the PO
​Budgeting for the work​is done by...​the Organization
​Approval to begin work on selected projects​is done by...​the Sprint Team at Sprint Planning
​Tracking and reporting of the work as it progresses​is done by...​the Scrum Master 
​Documentation of the work done​is done by...​the Dev Team during development
​Maintaining work standards ​is done by...​the Sprint Team at Reviews and Retrospectives
Obviously, in a single team/single product environment the duties are small enough that the team itself can manage them. So what happens when we kick things up a few notches? Well, the larger this gets the stronger the need for better management of the efforts. So, let's assume that we are at least large enough to require one of the agile scaling frameworks out on the market today.

SAFe Agile PMO 

Scaled Agile's built-in structures already provide the things listed above and solutions for them. SAFe defines four levels, each broadly aligning with the levels of standard corporate heirarchy. Each one of these levels has a backlog and a team that manages that backlog. Starting at the top with Value Streams, there is a Portfolio Backlog that holds the largest work items, Epics. Below that is a Solution Backlog holding Capabilities, then a Program Backlog holding Features and finally the various Team Backlogs holding Stories.

Work definition
is done by... ​the various groups managing each backlog: Portfolio, Solution, Program and Team
Prioritization of various streams is done by... the same as above
​Budgeting for the work​is done by...​the funding of Value Streams
​Approval to begin work on selected projects​is done by...​both the prioritization and the funding of the work
​Tracking and reporting of the work as it progresses​is done by...​the Solution Engineer, Release Train Engineer and Scrum Masters
​Documentation of the work done​is done by...​the Architects and Dev Team during development
​Maintaining work standards ​is done by...​the ART's at Solution Demos and I&A's

With all of that being said, a SAFe shop may not have a need for an APMO, but if you really, really need one then start by inviting anyone at the Portfolio, Large Solution and Program levels who manages a backlog. Those folks have the insight, experience and authority to help you build out your APMO.

[email protected] Agile PMO 

[email protected] is the new kid on the block (until someone else invents a new one!) of scaling frameworks, but that doesn't mean that they don't recommend that the same duties and roles also get fulfilled. In [email protected] the 'team of teams' unit is referred to as a Scrum of Scrums. This structure carries with it three items of interest to us here today:

  1. The Product Owner Team: These are people who manage the larger backlog that feeds the team-level backlogs.
  2. The Chief Product Owner: This person is on the POT, but has authority over the overall prioritization of the SoS backlog, which in turn impacts the team-level prioritization.
  3. The Scrum of Scrums Master (SoSM): An SM role, but for the entire SoS.

If we look over all of those, we can see that...

Work definition
is done by... ​the PO Team
Prioritization of various streams is done by... the CPO
​Budgeting for the work​is done by...​the funding of SoS's
​Approval to begin work on selected projects​is done by...​both the prioritization and the funding of the work
​Tracking and reporting of the work as it progresses​is done by...​the SoSM
​Documentation of the work done​is done by...​the SoS's Dev Team during development
​Maintaining work standards ​is done by...​the SoS teams during their Reviews and Retrospectives

​Obviously, if you are throwing an APMO party, you'll be wanting to invite the CPO and the PO Team as well as the SoSM. But, as with SAFe, this framework largely does away with the need for a formal APMO. Also, be aware that [email protected] scales much larger than just the SoS, so read up on the framework and understand how those larger levels play.

Lessons... 

There are other major scaling frameworks out there, LeSS and Nexus to name just a couple. Using the principles established above, hopefully you can setup a translation matrix as I've done here. In each framework, look for the person(s) responsible for managing the seven pieces of work guidance that we've been talking about, and also pay attention to ​how​ they are guiding that work. These are the folks and processes that should be considered for inclusion in your APMO if you choose to deploy one. 

One final note of caution though. Each of the major frameworks ​already include PMO-like functions in them!​ If you are strongly considering deploying an APMO, then maybe ask yourself what value do you expect that office to provide. This might lead you to consider deploying an off-the-shelf framework that comes with such value built-in! Did I mention that Allison Agile is a SAFe Silver Partner? (grin)

(PS: Shoutout to Brian Rait! Thanks for the inspiration, sir!)

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Friday, 23 August 2019
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