Project Management Institute

Helping or hindering? The effects of organisational factors on the performance of programme management work



Sergio Pellegrinelli and Vic Stenning
SP Associates, London, United Kingdom

David Partington, Chris Hemingway, Zaher Mohdzain, and Mahmood Shah
Cranfield School of Management, Cranfield, United Kingdom

The reward for success in most fields is promotion. Project management as a discipline has undoubtedly been successful and has been used to undertake ever more initiatives in practically every commercial and public sector organisation. For many organisations projects are no longer infrequent stand-alone endeavours but the principal vehicle for implementing planned change. Such pervasive use of projects has given rise to processes and structures that harness the potential of project management within an organisational context.

Some organisations have introduced portfolio management techniques and processes to select, prioritise and schedule projects in order to generate the greatest strategic and financial benefits from limited capital and human resources. Project or programme management offices (PMOs) have been established, among other things, to coordinate resources, to develop and disseminate tools and methodologies, to advise on or enforce standards, to facilitate communications and to collate and report information (Project Management Institute, 2004). Faced with ever more complex change initiatives and project based working, organisations have employed programme management to coordinate project, and sometimes non-project, work to achieve otherwise elusive benefits and control. Programme management in particular has become a preferred approach to implement strategy (Partington, 2000), to develop and maintain new capabilities (Pellegrinelli, 1997), to manage complex information systems (IS) implementations (Ribbers & Schoo, 2002). Programmes in particular have been conceived as connecting projects to the organisation’s strategy. As the Project Management Institute's PMBOK® Guide states:

“Project management exists in a broader context that includes program management, portfolio management and project management office. Frequently there is a hierarchy of strategic plan, portfolio, program, project and sub-project in which a program consisting of several associated projects will contribute to the achievement of a strategic plan.” (Project Management Institute, 2004, p. 16)

The emergence of this structural hierarchy has created new roles and a demand for people to fill them. Experienced project managers have typically been promoted into these new roles. Some have been entrusted with managing programmes, and others with running PMOs. The input of project professionals has added value in determining investment portfolios and programmes.

Consultants and software companies have actively pursued the opportunity to help organisations embrace what they and their clients have seen as an extension of core project management concepts and techniques. These consultants and software vendors have been quick to provide newly appointed managers with enhanced but familiar tools and frameworks to operate effectively in their new roles. Structures and processes have been conceived to create tight linkages between an organisation’s strategy and the totality of its projects and related change activity (Gaddie, 2003; Williams & Parr, 2004). Proponents of this ‘enterprise programme management’ argue that it gives organisations greater chances of realising their strategies and achieving the desired benefits from their programmes and projects. Enterprise programme management offers greater clarity and control over spend, better deployment of resources and so forth.

However, this orderly, rational hierarchy from sub-project to strategic plan, and the implicit role and nature of programmes within it, has been challenged. Lycett, Rassau, and Danson (2004) identify a number of shortcomings in standard programme management approaches and argue that they can be traced to two flawed assumptions; namely that (a) programme management is in effect a scaled-up version of project management, and (b) a ‘one size fits all’ approach to programme management is appropriate. The likely consequence of shoe-horning programmes into project-level thinking is that many of the benefits sought in setting up programmes are lost. Some successful project managers promoted into programme roles have floundered, unable to ‘raise their games’ significantly to address the cultural, political and organisational challenges of spearheading major transformation programmes (Pellegrinelli, 2002). Where programme management entails the coordination of related projects, the knowledge and tools gained as project managers are directly applicable in their new role as programme managers. But, where programmes provide a bridge between projects and the organisation’s strategy, newly appointed programme managers need new skills and techniques. Their grounding in project management needs to be supplemented by a deep understanding of strategic management and organisational development.

The most able programme managers have a holistic approach to their work. Interpretive research into programme management competence by Partington, Pellegrinelli, and Young (2005) uncovered four distinct conceptions of programme management work set in a hierarchy related to performance. Lower-order conceptions were grounded in core project management concepts and practices while higher-order conceptions were more aligned to ways of thinking and acting emanating from the fields of strategy and leadership. The competence research and its application in organisational settings (Pellegrinelli, Partington & Young, 2003) suggested that relatively few practitioners hold higher-order conceptions. Most practitioners who took part in the research or in the subsequent development centres based on the competence framework exhibited lower-order conceptions. These included some senior managers responsible for programme management functions within their organisations.

Senior managers who themselves hold low-order conceptions may be poor role models - setting limited expectations or exhibiting lower-order behaviour. Higher-order behaviours are unlikely to be recognised and rewarded, and may even be deemed wasteful, inappropriate or disruptive. Collectively, such senior managers may unwittingly be hindering the performance of programme management work through the values, attitudes and ways of working they promote, the structures they put in place and the processes they impose on programme managers. These senior managers may find natural allies in those project and programme managers who also hold lower-order conceptions, for whom the culture, structures and processes will fit with those senior managers’ conceptions of programme management work.

Equally, the culture, structures and processes arising in organisations where higher-order conceptions exist at senior level may create unease or dissonance with programme managers holding lower-order conceptions, and thus may prompt resentment or resistance.

Neither stifling superior performance nor undermining the confidence or conditions for success of competent practitioners holding lower-order conceptions is desirable. Yet little is known about what organisational factors help or hinder practitioners holding different conceptions of their work, nor about how it might be possible to create an environment that enables the most competent without destroying the valuable contribution made by the others.

The Research

In this paper we report research that builds on earlier research into programme management competence (Partington et al., 2005). Our aim here is to explore two related questions:

  • What organisational factors are perceived by programmes managers as helping or hindering the performance of their work?
  • What, if any, are the differences in perceptions of helping or hindering factors between programme managers holding lower-order conceptions and those holding higher-order conceptions?

Our intention is to advance knowledge of programme management in organisational settings, and to provide insights and practical guidance to organisations on how they might facilitate the performance of programme management work.

This exploratory study is part of an on-going programme of research into programme management at Cranfield School of Management (Cranfield, United Kingdom). Six organisations funded this study and gave us access to interview programme managers, programme directors and managers of PMOs. Three of the six were commercial organisations: DaimlerChrysler UK, AstraZeneca and Microsoft, and three were United Kingdom (UK) public sector bodies: the Office of Government Commerce (OGC), the Inland Revenue (now Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) and Surrey Police. The OGC is an independent Office of the UK Treasury that works with public sector organisations to help them improve their efficiency, gain better value for money from their commercial activities and deliver programmes and projects more successfully. The OGC has expended considerable effort to distil and propagate best practice in project and programme management. OGC senior managers also helped us gain access to programme managers and directors involved in major programmes run by other UK government departments.

We drafted an interview guide comprising two sets of questions. One set was based on the competence framework and on experience gained in applying the framework for assessing programme managers’ competence. These questions were designed to solicit information that would allow us to understand informants’ conception of their work as programme managers. The other set was designed to solicit those factors or aspects of their organisations that help or hinder them in the performance of their work. The two sets were interwoven, so questions relating to a specific attribute of programme management work were followed by questions on what organisational factors helped or hindered informants’ performance of the work.

In late 2004 and early 2005, we interviewed 18 informants (Table 1). The interviews were recorded and transcribed.

  Participating Organisation Number of Informants  
  Daimler Chrysler UK 2  
  AstraZeneca 5  
  Microsoft 3  
  OGC 1  
  Department for Education and Skills 1  
  Department for Constitutional Affairs 1  
  Inland Revenue 2  
  Surrey Police 3  

Table 1: Number of Informants by Participating Organisation

The analysis and coding was in two parts. Statements relating to how the informants conceived their own work were coded according to the competence framework. The code combined the attribute and the level at which it was expressed. For example, a statement relating to the individual’s emotional attachment to their work, the second of four attributes in the competence framework relating to the relationship between self and programme work, expressed as a level 3 conception was coded [S2L3]. Organisational factors that were perceived as helpful were coded [+], and those perceived as hindering were coded [-]. The initial coding was undertaken by and was subsequently reviewed by a single analyst who had not been involved in the interviews.

Each informant was then categorised as having either a lower-order conception (levels 1 and 2), or a higher-order conception (levels 3 and 4). We were unable to refine our categorisation because of the limited information on each individual’s conceptions gained from the interviews. In two cases there was some ambiguity regarding the category into which the informant should be placed. Following a second review of their transcripts we placed both in the group of informants expressing lower-order conceptions. Of the 18 informants 10 were placed in the group expressing higher-order conceptions and 8 were placed in the group expressing lower-order conceptions.

The statements relating to organisational factors that helped or hindered were collated, and a list of quotations relating to organisational factors perceived as helpful or as hindering was created for each informant. We studied the quotations and highlighted key words or phrases. In some cases we drafted a synthetic statement in an attempt to capture the essence of the informant’s view. As far as possible we retained the informants’ own words and expressions, albeit in abbreviated form. One by one these collated lists were transferred to a spreadsheet with the columns representing the informants and the rows the factors. If a factor echoed an existing factor, this was inserted on the row. Where the factor was new, a separate row was created on the spreadsheet. As this process unfolded the number of new rows associated with each subsequent informant reduced. Through repeated review the factors were distilled and given synthetic descriptions.

We then divided the spreadsheet into four quadrants: helpful factors reported by lower-order informants; helpful factors reported by higher-order informants; hindering factors reported by lower-order informants; and hindering factors reported by higher-order informants. Our analysis entailed comparing the transcript extracts or statements along the individual rows. In particular we sought to identify factors, both helpful and hindering, common across the two groups of informants, factors either helpful or hindering that were expressed only by individuals within one group, and areas of disagreement where one group regarded a factor as helpful and the other as hindering.

In the following sub-sections we report the findings. We have included numerous quotations both to ground the analysis and expand on the synthetic descriptions of the factors. We also want to convey the nuances of meaning and the subtle differences between the two groups through the words and expressions of our informants.

Common Helpful Factors

Governance mechanisms with senior level participation. Lower-order informants saw these mechanisms as particularly helpful in determining the priorities and direction for the programme and valued the intervention of senior managers to make things happen when required.

“The programmes generally have pretty good steering mechanisms. Almost all of them have a body of senior business people who steer the programme, so if a change request is generated… there is a clear process for taking that change request through a steering body and then having an action result from that.”
(Lower-order informant)

Systems, methodologies, tools and external reviews. These were valued by almost all informants as underpinning effective programme management. One informant in particular saw external reviews as focusing attention and validating prior internal analysis.

Programme office or other support. Higher-order informants tended to see this support as alleviating the burden of administration, routine monitoring and report compilation, which were not regarded as central to the work of a programme manager/ director. The support frees up time for what they perceive as more important work, such as analysis and stakeholder engagement.

“In terms of support around, I built quite a significant organisation in terms of the people who ‘munge’ (crunch) the numbers and people who actually munge the data and pull the data to actually give them the space where they are free to do the thinking.”
(Higher-order informant)

Quality of people working on programmes, with particular emphasis on knowledgeable and credible project managers. While lower-order informants tended to emphasise delivery capability, higher-order informants emphasised an ability, especially in project managers, to understand the environment, to engage with stakeholders and to leverage their personal networks.

“They all do know what you’re talking about…knowledge of their particular projects is always useful, and knowledge and understanding of where they should be.”
(Lower-order informant)

“My project managers are clued into the environment that they are working in, but also through networks primarily, and having contacts and also taking time to actually talk and listen to people in the normal course of running a programme; talking to stakeholders and listening to them.”
(Higher-order informant)

Flexibility to recruit externally and redeploy resources. In some cases there were hurdles in recruiting or redeploying people, but the possibility to do so was valued.

Knowledge of business goals and existence of an agreed strategy. Lower-order informants talked about the importance of an agreed, shared strategy, while higher-order informants focused more on understanding and participating in strategy deliberations.

“What has helped enormously is having strategy of [the organisation] to align to, and it’s about having things that are clear…clear priorities and objectives for the organization.”
(Lower-order informant)

“Yes I do have a clear understanding of the strategy. In part that’s because I’m privy to the discussions about how the strategy was shaped and put together.”
(Higher-order informant)

Personal accountability. This was perceived as important whether as an explicit assignment of accountability for delivery/ results or as a cultural norm.

Access to senior people. This was considered helpful especially where there was a strong formal hierarchy.

Collaborative culture. Informants perceived team working – the willingness to help out and be involved - as helpful.

Common Hindering Factors

Organisational structures, boundaries and divergent priorities. Organisational structures beyond the programme were seen to give rise to tensions between local and global/ central priorities, parochialism, petty politic. These tensions were perceived as a major hindrance.

“I’ve been told on more than one occasion by lots of different people, quite a few very senior, that they’re not going to give the programme or the projects any consideration because we’re not in Business Services. So that’s people, that’s not about the structure. That’s about people and empires and being silly.”
(Lower-order informant)

“…never-ending sort of battle between global and local, so when you have eight sites you have quite a strong pull from the sites to support local activities, quite often particular to that site, very important to the people at the site. And there is always a tension there between doing that and doing the larger sort of global projects and global programmes that are focused more on meeting common needs and solving common sets of requirements.”
(Lower-order informant)

“…local priorities [hinder our ability to get information]… we operate with a very small physical team, but with a very large virtual team and so at the moment we are trying to construct a team of implementation managers to role out a global risk based approach. Getting names in the frame is very difficult…But you do know its all through local pressures…They just don’t have that (support) to give now so you have to go in there and lobby and influence a lot harder.”
(Higher-order informant)

Vulnerability to external forces/ agendas. Lower-order informants seemed more affected by their perceived vulnerability to external factors, while higher-order informants seemed to regard it more as a fact of life.

“There’s been a slight dampening of aspirations is the best way of putting it…programme is based upon a change in government policy which it was felt might happen this year, and it hasn’t happened and we now know it won’t happen at least until after the next election.”
(Lower-order informant)

“That’s the nature of our business, there is always going to be this thing that comes in from left-field, that’s got political sensitivity.”
(Higher-order informant)

“A democratically elected government… is to an extent hostage to fortune, and the degree of adaptation it has to do on the fly is great.”
(Higher-order informant)

Low commitment and control of people. The limited ability of programme managers/ directors to ensure that commitments are honoured and to control effort on programmes was seen as hindering their work.

“The delivery organisations that the [organisation] works through, are not under any contractual or controlling means…They can all turn their fingers up and walk off down the road, to a large extent.”
(Higher-order informant)

Bureaucratic or unclear processes. These were seen as annoying and time consuming.

“Well, if you don’t have approval you can’t spend the money. To get approval is a great long-winded bureaucratic process with some crap business case that has 12 different bits to it, to constitute it, which is rubbish, absolute rubbish.”
(Lower-order informant)

“Our internal portfolio process is a mystery to all. It keeps changing, so in terms of working towards getting phased two sanctioned, the goalpost keep changing, so that really hinders things.”
(Higher-order informant)

Complexity, scale or diversity. These factors were seen as creating challenges and difficulties.

“…the complexity of the way [the organisation] is organized. It means that we have a lot more work, a lot more processes and a lot more double checking, a lot more championing, a lot more influencing to do… So that is one of the obstacles, hindrances that we have is the complexity of the organization.”
(Lower-order informant)

“There’s also something about just the sheer scale of what you’re managing, the order of magnitude makes a difference.”
(Higher-order informant)

“…but you can be fluent in English, and there still can be nuances that you don’t pick up, so there’s still plenty of scope for miscommunication. The centre is a vast organisation, massive, and simply knowing who to ask can be an issue.”
(Higher-order informant)

Low tolerance of, or resistance to, change. Higher-order informants tended to empathise more with the difficulties of those being asked to do things differently than their own change agendas.

“BAU [business as usual] folk involved in the change, that’s a real hindrance…to pull people into a change programme can be cruel, it can be cruel. And it’s not just being critical of them, it’s actually not a fair environment to put them in because it just equates to pain for them. They are not causing problems for me for the hell of it, because these are very nice, very intelligent, very clever people. But it’s literally putting them so far out of their comfort zone. And expecting them to stay there and perform well, it’s not fair on them at all I don’t think.”
(Higher-order informant)

“…very weird the attitude, often: ‘I’ve been doing it this way for 15 years and I’m going to keep doing it this way’. So whilst that means you’ve got very competent people who know what they’re doing [providing support to the project] it also means they’re very set in their ways and resistant to change.”
(Lower-order informant)

“…whatever business reasons, and whether it’s better or worse for the individuals, there’s resistance to changing the way it’s normally done.”
(Lower-order informant)

“One of the things that hinders is that we’ve been moving very fast – I think probably faster than a lot of organisational comfort levels.”
(Higher-order informant)

Rank, grade or status consciousness. Informants perceived rank, grade or status consciousness as creating barriers and difficulties both in terms of access to senior people and in fostering professional respect and credibility for people engaged in project and programme management work.

“People are rank conscious and it’s more difficult for a junior ranking officer to approach a senior ranking officer directly possibly.”
(Higher-order informant)

“It’s mostly because I’m a junior grade, and if I was a senior civil servant, for instance, I probably would not have had so much of a problem.”
(Lower-order informant)

“The guys working for me are expects, but they’re fundamentally regarded as home boys from within [the organisation] and you get this thing of - I’m bigger than you.”
(Higher-order informant)

Premature drive to solutions or action. Impatience and urgency for action and results were seen as constraining or contracting the period for necessary planning and validation.

“[The organisation] tends to drive very quickly to a solution and so culturally we tend to be…we want the first solution we can think off and we want to be acting on that solution, it is very action orientated.”
(Higher-order informant)

“…part way through: ‘that’s it, we’ll have that, we’ll go’, and they don’t finish the job, they don’t check. And I think that’s why they don’t get the benefits…There wasn’t enough time to sit back and take stock and think about all the things that really could become a problem, and all the obstacles that we were going to overcome…I think I would have, in an ideal world, spent more time preparing to implement rather than just implementing.”
(Lower-order informant)

Helping or Hindering Factors Perceived Only by Lower-order Informants

Escalation process. Lower-order informants valued a clear escalation process and the willingness of the sponsor or Senior Responsible Owner (SRO) to intervene.

“They [senior management team] look at it from an operational point of view, I look at it from a project point of view. If I can’t get the answer I want from them then I go up to programme board, and even then beyond…So I’ve got clear escalation.”

“…the SRO…he’s committed to it, and so therefore if I don’t get what I want from the directors I sit down with my SRO: ‘they’re not doing this, or they’re not doing that’…the project manager doesn’t want to do the project. But it’s not an issue for me because my SRO says they are going to do the project, so they might begrudgingly…they might not want to do it.”

Budget restrictions. These were perceived as causing uncertainties and tensions.

“It’s very difficult for me to be confident about what we can or can’t resource…We have a flat budget situation. And that’s proving to be quite a difficult thing because we have been used to a compound growth rate of maybe three or four percent in terms of increased resources, so there was always capacity available to do new things, and now we are in a situation where in order to do the things that we need to do and to do new things we are going to have to look very hard at our portfolio and actually decide to stop doing some things that we have been doing.”

Abrogation by boards or senior managers. Lower-order informants resented project or programme boards not intervening actively. They also became concerned when senior managers absented themselves from steering groups thereby reducing the power of formal governance mechanisms.

“But as a programme board it was rubbish… because you want a programme board that will deal with things like this client service issue which I can’t; it’s cross-cutting all these things. So you need people who are there to help with those, who are interested probably in the finances and stuff like that as well as the delivery and helping you sort out any problems.”

“It was quite clear that the project board had lost some of its clout because not all the senior members were attending [meetings] sufficiently frequently.”

Helping or Hindering Factors Perceived Only by Higher-order Informants

Fluid environment, accepting and accommodating change. Higher order informants appreciated an organisational environment that allowed them easily to make changes and to perform their work in a manner they deemed appropriate.

“I say it’s a very fluid environment. We don’t impose rigorous process on anything unless there’s an absolute need to do so.”

“So you are always dealing with that ability to change in terms of the requirement and change in terms of the need that is coming out of the product and the product side of things. It comes back to my creative versus control, actually you end up in a situation where you have got to be able to flex, you have got to be able to move… it is quite a relaxed organisation to make the change.”

“The environment I work in is [one where] we’re going to do the opposite [to imposing a single methodology or approach], we’re going to look at what we’re going to try and get done and we’re going to adapt all the tools and techniques for managing it, to what’s most effective to get that done, which is a completely contingent approach.”

Empowerment and trust. Higher order informants appreciated having ample freedom and being trusted to do their work.

“There’s a huge amount of empowerment. You’re very much given the rope, or whatever term, to hang yourself with.”

“I’ve got a lot of trust and a lot of room for movement…the organisation supports me to enable me to do that. I can see in a lot of organisations where I wouldn’t have that authority, where that would be somebody else’s role to make that sort of arrangement.”

Can-do, pragmatic culture. Higher order informants valued these cultural traits.

“But there is no issue around just getting stuff done and upsetting other people, so I think really it’s purely down to culture. I can’t think of another thing that helps, it’s just generally everybody accepts that. That’s the environment, and everyone’s happy with it.”

“…[we have] always been able to take situations and resolve them and build solutions out of nothing because that’s the nature of the work out there - very practical, very pragmatic approach to things, to get solutions.”

Rigidity A corollary of the helpfulness of a fluid environment is that rigidity was perceived as hindering.

“It’s frustrating in terms of the fact that the programme is nailed down so much and I have actually said I wouldn’t do another one like this. If we do phase 2, I’m not doing phase 2 like this, because there is very little room to manoeuvre and you do need to be able to flex and shift and move round because the end game is the value, is the actual effect of the change and you have to be able to move round in order to do that. You have got an end game in sight, just because you started off in one particular way it doesn’t mean that that is the right way to finish, if you know what I mean. So in order to do that at the present time I have very little room to manoeuvre.”

Naïve approach to risk. Excessive risk aversion or attitudes verging on recklessness were regarded as hindering.

“Change brings about with it, by the very nature of it, uncertainty, risk - all the things that these people [senior stakeholders] are hard wired to avoid….They may like the idea of the end game, but it’s going through the transition that makes them feel very worried and very nervous…fine words said, we talk a lot about if something doesn’t work out it’s not necessarily a sign of failure, it can be good risk taking, but I don’t think that actually applies.”

“[Most risks are] technical risks. We have some excellent technical people, one of the problems that we have is that those technical people generally don’t have a high enough level of cynicism of their own capabilities.”

Limited understanding, sophistication or capability to bring about the desired change. Higher order informants were sensitive to the context in which they worked and recognised the limitations that it imposed.

“Capability is very tricky to assess, particularly through very long delivery change, and there’s no point belly-aching that you’ve got all these fancy procedures and ways of doing things when actually it’s beyond the capabilities of the people you’re asking to operate them… you’re just putting them in a completely alien management environment and they don’t know how to do it.”

Divergence of Opinion Between Informants

Lower-order informants found that a consensual culture hindered them.

“It’s built very much on consensus and that means a lot more communication, a lot more influencing. Consensus decision making is a lot harder than just straight through the line. So that is one of the obstacles…it is so complicated in the organization to get the consensus and buy in.”

However, higher-order informants found helpful a culture that values and encourages differences and sharing of opinion.

“Everyone has value and everyone has an opinion and therefore we take it on board. Amazing organisation in that respect that everyone’s opinion is valued equally…Everyone sees the world through a slightly different view, so everyone is encouraged to speak up.”

“Part of the whole culture of the organisation is to feel that it’s a situation where a leader…takes information from various different sources and then comes up with a plan. So we’re good at that, culturally we’re very good at that, we’re able to let people let us know; ‘that’s a rubbish idea try this’.”

Lower-order informants found a lack of role clarity a hindrance.

“I don’t believe enough attention was paid to getting real clarity into role descriptions, so my role description is reasonably clear in terms of managing the portfolio, but the programme and the site resource management roles are not really properly differentiated in my view…the majority of our difficulties around establishing programme management are to do with the fault lines in our own organisation. Like I said, the lack of clarity around roles and responsibilities.”

However, higher-order informants found absence of preciousness or prejudice over role is, or would be, helpful.

“I don’t think I’ve actually ever come across anybody in [the organisation] who is precious of their job in the extent of ‘that’s my role, hands off’. It’s more a case of people adapt to whatever they need to put into a situation to make it happen and so you don’t get great conflict over doing somebody else’s role.”

“…just getting that message across that we have a wealth of experience that we can bring. But the perception of course is that we’re now moving into areas which traditionally have not been within our remit…there’s a very definite culture here and you do need to be conscious of people’s perceptions of the various roles in the organisation and who does what.”

Helpful Factors Hindering Factors
  • Governance mechanisms with senior level participation
  • Systems, methodologies, tools and external reviews
  • Programme Office or other support
  • Quality of people working on programmes, with particular emphasis on knowledgeable and credible project managers
  • Flexibility to recruit externally and redeploy resources
  • Knowledge of business goals and existence of an agreed strategy
  • Personal accountability
  • Access to senior people
  • Collaborative culture
  • Organisational structures, boundaries and divergent priorities
  • Vulnerability to external forces/ agendas
  • Low commitment and control of people
  • Bureaucratic or unclear processes
  • Complexity, scale or diversity
  • Low tolerance of, or resistance to, change
  • Rank, grade or status consciousness
  • Premature drive to solutions or action
Lower-order Informants only
  • Escalation process
  • Budget restrictions
  • Abrogation by boards or senior managers
Higher-order Informants only
  • Fluid environment, accepting and accommodating change
  • Empowerment and trust
  • Can-do, pragmatic culture
  • Rigidity
  • Naïve approach to risk
  • Limited understanding or capability to bring about the desired change
Divergence between Informants
  • Culture that values and encourages differences and sharing of opinion
  • Consensual culture
  • Absence of preciousness or prejudice over role
  • Lack of role clarity

Table 2: Summary of Analysis


This exploratory research suggests that while there are perceptions of the organisational factors that help or hinder programme management work that are common to individuals holding higher-order and lower-order conceptions, there are also notable differences.

The common helpful factors might largely have been predicted, since they reflect good practice described in most texts on project or programme management. Most of the hindering factors are conventionally described as challenges of the work, and echo prior research and analysis (Balogun & Hope Hailey, 1999; Kotter & Schlesinger, 1979). The nuances in the responses suggest that the hindering factors are perceived as more oppressive by lower-order informants.

Worthy of note is the extent to which organisational norms in relation to rank, grade or status impinge upon programme management work. There is too often an implicit belief that talented professionals can acquire the necessary authority to operate effectively through formal position or personal charisma. This research suggests that the challenges of going against the grain of deeply rooted and interwoven structures of career progression, hierarchical relationships and informal power should not be underestimated.

Factors perceived only by lower-order informants indicate the reliance these individuals place on formal processes and senior management assistance in accomplishing their work. Budget restrictions, which are taken for granted for by higher-order informants, are hindering factors in that they generate uncertainty, conflict and less than ‘ideal’ solutions or outcomes.

While lower-order informants sought structure and support, higher-order informants wanted to be unshackled, to be trusted and to be allowed to get one with their work as they deemed necessary. These practitioners wanted to set aside methodologies or structures that did not enable their work and to abandon plans that were overtaken by events. Higher-order informants were also more aware of the limitations and constraints imposed by capabilities and attitudes of those undertaking or affected by the changes.

Explicit divergence of opinion was manifest in a couple of areas. The lower-order informants’ desire for clarity of roles and responsibility and for a directive style of management was in contrast to higher-order informants’ desire for flexibility, emergence, participation and openness.

We suggest that the perceptions of the two groups point to a fundamental dichotomy on the nature of the organisational environments conducive to their work. This dichotomy echoes the contrast between mechanistic and organic systems described by Burns and Stalker (1961). Programme management practitioners holding lower-order conceptions perceive a mechanistic system or environment to be more supportive in the performance of their work. Practitioners holding higher-order conceptions perceive an organic system or environment to be more supportive in the performance of their work. Such systematic differences have important consequences for programme management as an approach to change and for practitioners themselves.

Programme managers not only operate within an organisational environment but inevitably shape it through their suggestions, concerns, and complaints (Berger & Luckmann, 1966; Weick, 1979). They may be expected to introduce and foster frameworks, processes, structures and behaviours they perceive to be ‘good programme management’. In contrast to the small group that participated in the research, the majority of practitioners might be expected to hold lower-order conceptions of programme management work (Pellegrinelli et al., 2003). This sheer weight of numbers might reasonably dominate, or at least impede the adoption of, ways of working emanating from higher-order conceptions. As the research indicates, those holding higher-order conceptions would find ‘going against the grain’ of the organisation demands extra effort and patience, but would adapt and find ways of bypassing major obstacles.

However, if lower-order conceptions do hold sway, either within an organisation or the professional community, programme management may seem to many leaders out-dated and ill-suited to their organisations, rather than a leading edge technology of change. We need only look at how the organisational landscape has changed over the last decade - rapid product innovation, outsourcing, alliances, networks and shifting work patterns and expectations - to realise that mechanistic systems are the preserve of only a few sheltered industries. Even traditionally stable government departments and programmes are buffeted by the winds of globalisation, social change, supra-national legislation, as well as the shifting aspirations of politicians.

On the other hand, practitioners holding lower-order conceptions who work in fluid, organic environments may be paying a personal price in terms of stress and dissatisfaction. To echo the view of one informant, asking such individuals to take on programme roles in such circumstances may be just as cruel, unfair and painful as asking “BAU folk” to work on programmes.

Limitations of the Exploratory Research

As exploratory research, this study alerts us to a potential issue of importance to the community of project and programme management professionals, but does not provide conclusive evidence. As with any research, our work has limitations and these should be understood and taken into account in coming to a judgement about the robustness of the findings.

We have built on prior research and experience (Partington et al., 2005; Pellegrinelli et al., 2003), and so have accepted its strengths and weaknesses. We have relied on interview data both to access the conceptual level of informants and to solicit the organisational factors they perceive as helping or hindering the performance of their work. Assessing someone’s conceptual level from a single interview is far from ideal, since the original work relied on multiple interviews and observations, and so the resulting assessments can only be regarded as indicative.

We studied a complex phenomenon, expecting in advance to find significant variations in the goals and configurations of programmes, and in the programme management practices of the organisations researched. However, earlier work (Partington et al., 2005) had shown that between-context variations of conception, whether between programmes, organizations or sectors, were less important than variations in conceptual levels. In retrospect, it would have been useful to have interviewed more practitioners to gain a better insight into context specific features, to generate greater depth and understanding of the factors and to bring us closer to theoretic saturation (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). We were constrained, in part, by the access granted by the participating organisations and in part by the time we had to devote to this research. Nonetheless, we believe the research achieved a strong convergence. Clearly, opportunities remain to augment this research with data from other sectors and organisations.


This study offers an insight into the perceptions and judgements of programme management practitioners in relation to the organisational contexts in which they work. It reminds us that our work environment can have a profound effect on our performance. As such it provides food for thought for those who play a part in shaping the environment of programmes.

The research also suggests a systematic difference of opinion between practitioners in respect to important aspects of the organisational context in which they work. Those holding lower-order conceptions aspire to a stable, structured, orderly context. Their aspirations are fuelled by text and software systems that purport to offer order, control and predictability. However, the presumption of, or insistence on, such a context may make programme management irrelevant to a growing number of organisations. Moreover, if the most competent practitioners perceive, at the margin, structure as rigidity, stability as inflexibility, and clarity as dogmatism, our prevailing assumptions about what is good programme management may not be the best for realising complex, transformational and strategic change.

As practitioners or members of a professional or academic community we should be open to the need to conceive programme management not only as a discipline in need of structural support but also as an art form striving for freedom of expression.

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