10 steps to transition from project to program management


Managing Director, Turlon & Associates


As project managers look to progress in any organization, they look for opportunity as well as career development. One of the pathways that they look at is program management. But what does it require to progress from project to program management? This is not always evident and, in certain cases, there are project managers who struggle with the transition and development. What do you encounter in the transition, why is it so different, and why is it so difficult? These are some of the questions that are asked and answered in this paper.

Paper Objectives

  • Outline the challenges that projects and program managers face when scaling projects and programs
  • Identify the mindset required to transition from project to program management
  • Define the ability to become a better project or program manager
  • Describe the role the organization must play in the transition from project to program management
  • Identify the principles of program management
  • The ability to influence sponsors and team members alike in program management situations
  • Explain how to effectively communicate in a program management language
  • Explain how to be proactive and reactive in managing situations in program and project management


As a project manager, the biggest driver is being able to deliver under the pressures of time, cost, and scope constraints. This is not new, but the management of these skills is of the utmost importance for the development of any project manager. Project management requires a balance of project management skills, leadership skills, and process management skills. The fine-tuning and continual balance of these skills is what organizations seek for continued success.

Program management is a natural progression for projects managers. However, many organizations do not see that there is a continuation of skills between the two disciplines. In PMI's 2012 Pulse of the Profession™ [1], it was stated by PMO managers that one of the most critical factors for success is developing the skill sets of project and program managers.

In projects, we talk about planning, team development, and process management, whereas in programs we talk about business delivery, team dependencies, and strategic management. They are two different sets of skills, and it is difficult for a project manager to develop these without guidance and structure. The first step in transitioning from project to program manager is to develop the mindset for program management (e.g., moving from the world of project/timeline delivery to program strategic execution).

The paper examines the 10 steps or factors that are essential in transitioning professionals from a project management role into a program management role. The ten steps are:

  1. Think business instead of delivery
  2. Think dependencies instead of schedule
  3. Think escalation instead of reporting
  4. Think strategy instead of scope
  5. Think conflict instead of crisis
  6. Think governance instead of teams
  7. Think transition instead of transfer
  8. Think challenge instead of salary
  9. Think relaxation instead of stress
  10. Think program triple constraints (benefit, customer, and cost)

Why are these different from the steps of project management? Because they are all business-related and none of them is focused on the task mindset that is often evident in project management.

The Approach

We will now discuss the 10 steps to transition from project to program management:

  1. Think business instead of delivery: Within a program management domain, the focus needs to be on business delivery with a fully focused program manager understanding what the customer requirements are, what is changing, and how the organization is reacting.
  2. Think dependencies instead of schedule: As program managers, we should focus on how things relate to each other rather than on how to deliver them. It is not about what the current position is; it is about how this relates to others parts of the organization.
  3. Think escalation instead of reporting: Escalation is a misused word in many organizations. Program managers should focus on how escalation should be used and educate the organization on how to manage escalations. A core part of the brief is to focus on managing the distribution of channels of information rather than focusing on the information itself.
  4. Think strategy instead of scope: As strategic management is a core part of any business-related initiative, the program manager should be able to understand and communicate strategy, and should allow others to engage with the feedback/endorsement of the program strategy.
  5. Think conflict instead of crisis: Conflict is the new change management process for program managers. They should be engaging, and most importantly they should use conflict as a constructive mechanism to get the point across.
  6. Think governance instead of teams: If a program manager cannot focus and communicate the governance of the program, then the transition from project to program is not complete. There should be a focus on governance as well as a feedback loop that allows all other stakeholders to get involved in understanding governance.
  7. Think transition instead of transfer: Business as usual (BAU) is central to how organizations work, whether this is customer interaction, service maintenance, or any of the items that exist other than specific program and project management. Some entity must manage the transition from project to BAU, and this is a core function of program management.
  8. Think challenge instead of salary: We, as program managers, do not get paid significantly more than project managers, so we must think of the challenge that exists and how this can benefit our development.
  9. Think relaxation instead of stress: The ability to detach and switch off is at the core of good program management. Think about jogging, yoga, or other activities that relax the mind. This is a core strength and helps us remain objective at all times.
  10. Think program triple constraints (benefit, customer, and cost): Think BCC: benefit realization or non-realisation, customer attainment or satisfaction, and then what does it cost to get there.


This paper presented the mindset for program management and how this is different from the mindset for project management. The core objective was to show project managers how they can transition to program management.


Project Management Institute. (2012). PMI's Pulse of the Profession™, http://www.pmi.org/Learning/Pulse.aspx

© 2014, Liam Dillon of Turlon & Associates
Originally published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Phoenix, Arizona, USA



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