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The Three Levels of Agility in the PMO Mandate

Agile at 2080Back in June at the PMO Conference, Jesse Fewell took to the stage to give a fantastic session on the Agile PMO. Jesse* is the Founder of the PMI Agile Community of Practice and co-created the PMI-ACP Agile Certification. He’s Mr Agile and even better than that, he’s giving out some great insights specifically around the role of the PMO with Agile.

An Agile PMO is a PMO that supports and equips Agile approaches and it’s also a PMO that adapts to changing business needs too – an adaptive PMO.

Jesse started out his session by stating that there are opportunities and downsides to both of these two aspects of the Agile PMO – and in order to understand these we need to think about Agile as more than just project management.

There are three levels of agility to consider and these should be part of the mandate of the Agile PMO. These three are:

  • Organisational agility
  • Project / product agility
  • Personal agility

That means the PMO supports and equips Agile approaches – at three levels – organisation, project and personal.

Back to Basics

Agile ManifestoBefore looking at the three different levels, Jesse states that you should be regularly going back and looking at the original Agile Manifesto and the additional pages. There has been much hype around Agile and lots of different views and opinions so keep going back and take a look at the Agile principles as they were originally defined. The other thing here is that the Agile Manifesto is not intended to be rules – they’re guidelines.

Agile Manifesto“Don’t get caught up in the Agile dogma” is Jesse’s advice. And don’t get caught in “Agile guilt” where others are proposing that you’re not Agile because you’re not following every single principle.

All the processes, frameworks, methods, techniques and all the rest of the Agile stuff we see is a means to an end – to get towards these guiding principles. In fact a lot of project management techniques that we already use are also part of Agile approaches – they just have different names e.g., lessons learnt versus retrospectives.

“Don’t be intimidated by Agile buzzwords” is something else Jesse advocates. Concentrate on the context and the principles of Agile, go back and look at agilemanifesto.org

1. Project / Product Agility

Jesse started out with talking about the project / product agility which the PMO has to consider as part of its mandate, and a big one is the way the project is delivered. There’s the traditional approach of Waterfall that PMOs are already familiar with and for many who are adopting Agile now it is the second approach – the “Mini-Waterfall” – that many are using. He was quick to point out that in Mini-Waterfalls (and the Swarming) the project is also just as likely to go over schedule as any Waterfall project. The last type, Swarming, is also an approach which is less common, but again some organisations are starting to adopt it as their approach to agility in delivery matures.

The key message here for the PMO is that all three approaches are valid – it depends on the context of what is being delivered.

The bigger message of course is that the PMO has to support all three of these – and they need the toolkits to carry out that support too.


The question then is –  which toolkit to use and when do you use it?

Gartner’s Bimodal Approach

Gartner produced this back in 2014:


Gartner - Bimodal

The model is all about mature organisations will use the methodology or approach that best suits what is being delivered. The term ‘bimodal’ comes from this model – so if an organisation for example, wants reliability; more plans and has the capability to deliver projects in a conventional way – then Mode 1 is the way to go. The model is designed to answer the question – is it an Agile project or is it a more conventional, Waterfall approach?

Yet there has been a backlash to this model – mainly around these three areas:

Instead the thinking should be about how much Agile depending on the benefits you expect to gain from choosing that approach and how much you’re prepared to put into it to gain those benefits.

The benefits matrix is one way for the PMO to have conversations with the business about which approaches are the right approaches for the projects that are being delivered. It’s about getting everyone to understand how Agile and more broadly agility can be used for best effect in the delivery organisation.

Another way for the PMO to get involve is at the Organisational Agility level:

1. Organisational Agility

With organisational agility it is about scaling agility – and about how businesses are rapidly changing with a need for project delivery to flex and change in response to that.

For the PMO, its time to look back at the original Agile Manifesto again and notice that the things on the left hand side – people, deliverables, collaboration, change are not Agile buzzwords, they are all just good business sense. The PMO does not have to use Agile buzzwords in order to help support different styles of project delivery.

The problem occurs of course that many people working in a delivery organisation have only ever known the PMO as being an entity that stands for everything on the right – processes, tools, documentation, contracts, planning, control.

But the PMO is the main entity for helping to support project delivery – whatever form that takes, the PMO has to figure out how it can address more of those things on the left – whilst still doing what is needed on the right (remember, agility is not an either/or, it’s about whatever works in the context of the organisation and using the principles of Agile).

The PMO has to consider both parts – the methodology and the mindset, and the image below is one way to have the conversation with the business when it decides it want to ‘go Agile’. It’s about both these parts. Culture change has to come from the top and the methods and processes support that change. The PMO are probably more equip to deal with the method side – but what needs to happen on the culture side? Where can they help? Some definite food for thought here.


Another angle for a conversation with the business is the Agile Competency Pyramid:

This represents the three parts which will be necessary in order to develop a more agile organisation – in fact it is no different from any other competency building an organisation would like to do. The three stages allows the PMO to think about what is needed to improve maturity and adoption. It also enables them to articulate to the business that these steps and associated tasks and activities are necessary to get this right.

Another template to consider is the Organisational Agility Canvas:

This template can be used as both a planning template and a gap-analysis template. The idea is that for each of the original principles you can complete what might already be happening in the organisation – or use it to think about what needs changing. For example individuals and the culture – is there a culture of late working? Or for shooting down individuals who ‘fail’? How could this be changed structurally and in the culture?

The template enables a lot of thinking about what might be possible – all based on the original principles of the manifesto – and can be used by the PMO again to start those conversations.

3. Personal agility

The final aspect is about empowerment – especially for the project managers. If the PMO has a mandate to develop project management competence that means helping them to adapt and learn.

Using the PMI talent triangle as an example, the PMO is well placed to talk and advise on what’s needed in the delivery organisation now and in the future. If deep skills in Agile delivery is needed, the PMO needs to understand what development and training will address that. Or there may be a need for broader skills – or skills based on what’s in the portfolio in the coming months, even years. It’s not just about jumping straight onto Agile learning and development – it’s about knowing where the business is heading and the PMO taking a role in that capability development.

The PMO Mandate should be about helping people grow and evolve to enable people to exhibit personal agility in their project careers – so they’re ready for cultural and structural changes in the way things get delivered.

PMI Talent Triangle

Read more about PMI’s Talent Triangle


*Check out more Agile stuff from Jesse

Find out more about 2080’s Agile Project Management training courses – including an overview for the exec team

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About Lindsay Scott

Lindsay Scott is Director of Arras People, the programme and project management recruitment specialists. Lindsay is the project management careers columnist for PMI's Network magazine and co-editor of the Gower Handbook of People in Project Management. Lindsay recently created and hosted The PMO Conference and hosts the monthly PMO Flashmob

One comment

  1. What an excellent summary, Linsday. It was a blast to be a part of the event. Here’s hoping to more collaboration in the future

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