Applying program management to IT department chaos to improve business benefits
This paper describes a method for developing a program from the myriad of project and operational activities often present in an IT department. These programs can consolidate management, highlight achievements, and better manage the delivery of concrete benefits that supports the needs of the business units.
While many books, seminars, journal articles, and lectures describe and discuss the optimal flow business strategy to execution, often decomposing the top business strategies into a portfolio management process with financial and customer centric metrics, that approves the creation of strategic programs and business aligned projects, many of today’s IT project managers live in and operate in chaotic environments that lack organized alignment to corporate strategy. However, there is still hope aside from prodding and patiently waiting for senior management to be educated and motivated to implement these techniques.
What is Program Management?
Program management is the management of a group of projects and/or operations to achieve business targets, goals, or strategies, and may or may not have a defined end point (Brown, 2008, p. 30). Although many sources differentiate between a program and collection of independent projects, the common theme for differentiating a program is the focus on a common objective or business benefit.
What is meant by IT Chaos?
Many corporations and corporate divisions and departments are staffed with dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of individuals working to keep operations running and to implement a plethora of projects. Characteristics of an organization with a high degree of interference include frequent changes in priorities and constant fire fighting (Brown, 2008, p. 199). Information technology departments may be among the most chaotic in this regard as they are tasked to support so many different ongoing business operations while constantly supporting new business products and programs as well as improvements and changes to existing products, services, processes, and operations. In many such organizations, there seems to be no hope of steering such a large, active, and chaotic operation toward improved alignment and strategic focus. “However, truly great program managers turn this chaos into clarity by creating a culture that facilitates success” (Brown, 2008, p. 5). Your bosses, and their bosses, are struggling human beings that do not have all of the answers. You must learn how your business runs and let the change begin with you (Block, 1999).
Advantages to Aligning IT Programs to Business Benefits
Program management is a discipline designed to focus on outcome and benefits. It was also designed to coordinate many interdependent projects and operational activities to achieve a common goal. It is because of these features that program management performs so well at helping to align IT to the business units within the company. In an ideal situation, corporate strategy decomposes into objectives, which are aligned to programs designed to focus on and fulfill those objects. Those programs, in turn, focus and align project and non-project activities that are best suited to deliver the benefits and objectives of the program, providing rapid and efficient delivery of the company’s strategic goals. “A company that has good business strategy, programs, and execution is bound to outplay a rival that has good strategy but cannot execute” (Milosevic, Martinelli, & Waddell, 2007, p. 80).
Creating and Managing the Program to Reduce IT Chaos
Overview of the Process
The following sections detail a process for identifying an appropriate basis for an IT program, and initiating, developing, and managing that program successfully. An overview of the steps is shown in the following:
- Identify existing or emerging themes and strategies
- Define the opportunity for a program
- Develop a business case for the program
- Initiate the program
- Organize and structure the program for effectiveness
- Manage the program effectively
- Continually review and improve the program (until closed)
Before You Begin, Change Your Perspective
A critical success factor for improving business benefits is to focus very intently and continually on the business benefits of projects and operational activities. In order to do that, you must think in terms of bottom-line results and in quantifiable change. Study carefully and in deep detail how your company makes money. Know your products, their life cycle, your revenue and expenses, your profit margins, your customers, your sales force, your competition, and the market challenges your company is fighting. Read industry journals and blogs, annual reports, and quarterly financial statements. Read the justification materials (if any) for existing projects and look at every business case skeptically. Once you feel that you know the basics of your business, you are ready to begin, but you must constantly be a student and evangelist for business fundamentals and measure success in terms of business benefits achieved.
A full understanding of the market or organization that is the customer for your program’s product, service or infrastructure capability will align your program more closely with the customer’s needs in a more efficient way, enhancing the potential for customer satisfaction and successful achievement of the business results intended (Milosevic et al., 2007, p. 383).
Identifying Themes and Strategies
While you may or may not be aware of your company’s or department’s strategic goals and objectives, there are still elements of strategic implementation at your company. Given your current operating environment, there are themes of activity present and some of those themes are supporting an underlying set of common business objectives that support the strategy that your company is actually chasing. It may not be the published strategy and it may not be the optimal strategy, but it is your company’s de facto strategy, and it is certainly discoverable if you do the work. While you might prefer to only build a program around an optimal corporate strategy, the definition, approval, and communication of that strategy is normally outside of your sphere of control. Invest in the capability to implement your current strategy and provide senior management with the confidence that bold strategies can be accomplished.
Within IT and around your company, take a look at the major initiatives, the large spending, the important issues, and the small projects in great numbers. Why do they exist? Who initiated them? What was the major driver to initiate the project? If you continue to review all of your projects and critical operations, you will find an answer to your “why” questions that is not too generic and is simple enough to be the basis for a strategy and contains within it a stated or implied benefit to your business, your customers, or another set of constituencies. You have then discovered the initiatives that your company should be holding dearly enough to itself to create a program in order to increase the likelihood of realizing those benefits and gain from the efficiencies available by managing these initiatives in a common way.
Exhibit 1 depicts two methods linking strategy to implementation. The textbook column shows, from the top down, the decomposition of a corporate strategy into supporting initiatives. The typical column describes the method often used to begin to organize chaos into strategic themes supported by programs. Once the typical decomposition process is completed, even partially, the corporate goals and objectives linked to the de facto corporate strategy can be used to develop programs designed to implement those goals and objectives and achieve the benefits sought by the corporate strategy.
Defining the Opportunity for a Program to Reduce IT Chaos
From the list of strategies you have identified, begin by selecting a single strategy around which to develop a program. Consider the following factors:
- Potential positive impact on the business,
- Amount and level of sponsorship likely to be available to this program,
- Resource availability and contention,
- Political ramifications of your organization developing a program,
- Relationship between business sponsor(s) and your organization, and
- Level of IT chaos that can be contained by this program.
When selecting your opportunity for developing a program, the scope of the opportunity is vital to the success of the program. In general, you are not selecting initiatives for scope, you are creating a program strategy and selecting business goals and objectives designed to deliver specific benefits. Do not specifically exclude projects that are not technology related. Be wary of choosing a scope so small that it cannot include the initiatives that will be needed to achieve the program strategy, or so large that almost anything can be thrown into your program. Consider your program a life raft designed for a subset of passengers on a sinking ship. A set too small, and the life raft has little value, but too large, and it will sink and will be unable to save anyone.
In reviewing the steps:
- List the non-trivial project and operational activities within your IT department or company, especially those with increasing budgets, activities, focus or requirements.
- Determine the reasons for the existence of these activities or changes. Do not just guess, find the answer if it has been documented or ask someone who would/should know.
- Define common sets of related benefits that indicate a strategy for the company. For example:
- Develop additional capacity for international business,
- Improve delivery speed while reducing transactional delivery cost, and
- Match customer service capabilities with our nearest larger competitor.
Try to avoid those too generic, like
- Increase profitability,
- Grow the business, and
- Cut costs.
- Validate your findings with business leaders or subject matter experts as much as possible.
- Define program opportunities and select a program scope.
- Begin developing the program (continue reading).
Initiating the Program
The selection of business sponsors is a critical success factor for any program. The primary responsibilities of your sponsors are to provide resources, leadership, and a voice for the program. Sponsors should be as high in the organization as possible without being so high as to not be actively involved in the program. Look for sponsors that share a bottom-line business benefit focus and have the vision to dedicate the program to initiatives that can make a difference in the organization. Ability to direct and apply appropriate resources, human and financial, to the program’s goals is important as well. Do not treat lightly your request that someone will sponsor your program. Ensure that you make the person aware of the expected investment of time and energy, as well as the potential to have a leadership role in the accomplishment of the programs goals.
Developing Program Charter, Goals & Business Benefits.
In developing the program charter, define the program strategy, goals, and objectives at a high level and document the initial scope of the program. The scope of the program is subject to change. The finite resources available to support the program are aligned with both existing and continually proposed activities that support the goals and objectives of the program in a constantly changing business environment. Draft this document and then conduct several rounds of review and revision with your program sponsors to ensure the charter is clear, concise and accurate.
Next, develop target benefits you expect the program to deliver in accomplishing the goals and objectives of the program. Assemble your business sponsors and perhaps key business advisors, to develop program business benefits. Restate the overall strategy and goals of the program, and work to decompose that into detailed benefits targets. Some of these targets can be time-phased (progressive targets by quarter), but they should all be measurable. This list should be reviewed at least every quarter, as targets are met or missed, new targets are created, and existing targets are modified to adjust to changing business conditions. The resulting program benefits targets are business-benefits focused measurable, time-phased components of your overall strategy to deliver business benefits. This list should be published as a formal program document, and should be reviewed regularly to ensure the goals will be met.
Organizing to Be Effective
In organizing to be effective, create several sub-teams with different goals and responsibilities. These teams form separate communities with distinct goals, each of which requires a distinct type of leadership. The most critical factors for program team success are team communication, cross-discipline and cross-project coordination, decision making, cross-discipline problem solving, and team-based risk management (Milosevic et al., 2007, p. 115).
The Program Team.
The program team is comprised of the program manager, sponsors, several support personnel, and key business advisors and is responsible for managing the program to achieve the benefits targets set for the program to accomplish the goals and objectives in support of the program’s strategy.
You will need several members of a program team to be truly successful. The program manager is the key team member and must be a strong leader to gain sufficient followers. Several other roles must also be filled. While the program manager could fill several of these roles, enlisting others improves your ability to delegate tasks, widens your potential reach in the organization, and keeps you walking the walk when you need a boost. The roles are the business analyst (truly a business analyst, not just a requirements writer), a communications writer, a meeting organizer, project managers (emphasis on scheduling and resource management), relationship builders (one of which should be the program manager), team morale officer, and a group of business advisors. These roles are not titled and many of them should not be considered official roles, but you should identify people who can help you fulfill these duties, as described in Exhibit 2.
The Project Management Team
The goal of the project management team is to consistently manage each of the components of the program effectively. This team of project managers and program management leadership should work to develop shared standards and practices that focus on the needs of the program and maximize success. It is vital that this group of leaders shares the program vision, is made wholly part of the program team, and is invested in the success of the program.
Managing within a program is different than managing an independent project, or even a project with a set of interdependencies with other projects. The team of managers responsible for running the projects and operational activities under the control of the program warrant special treatment for two reasons: (1) Their close tie to a corporate goal and well-defined business benefits give them a sense of prioritization and importance greater than many non-strategic activities; and (2) A primary benefit of organizing the program is to benefit from the coordinated, consistent management structure of the program. The project managers should develop, share, and manage as a team the following processes within and across their component projects:
- Scheduling and interdependency management—planning, managing, and tracking all interdependent milestones;
- Resource management—planning, managing, and controlling resource requirements, allocations, and expenses and working together to help secure critical resource when needed;
- Prioritization of activities within the program and across the IT organization—to ensure lower priority work does not impede important program initiatives;
- Reporting—Common reporting of project status, accomplishments, and issue escalation;
- Risk Management—Manage all program risks together and across all program initiatives;
- Team building—The teams of the projects are part of the team of the program, and as such need to be included in all program communications and activities and included, as much as possible, as part of the program; and
- Communications—Two-way communications, out to the project stakeholders and back to the program team in a coordinated way across projects and non-project activities.
The Communications Team
Create a team to meet regularly to create, update, and review the program’s communications plan, to draft and review planned communications, and to review and respond to communications received by the program team. Communications in general requires very special attention at the program level and is a significant source of the perception of success of the program.
Successful Program Communications
Communication is what turns an unknown program with few accomplishments and suspect benefits into a highly recognized center of productivity and positive change. This function is important enough to the program to create a sub-team to focus strictly on program communications. Develop a formal communications plan, develop a complete list of stakeholders, and review the list for the communications needs of each group. Be certain to communicate monthly program accomplishments (in business benefits terms), major releases of functionality (in business benefits terms), customer satisfaction results (comments, survey results), and quarterly reviews to a wide audience of the company, including all team members, sponsors, and business advisors. Do not send plain e-mail messages, as these are not read. Create a memo and attach the memo to an email, or even print and deliver it to important stakeholders. As a special touch, have the communications sent from the sponsors, not the program manager or program office, and include signatures. This is your way of rewarding your sponsors for their support by associating them with all of the business benefits and accomplishments of the program.
Converting Project Objectives into Business Benefit
Align the IT programs and state the accomplishments of the program and the projects within the program in business terms. If there is a business benefit provided by an accomplishment, do not communicate the achievement, but question why it was endeavored in the first place. It is possible that it was a necessary interim step to deliver a business benefit, but it may not warrant communication. Educate the project managers and program teams that in order to take full advantage the opportunity to communicate successes, those successes must be clear and significant to the business. One or two significant accomplishments to the business are much better than a laundry list of technical jargon that merely alienates the reader.
The Quarterly Review: Rregularly reviewing program goals and measuring progress.
Quarterly review the goals of your program and the benefits your program is set to achieve. At each review, assemble the program sponsors, key program team members, and key business contributors (especially recipients of the benefits over the past quarter). Set two goals for the meeting. First, review the activity quarter and summarize all accomplishments, resource expenditures, released or deployed functionality, and benefits gained. Then go through the published goals and target benefits for the program and judge progress. If these are truly measurable, then subjectivity can be removed and you are simply using a scorecard approach to measure results. For the more subjective goals, it will be necessary to review specific accomplishments and benefits realization and take input as to the perceived progress that should be recorded. Finally, consider updating goals and target benefits for the program. If goals have been completed and benefits have been completely received, plan to mark those components completed and not the accomplishment in the quarterly report. Consider new goals and benefits targets that are now possible or have become an opportunity for the program to endeavor, but ensure that these new goals are within scope for this program. Sometimes, successful programs are asked to take on work that is not aligned with the overall objectives of the program, simply because the program was successful.
At the conclusion of the quarterly review, summarize the results of the meeting into a quarterly report that summarized quarterly accomplishments and benefits, reports on progress toward goals and benefits targets and includes any changes to goals and benefits targets. Do not sugarcoat missed dates or failed projects, but do not lay blame in this medium. Simply state the facts and ensure to maintain integrity and focus on business benefits.
Developing Business Relationships.
The program should be considered an important strategic component to running and improving the business. As such, it is important for the program to build relationships in the business units. Develop opportunities to interact with business department managers, executives, and personnel, learn what is important to them, help them participate in the success of the program, and learn more about what the program is doing to improve the business.
Here are several ideas:
- Business education brown bag lunches: Invite business managers and executives from different parts of the company to present to the program team on a business relevant topic. Ask them to explain how their department operates, profile your customers, your competition, explain your balance sheet, cover some fundamentals of sales, pricing, changes in the market place. These sessions are not only valuable ways to spread business-centric thinking into your IT-based program team, but also puts the presenter on a platform to discuss their expertise and meet some new people. It is a win-win opportunity.
- Team celebrations: At various milestones, or just because it is time for a break, host a program celebration and invite people from the business units that have contributed in some way. User acceptance testers, subject matter experts, requestors of enhancements or changes, sponsors of projects, key end users, managers of resource providers, and customer representatives are all important to the success of your program and will appreciate being included. Your team will also benefit from connecting more deeply with those for whom they are building solutions by understanding them and knowing them better. Their work will have more meaning and they will be savvier about the impacts of their decisions.
- Project suggestion sessions: We do not have enough resources to implement all of the good ideas that our business units create. We want to implement the very best. But sometimes, we need to solicit ideas from people who have spent too long being told “no” and not getting what they want. Host a session to solicit ideas from those on the front lines. Don’t ask for CBAs, but for just four things from each participant:
- Be open minded and do not criticize any ideas,
- Be participative and suggest at least one idea during the session,
- Provide only two things: What we could change, and what we might benefit as a result,
- Agreement to answer more questions after the session with a business analyst.
Use a business analyst to scribe all of these ideas, then develop each idea to a one-page business case, and determine potential benefits and degree of effort. Some promising ideas will inevitably be unearthed.
- Risk solicitation sessions: Every program should evaluate and mitigate risks to the programs overall objectives. Host a session inviting business unit participants to help solicit risks, evaluate impacts, and create mitigation plans. Requesting their expertise and judgment is flattering and including them will always improve the quality of your risk mitigation efforts and the buy-in to your plans.
It is possible to form an IT program based upon a sturdy set of business objectives and benefits goals that will increase the success of not only the achievement of those objectives and benefits but the success of each member project, team member, sponsor, and customer involved. The tools and skills required are simple and well-documented, but do require significant effort and determination combined with a level of marketing, tact, and unselfish behavior. The end result is a successful program structure delivering a measured and documented level of business benefits on the terms and in the language of the business units. The business units the IT department supports may begin to see IT as a strategic partner to be relied upon to support the most critical business objectives, not as an alternate vendor, but as a leader and an ally.
Block, P. (1999). Employee manifesto. Retrieved from http://www.designedlearning.com/articles/NewsForAChange/Oct1999.htm
Brown, J. T. (2008). The handbook of program management. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Milosevic, D. Z., Martinelli, R., & Waddell, J. M. (2007). Program management for improved business results. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons Inc.
© 2008, Chris Tulino
Originally published as a part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Denver, Colorado, USA