The Power of a Strategic PMO

By Ben Sommerness*

The late Peter Drucker, one of the most influential thinkers on management famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Without context, this could read as a business’ culture having carte blanche over strategy. In fact, what he meant was execution-minded cultures can better deliver on intended strategic outcomes. He was right.

The unfortunate reality for many businesses is that even the greatest strategic plans are frequently not executed or operationalized with lasting or meaningful results. This can be due to a litany of organizational, leadership, and cultural deficits. Under the best of circumstances, realizing strategic intent is a challenge, but when a business is contending with any or all of the following deficits, it’s nearly impossible:

  • Alignment: Your teams lack passion for and alignment with a strategic plan or transformational initiatives. There isn’t sufficient “buy-in.”
  • Performance: There are few if any implementation capabilities (e.g. program management) and/or there is no bandwidth.
  • Collaboration: Little coordination exists across business units, functions, or geographies.
  • Accountability: No clear ownership or accountability exists ­– but there’s lots of finger-pointing.
  • Oversight: Executives don’t have ongoing visibility into strategic execution.
  • Structural: There’s a lack of organizational capabilities and/or dedicated resources to implement strategic initiatives with lasting results.

Enter, the Strategic PMO

In our experience, a standing, dedicated Strategic PMO can greatly influence these deficits, and more assuredly lead to meaningful strategic success. Strategy functions usually consist of strategists (surprise!), market analysts, business development specialists, and the like. However, rarely do we see a strategy function with a Strategic PMO. Traditionally, in most cases centralized program management only happens for large transformations (e.g. post-merger integrations and implementations). But, in our experience, setting up a standing SPMO is a critical step in making sure strategies come to life. Establishing a stable of program managers in the center can be a valuable resource to support business units, functions, and regional teams with implementation of key strategic initiatives. The SPMO can be a force-multiplier for internal customers, helping with a broad range of initiatives like geographic expansion and growth initiatives, major global product launches, an operations footprint strategy, and organization redesign to name a few heavy-hitting programs.

5 Keys to SPMO Success

An SPMO may not be effective for all cultures (e.g. execution-minded cultures where de-centralized program management is already well established). But for most large organizations, having a team of expert implementers in the form of an SPMO can help overcome common barriers your organization will likely face (like the ones outlined above) as you seek to realize your strategic goals.

If your company is thinking about standing up an SPMO, here are some guardrails that can help your Program Managers be successful and have the most impact:

  1. Be a partner: Having a central person as part of a decentralized initiative team can pose a threat to some staff. Therefore, ensure your PMs build trust, listen more than they speak, bring positive energy to the team, and only police when and if necessary.
  2. Adopt strong communication and implementation tools: PMs are the “quarterback” of initiative implementations. They should establish strong communication mechanisms (daily pulse checks, weekly core team meetings, monthly steering committee meetings,  etc.), and create a standard set of implementation tools (progress dashboards, activity trackers, risk identification, and mitigation reports)
  3. Hire competent, capable, and respected Program Managers: Look for tangible skills like experience, training, and certification, but do not underestimate critical softer skills such as collaboration style, clear communication, and inspiring leadership.
  4. Stay close to execution: This will enable you to more quickly identify critical issues and make them visible to leadership.
  5. Deliver results: Okay, this one is a given.

So many strategic plans sit on shelves collecting dust because companies do not invest in the implementation capabilities needed. Building an SPMO as part of your leadership team can help your company build a powerful, aligned, and committed culture that can make a meal of your strategy.

Have projects that could benefit from a SPMO, but don’t have the internal team alignment, collaboration, or capacity to execute against them? HighPoint Associates teams have deep transformational, program management, and operational experience, and can work with your internal team to overcome barriers to realizing your strategic goals. Contact us to discuss how we may be able to support you.

Article Author

*BENJAMIN RICHARD SOMMERNESS passed away unexpectedly on November 7, 2022. The HPA team mourns the loss of a kind, creative, intelligent colleague. The following is an excerpt from his obituary:

Ben was born in Duluth and was a 1989 graduate of Duluth East High School. He attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, graduating in the top 5% of the class of 1993, and was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army, attaining the rank of Captain. After serving active duty for six years, he attended the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, earning an MBA in Finance in 2001. He launched a successful business career with challenging and ascending positions driving strategy and business development at Boston Consulting Group, G&K Services, and Smiths Medical. Ben will be remembered as a loving father, son, and brother who cherished time with his children. He was a good friend who brightened the lives of those around him; with an engaging smile and sharp wit, he could connect effortlessly with anyone. An avid outdoorsman, Ben enjoyed canoe trips in the BWCA and tirelessly chasing pheasant and turkey. He was well-traveled within the U.S. and spent significant time in Europe and Asia. Ben is survived by his children, Aidan, Owen, Sophie, and Grace; loving mother, friend, and former spouse, Samantha; mother, Miriam; father, William (Jackie); sister, Ann Simms (Daniel); brothers, David and Peter (Jennifer), step-parents, Dave Poirier and Virginia Novascone; lifelong best friend, Dave Emerson, and countless other family and friends. He was preceded in death by his brother, Joseph.