Program management is not a new discipline, but it is one that continues to cause confusion and misunderstanding. What is program management and how does it differ from project management? How does program management relate to project portfolio management? What are the key elements and challenges associated with program management? What does a program manager do that’s different from a project manager? In this guide, we’ll address all those questions and more, starting with the most basic of all.
What is program management?
Program management is the discipline of managing a collection of related projects and initiatives in order to ensure the best possible performance is achieved. Unlike project management, it will involve multiple different initiatives with multiple teams and may include a number of delivery approaches.
For example, a program to produce and launch a new car may have multiple projects concerned with the design, the development of a new engine, the software that will control everything, the safety testing and so on. All of these elements are related to each other so they all form part of the same entire program.
Program management vs. project management
Program management goes beyond project management for the individual projects, by ensuring that the overall goal – the production of a new car, is achieved as effectively and efficiently as possible. Individual projects are managed separately under the control of a project manager or similar function, but the program management function is accountable for ensuring that all of the dependencies are managed, that decisions made on individual initiatives always consider the needs of the program, and so on. That will require the program manager to guide and manage all of those project managers, supporting the project management function and the project teams, while retaining focus on the strategic goals of the over-arching program.
Within a program, there are likely to be a number of initiatives that are currently underway, some that will have already completed, and some that haven’t yet started. Programs often span multiple business periods and program management needs to manage the contribution being made to the shifting organizational priorities across those time periods.
The role of programs in strategic alignment
Programs are vital in successfully aligning work execution with the organization’s strategic vision. When organizations plan only at the project level they end up with a series of initiatives, developed from the bottom-up, based on current needs, wants and preferences of business areas. These are then forced to align with the organization’s strategic goals. This often results in the wrong work being pursued and investments being wasted with no ability to achieve success against business objectives.
In contrast, programs represent the logical first step in breaking strategic priorities out from the top of the organization down. They are large enough vehicles to be funded and governed by leadership to manage alignment with the strategic priorities, while providing the program management function with the flexibility to operate with a degree of autonomy.
Program managers are given the freedom to break out their programs into individual initiatives and allocate their funds to those initiatives as necessary. This not only drives all work directly from strategy, it helps provide delivery teams with context and ensures the ability to manage all work to optimize strategic performance.
Programs also represent the logical level for measuring performance and tracking metrics (financial and non-financial). At the program level , performance metrics are more directly aligned with strategies and contributions are more directly applicable to the expected benefits. Additionally, when benefit realization is tracked at the project and individual initiative level, there is significant overhead in trying to accurately track performance with no direct alignment with strategic objectives.
Elements of successful program management
To deliver successful programs today requires recognition of, and commitment to, a number of characteristics of effective program management. They include the following elements:
- Program level funding
- Program level governance
- Multi-discipline delivery
- Strategic alignment
- Roadmaps / Orchestration
1. Program level funding
Organizations are increasingly recognizing the benefits of Strategic Portfolio Management or SPM, a comprehensive approach to setting strategic priorities, goals and objectives and then selecting, funding and delivering the work in support of those priorities. One of the tenets of SPM is a leaner approach to funding – elevating funding allocations and the management of those funds to higher levels of strategy execution.
Program level funding is an example of this approach. Instead of funding the projects, products or other initiatives that are contained within each program, funds are allocated to the program itself and program managers are given the freedom to manage those funds across the various work execution areas within the program.
This puts funding decisions closer to where work is being delivered while helping to ensure alignment between strategic priorities and work delivery. Program managers can ensure project management and delivery is effective, and have the tools necessary to make adjustments if there are variances from what is expected.
2. Program level governance
Closely related to program level funding is the concept of program level governance. Program management is given autonomy to manage and control the work that occurs within their programs, holding accountability for ensuring that those programs achieve their expected business goals and always remain aligned with the strategic priorities that were the reason why those programs were approved in the first place.
Program management is not directly engaged in managing the various initiatives that are being executed within the program framework, that remains the domain of project managers using one of the various project management approaches supported by the organization. But the program manager retains an oversight function, guiding and adjusting those project managers as necessary. This may extend to making adjustments to elements of project management including scope, schedule and resource management considerations to ensure the best possible outcomes are achieved for the program.
3. Multi-discipline delivery
One of the realities of work execution today is that it is conducted using many different structures and delivery methods. Successful program management must be capable of supporting multiple projects and initiatives using all of these aspects in parallel. Program management has to support work being carried out using a project-based model and a digital product-based model. It will also likely be overseeing work delivered using each of the tri-modal realities by multiple project managers.
4. Strategic alignment
Programs often span multiple business periods. During their lifecycle they may well experience a number of shifting organizational priorities. This will require the program management function to restructure, reprioritize and potentially rescope the program in order to ensure that the work delivered as part of that program remains optimally aligned with the needs of the business and the current version of the strategic plan.
This is true for every initiative to some degree, but the larger scale and extended timelines involved with programs result in a need for more, and potentially more disruptive change to occur. Program management must maintain close alignment with the project portfolio management function and must understand the priorities, goals and objectives identified through the SPM process in order to ensure that they remain capable of delivering the required outcomes.
5. Roadmaps / Orchestration
Programs generally span multiple business cycles and contain initiatives that occur within all those cycles. There must be an effective and efficient way to manage and communicate information around the program without the need for detailed schedules for every project and initiative. Roadmaps allow for that high level schedule to be produced and maintained easily while providing a simple visual way of communicating key program information to stakeholders for both the program itself and the related projects.
In addition to basic information on start and finish dates of different program work items, roadmaps can contain information on dependencies, milestones and risks. Additionally, program level roadmaps can be rolled up to the strategic roadmap level allowing for management of cross program dependencies, risks, etc. across the entire enterprise while providing an intuitive communication tool for all stakeholders.
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The role of the program manager
Program managers have a distinct set of accountabilities. Program management cannot be viewed as simply project management with bigger numbers, it is a completely separate discipline. Program managers are accountable for managing the investment funds allocated to their initiatives, and to providing governance and oversight of all work undertaken within their programs. There are three key attributes every program manager must possess:
- Program managers must be leaders
- Program managers must be strategic
- Program managers must be collaborative
Program managers must be leaders
Program manager responsibilities must include being ‘leaders of leaders’, and managing programs involves guiding the efforts of the project managers and their teams that form part of the program, helping to resolve bottlenecks, and providing expertise and guidance on all aspects of delivery.
Program managers must be strategic
At the same time, program managers must understand and support the strategy of the organization. This involves recognizing when it is necessary to adjust their programs to support strategic needs as well as implementing changes driven by organizational leadership. The relationship between program and project managers is crucial to success and program managers must control that relationship.
Program managers must be collaborative
Program managers must be capable of managing a broad range of stakeholders and be able to develop and manage teams containing many disparate interests and perspectives. On any given day the program manager may be called on to support an individual project manager resolving a resourcing issue, and to discuss adjustments to the strategic objectives and the impact on the program with the CEO.
Challenges of program management
While project management is fairly well understood, program management is a discipline that many organizations struggle to deliver well with any degree of consistency. There are many reasons for that, but some of the more common challenges are:
Difficulty delivering expected business outcomes
Over the extended period of time that programs often run for, there is a tendency for programs to diverge from their original purpose. In part that happens as a result of difficulties maintaining alignment with the organization’s strategic priorities, and in part it’s because of problems with delivery at either the program or project management level. Failure by program managers to aggressively manage all elements of the program only makes this worse.
Difficulty supporting all work approaches
In many organizations, program management is associated with traditional, plan-driven approaches to work delivery. Program managers in these environments struggle to adapt to work methods that don’t involve traditional project structures or that aren’t delivered using waterfall techniques. With product- and even capability-based work delivery becoming more common, and with the tri-modal reality of work delivery, this limits the ability of work to be delivered in an optimal manner, restricts the ability to oversee project managers effectively, and restricts the program’s performance.
Lack of accurate and timely insight
Program management is a critical element of strategy execution. It must align with the strategic prioritization, funding and governance associated with SPM, and it must manage and deliver work in the form of projects and similar structures managed through adaptive project management or APM. To do that, and to be able to adapt and adjust to shifting threats, opportunities and needs, program managers need complete, accurate and timely information, integrated with the rest of the strategic planning and delivery of the organization. If the tools required to provide that insight aren’t available then problems will occur.
Inconsistent definition of what constitutes a program
In many organizations large projects are labeled as programs simply because of their size. This results in confusion between those initiatives and ‘real’ programs, as well as between them and other larger projects. Programs should be clearly defined as groups of related projects that are being managed as part of a larger strategic endeavor, and to optimize performance they should be funded and governed at the program level before being broken down into projects, epics and similar work structures for execution purposes.
Inconsistent approaches to organizational planning
Organizations are increasingly recognizing that traditional project based planning doesn’t work well. It results in bottom-up project planning that is ‘forced’ to align with top-down strategies and priorities, often with less than optimal results. However, until organizations complete the evolution to a program- and product-based planning approach they risk ending up with funding and governance decisions occurring at both the program and project levels. This reduces effectiveness and efficiency, makes it hard to manage work, and reduces overall organizational performance.
Program management vs. Agile product management
With the growth of agile product management, where a product is funded on an ongoing basis with work being broken out into epics, program and project management has been viewed by some to be an outdated approach that is relevant only in traditional, waterfall-based project delivery environments. This is not the case, the two are different approaches that can, and should, exist in parallel if a business is going to optimize performance.
There are similarities between programs and agile products. Both represent the level of funding and governance, and both are broken out into lower units of work delivery that are then handled through project management in one of the tri-modal realities. They are also both equivalent levels for planning purposes when it comes to changes and adjustments in funding, prioritization, etc. However, there are also key differences.
While products are funded for an indeterminate period of time and will continue to be supported as long as the epics within the agile product continue to deliver value, programs still have planned completion dates and a point where all work is complete. Programs can be broken out into both projects and epics, supporting all delivery approaches, while agile products are exclusively broken down into a series of epics.
Program management software
Organizations don’t need specialized program management software. Instead, what they need is an integrated software environment that allows a program manager to effectively leverage all of the information from the highest level of strategic planning and project portfolio management to the lowest level of work execution – regardless of how that work is being done.
That environment must be capable of reporting accurate and contextualized information in real time, supporting program manager decision making and helping to maintain alignment between organizational priorities, program objectives, and work execution. The program management process must support each of the tri-modal realities and must be capable of managing work across all structures.
Only then can program managers fulfill their roles as enablers of strategic success and guardians of work delivery.