IPMA International Project Management Association
26 January 2017 / 10:45

The Chief Project Officer (CPO) – a new role for project-oriented organisations

The number of projects and thus their importance for the success of organisations is constantly increasing. As a result, we see more and more project managers performing their jobs on a full-time basis (not parallel to other roles), the project managers are getting more authorities to balance the matrix, and Project Management Offices (PMOs) are installed to support all project managers as well as the top management in performing their tasks. Some organisations deploy more resources in projects than routine tasks (e.g. IT Departments or Outsourcing firms) and some organisations perform only projects (e.g. Consultancy and Engineering firms), which we could call “project-based”. For those organisations it is not enough to change the organisational structure only on the lower levels, yet they need to rethink the way they are managing from the top.

A Chief Project Officer is a new role for organisations that are highly project-oriented or even project-based. The CPO is a member of the Executive Board and responsible for all project-oriented operations. Main responsibilities of the role are:

  1. establish a governance system for projects, programmes and portfolios,
  2. direct all activities in the field of projects, programmes and portfolios,
  3. perform leadership for the project, programme, portfolio managers and the PMO, and
  4. support all other board members in chartering or sponsoring projects in their areas of responsibility.

The IPMA Organisational Competence Baseline (IPMA OCB®) describes some of these responsibilities in detail, so I´d like to highlight only a few aspects here.

To establish a governance system starts with developing a strategy for all projects, programmes and portfolios that is aligned with the organisation´s overall strategy. The newly developed ISO 21505 “Project, programme and portfolio management — Guidance on governance” defines governance in general as “principles, policies and framework by which an organization is directed and controlled” and provides the following guidance: “The governance of projects, programmes and portfolios should be an integrated part of the organization’s overall governance. The governance framework should integrate across the projects, programmes and portfolios within the organization, and where necessary incorporate the requirements of other participating organizations. The overall governance of the organization should support and enable the proper management of projects, programmes and portfolios.” This includes but is not limited to establishing “fit for purpose” structures, cultures, processes, methods and tools for managing projects in the organisation.

Directing all activities in the field of projects, programmes and portfolios means to be involved in the initiation of projects and programmes, to select and prioritise projects and programmes according to the organisation´s overall strategy, to ensure that all project charters are aligned properly to the strategy and to provide a transparent picture of the actual status of all projects, programmes and portfolios. A regular performance review based on Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) supports the CPO in his or her role. The CPO´s responsibility is also to ensure the organisational learning based on lessons learned collected (and disseminated) and to continuously improve the management system for projects, programmes and portfolios. Typically, a PMO or a Portfolio Manager supports the CPO in directing all project-oriented activities.

The CPO is leading project, programme and portfolios managers as well as supporting personnel directly or indirectly. Most project-oriented organisations establish a PM Department with a Manager leading all project and programme managers, maybe also the PMO personnel and the portfolio managers. In such a case the CPO is just leading the Manager of the PM Department. In other organisations the CPO may lead all people involved in the management of projects, programmes and portfolio directly, or as a minimum parts of them. The latter means disciplinary power for the CPO and the people are reporting directly to the CPO, thus on board level. This is a great opportunity for shaping a project-friendly culture in the organisation and actively supporting all people involved in projects, programmes and portfolios.

Finally, the CPO is part of the board and should support all other board members in chartering, sponsoring and performing projects, programmes and portfolios. A standard way of chartering projects in all remits allows for a comparison of projects across all remits and a standardized reporting. The CPO may be a sponsor for projects (e.g. the development of a new set of KPIs for projects), but usually the other board members are sponsor for projects in their area of responsibility (e.g. a CIO is sponsor for all IT projects and programmes). The CPO may assist the CIO to perform the role as sponsor. An Executive Board is typically also performing projects, mainly projects for strategic change. Thus, the CPO may be in charge of or support all activities related to that projects. Thus, the CPO is typically involved in change activities and needs competences in performing transformation and change (see the respective competence element in the IPMA Individual Competence Baseline (IPMA ICB®).

A CPO should have sound competences in managing projects, programmes and portfolios. However, more important is experience and a strong network as Senior Executive in order to be accepted in the role. The role of a CPO should also be aligned with all other roles in the Executive Board. Typically, the Chief Operations Officer (COO) is performing projects such as updating the equipment for production or improving the productivity, and the Chief Information Officer (CIO) is also performing projects such as updating the ERP-System or installing new software programmes. The Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) may also be in charge for projects in their areas of responsibilities. The Executive Board thus needs to clearly define the tasks, authorities and accountabilities in the field of managing projects.

What is the advantage of having a CPO? Simply, the role represents projects, programmes and portfolios internally and externally. A CPO is the “Voice of Projects” on board level, helps to shape a project-friendly culture and improve the performance of projects, programmes and portfolios aligned with the organisation´s overall strategy. Furthermore, a CPO helps to balance the Matrix-Organisation and empower project managers. Through a CPO the governance and management system in regards to projects, programmes and portfolios can be improved, decision making is focused and performing better and most importantly, the maturity of the organisation in managing projects is increasing in a sustainable manner.



  • Tim says:

    @Steve: no. The CPO as described here is for larger organizations. But if you referring to CPO as a “Chief Painting Officer”, then this could be a fun and fitting title for your case 😉

  • JS says:

    Reinhard, your article appears closest to what I’m looking for i.e. a strong matrix organization. Has IPMA or ISO uses the term Chief Operating Officer (CPO) in its standard? Is CPO the same as or equivalent to a Project Director which is commonly used? Can you provide real examples of organizations that use CPO, preferably with the entire gambit of project, program and portfolio management? Before reading your article, I thought portfolio manager acts as the CPO, are these terms the same or equivalent? Can you please compare and contrast the CPO role with the CEO role?

    • The Chief Project Officer is in the board, Project Directors are directing projects, so too distinct levels. Telstra is one example, there are others in Europe I know of, but the role is performed differently across companies. Portfolio Managers work for the CPO, collecting data and preparing decision. The CPO is not really comparable to the CEO, as I wrote it is rather similar to the COO or CIO, the part of the organisation that runs projects.

  • Joshua Anak Suring . says:

    Reinhard, is there any word that covers all three words of project, program and portfolio? Because Chief Project Officer appears to indicate only for projects, excluding programs and portfolios.

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Author of this post

Dr. Reinhard Wagner has been active for more than 35 years in the field of project-related leadership, in such diverse sectors as Automotive, Engineering, and Consultancy, as well as various not-for-profit organizations. As Managing Director of Tiba Managementberatung GmbH, a leading PM Consultancy in Munich/Germany, he supports executives of industrial clients in transforming their companies towards a project-oriented, adaptive and sustainably successful organization. He has published more than 40 books as well as several hundred articles and blog posts in the field of project management. In more than 20 years of voluntary engagement he served the German Project Management Association (GPM) as well as the IPMA in various roles and was granted for his international commitment with the Honorary Fellowship of IPMA and several of its member associations. He received his doctorate in the field of projectification of society and continues to be active in it through his research and lectures.