Passing the #PMP Exam—Study Group Discussions (Chapter 1—Project-Program-Portfolio and What is a PMO?)

I hope this post is helpful to those of you who are either preparing for the PMP exam or contemplate doing so. It comes out of the discussions we had in our study group for the PMP exam prep class held by the local chapter of the Project Management Institute.   We focused on where we were getting practice exam questions wrong.  We know the discussions were helpful to us because after having our discussions on each chapter, our performance on the exam questions improved to our objective of an 80% success rate or higher.

 In this blog post, I discuss the two remaining topics that need to be paid particular attention to when studying the PMBOK® Guide Chapter 1—Introduction. The two topics to be discussed in this post are

  • The Relationships Among Project, Program and Portfolio Management
  • The Project Management Office or PMO

1. Project-Program-Portfolio Levels

We’ve dealt with the definition of a project in the blog post for July 3rd. Here is the definition of a project contrasted with the definitions according to the PMBOK® Guide for a program and a portfolio, which are larger units of management within an organization.

Fig. 1. PMBOK® Guide Definitions of Project, Program, and Portfolio



Project A temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result.
Program A group of related projects managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits and control not available from managing them individually. May include elements of related work outside of the scope of discrete projects in the program.
Portfolio A collection of projects or programs and other work that are grouped together to facilitate effective management of that work to meet strategic business objectives. The projects or programs of the portfolio may not necessarily be interdependent or directly related.

So analyzing the definition of a program, you can see a conceptual scheme of a program that includes, let’s say, three projects and some related work that is outside of the scope of the discrete projects in the program.

Fig. 2. Conceptual diagram of a Program

Now if you go to the definition of a portfolio, you can see a conceptual scheme of a portfolio made up of a project, two programs and some other related work.

Fig. 3. Conceptual diagram of a Portfolio

Hmm … looks very familiar, somewhat like the conceptual scheme of the Program, right? However, here’s the important difference between the two schemes. The projects and related work that are managed as a part of the program are thematically related, indicated in Fig. 2 by all boxes being a shade of blue. The projects and program under the portfolio, on the other hand, may be independent¸ indicated in Fig. 3 by the boxes being different colors. But of course they COULD be interdependent or even directly related.

However, projects in a program CANNOT be independent in the same way. Here’s a summary of the possibilities based on the definitions.

Fig. 4. Summary: Relatedness of program/portfolio components


Directly related/









An example of a program would be the design of an aircraft, with the different projects being the design of the various systems within the aircraft. These would obviously have to be coordinated since they are all parts of the same aircraft, and changes in one system might have an impact on the other systems.

An example of a portfolio with interdependent or directly related components would be the design of a whole series of aircraft, with each program being one of the aircraft. This would be especially true if the various aircraft shared components or even whole sub-systems.

An example of a portfolio with independent components would be an energy company that has facilities that produce energy from various sources including wind, solar, fossil fuels, and nuclear materials. Setting up production of these would be independent because the energy sources would require vastly different methods (or tactics) of production, but they would all be related strategically to company’s objective of profitable energy production.

2. Project Management Organization

When the question in our study group came up of “what is a Project Management Organization,” some of us said it was directly involved in project management, and others said it was NOT directly involved, but played a “supporting role” so to speak. The answer according to the PMBOK® Guide? We were ALL right. How could this be?

Let’s take a look at the definition according to the PMBOK® Guide:

Fig. 5. Definition of Project Management Office or PMO

Project Management Office or PMO An organizational body or entity assigned various responsibilities related to the centralized and coordinated management of those projects under its domain.

The responsibilities of a PMO can range from providing project management support functions to actually being responsible for the direct management of a project.

In other words, there is no one standard for what a PMO can do with regard to the actual management of the project. One company might have it directly manage the project, while another company might have it be more of a supporting role, like being the repository of all documents related to past projects, almost like being a corporate project library (or using other terminology, handling organization process assets).

Another company still might have it provide assistance with specific project management tools, including project management software (or using other terminology, handling environmental enterprise factors).

So the PMBOK® Guide recognizes that any of these possibilities may be true for a particular organization. But in ANY of these cases, it assists the handling of projects for an organization by centralizing their management in some shape or form. To what EXTENT it centralizes it (i.e., the paperwork, the procedures, or the performance) is up to the company.


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