Project Management Institute

Get with the Program: Program Management is Definitely Coming into its own, but There Remains Some Uncertainty Surrounding its Nature and Use


by Kelley Hunsberger * illustration by Eric Mueller

Whether it's fair or not, program management is still seen as the new kid on the business block. Yet more companies are starting to realize its potential to transform the face of business. For example, 80 percent of executives cited program management as an important factor in managing change, according to a 2006 Pricewaterhouse-Coopers survey of 133 executives at U.S.-based multinational companies.

As it gains acceptance, guidelines and training programs are starting to emerge. PMI, for example, recently introduced The Standard for Program Management and plans to debut a new credential specifically for those who manage programs.

PM Network recently spoke with five experts about the state of program management—and where it's headed.

What are some of the major trends in program management?

Sandeep Shouche: One trend I see is the expansion of project objectives. It is no longer sufficient for program managers to be happy managing the scope versus cost versus time versus quality paradigm. Program managers often get objectives like, “Obtain a leadership position in the enterprise management space.” For such a program to succeed, the program manager must go beyond traditional boundaries.

Sergio Pellegrinelli, Ph.D.: The recognition of program management as distinct and qualitatively different from project management—rather than an extension of it—is an important trend. The most competent program managers have long been aware that they work in a qualitatively different way, but communicating this in the face of the vocal and far more prevalent project management rhetoric has been an uphill task.

As program managers have built up a track record of success and fine-tuned their approaches, this has strengthened their convictions. Practices and approaches that may have been initially deemed experimental, adaptive or odd are now recognized as an intrinsic part of program management.

In addition, some academics and consultants have voiced many practitioners' tacit views about the distinctiveness of program management and raised nagging concerns about the treatment of program management as an extension of project management.

Edward Hoffman, Ph.D.: Program and project management are separate skills and they are separate activities, but they are totally connected. At NASA, a program and a project have always been different things, and the people who work in those areas have different roles and responsibilities. In that sense, I agree that we need to define the terms literally, we need to provide development training, and we have to see each in a different light.

Another trend I see is that the programs we are working on are larger, more complex and more multi-disciplined in nature. They occur over a longer timeframe, and they require incredible amounts of integration and innovation because we're working on a major program or program areas where the final answers of how to be successful are not known yet.

Michael Sypsomos: Program management has reached a level of maturity and growth, which, in order to be sustainable, has to be continuously reinvented. One way of doing this is through coaching and mentoring.

Who is responsible for bringing innovation to program management?

Dr. Hoffman: Everyone—people in the project office, people from procurement and acquisitions, and you can keep going through the lists of people responsible. We've had successes and we've had failures because any one of those proponents has not worked effectively. It's really the responsibility of the larger organization, and that's a lesson that we have had from Challenger, Columbia, the Hubble Space Telescope project and from any of our failures—it's not one person, it's not one department, it's the whole team.

Mr. Sypsomos: Individual contributors should be encouraged from the top by being allowed to dedicate the time and funds for continuous improvement activities.

Dr. Pellegrinelli: Practitioners are at the forefront of the development of program management. They face real challenges and are having to develop solutions and approaches.

Michelle Egbert: Innovation in program management starts with the program manager and needs to be embraced by the organization and its business leaders.

What are the pros and cons of being a leader or innovator in program management?

Dr. Hoffman: Innovation is coming up with a solution that may not have been seen by others or that goes against the status quo. And whenever you go against the status quo you are going to have a lot of people questioning it, maybe pushing back. Program managers have to be able to present innovation and ideas in a way that stands up to questioning. You have to respond to problems.

Mr. Shouche: The pros of being the leader are that you get to shape the processes and tune them based on real needs, rather than becoming biased toward what others think are best practices. One of the cons is that a new management process is disruptive to the team's normal functioning. It is easier to work with a tried-and-tested practice.

The Experts


Edward Hoffman, Ph.D., is director of the Academy of Program, Project and Engineering Leadership at the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Washington, D.C., USA.


Sergio Pellegrinelli, Ph.D., is a director of London, U.K.-based SP Associates and a visiting fellow at Cranfield School of Management, Cranfield University, Cranfield, U.K.


Sandeep Shouche, PMP, is a program manager at BMC Software in Pune, India, where he is responsible for managing projects for developing enterprise software products. He also is one of the founders and directors of the PMI Pune-Deccan Chapter.


Michael G. Sypsomos, PMP, is currently the manager of project management for Chevron Thailand, a gas and oil exploration and production company based in Bangkok.


Michelle Egbert is director of program, process and performance management for Strategic Resources Management Inc., where she works as an independent consultant throughout Europe and the United States. She also is on the current board of PMI's Women in Project Management Specific Interest Group.

Mr. Sypsomos: There's excitement in being at the forefront of a new field and developing systems that will be used by many in the years ahead. Some of the frustrations are similar to the ones experienced in project management: the need to prove the value of program management to executive management.

Ms. Egbert: The challenge to being an innovator is that those in the business continually test your theories. As an innovator, you are always dealing with those who resist change and are not open to thinking outside the box. Also, innovators tend to move at a faster pace, which can be intimidating to some organizations.

What are some best practices in program management?

Mr. Shouche: With objectives becoming increasingly abstract, the program manager's most important task is to understand the key objectives of each stakeholder, reconcile them into a consistent set of project objectives and steer all the project activities in the direction that enables meeting these objectives. BMC Software has incorporated checkpoints in the product development life cycle where stakeholders are required to provide input and sign off on their concurrence.

Dr. Hoffman: One of the things that NASA has established as a best practice is to pull in the different stakeholders associated with the program and talk about what we need to do from a requirements standpoint to meet the mission successfully.

Mr. Sypsomos: Anything that would refine and elevate existing standard practices to the next level of program management should be considered a best practice. Such value-improving practices also are the ones used for project management: value engineering, constructability, collecting and disseminating lessons learned, and decision analysis.

Training Programs

One of the biggest programs at the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the Constellation Program—and its success will ride primarily on the ability of its program managers to manage complex projects. The goal of the program is to build exploration vehicles that can one day send astronauts to the moon and form the basis for exploration to other destinations.


To cultivate the talent that will work on the program, NASA is in the process of establishing extensive professional development programs. “It is reinforcing the concept that we are working on technical excellence,” says Edward Hoffman, Ph.D., director of NASA's Academy for Program, Project and Engineering Leadership. “And to be successful we first must be clear on the standards of excellence that we have within the organization.”

With the academy, “we have integrated the engineering with the program and project management, so there are consistent training and development standards being taught,” he says.

NASA is currently updating its project management policy documents. Employees and directors from the organization's headquarters and missions offices as well as practice and program leaders are developing the standards necessary for programs and projects to be successful.

There also is an effort to look at the training NASA already has in place and upgrade the foundational core of what program and project managers are expected to learn.

Identity Crisis

Although it has been in use for years, program management has yet to create its own identity, says Sergio Pellegrinelli, Ph.D., of SP Associates. He suggests:

  • Form a community of practice. “This is happening already in some organizations where program managers want to establish their own groups separate from project managers to emphasize that they perform different roles,” he says.
  • Create a new terminology and move away from project management terms, constructs and metaphors.
  • Stop defining program management in relation to project management.
  • Agree on the nature, use and practice of program management.
  • Offer distinct “program” propositions, benefits and advantages to organizational leaders and senior managers.

Dr. Pellegrinelli: Program management practices are highly dependent on the program's purpose and its context—the organizational culture, climate, politics, and the wider business environment and pressures. The notion of generalized best practices is inappropriate and misleading. It is akin to the notion of one strategy for success.

Ms. Egbert: Establishing a program management office is a great step toward establishing best practices in large organizations. When done effectively, a company will have a full understanding of what projects and programs are supporting the company's strategies. As strategies change, companies can quickly view these programs and realign resources. Some organizations resist program management offices. In many cases, these organizations feel the process and templates are too much red tape and take up too much of their time.

One of the best practices I've seen is to roll out the program management office organization by department rather than within the entire company. The organization can give continual feedback during the rollout and see how their resources can be utilized more effectively.

Where are the biggest areas of improvement needed for program management?

Dr. Hoffman: When I am looking at the issue of program management, at least for NASA, it is different than project management in the fact that in a program you are adding levels of ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty to the nature of the work that is being done. From that standpoint, one of the major challenges I see is the financial system. How do you have an integrated financial system where you can accurately estimate and track costs and have enough adaptability so you can change what you need to as information comes in?

Mr. Shouche: As a management discipline, program management is quite young but surprisingly mature. If it does need improvement, it's in the area of guidelines to help program managers deal with uncertain or vague objectives.

Dr. Pellegrinelli: Program management is relatively immature as a discipline. Improvement will follow as inappropriate concepts, techniques and tools are abandoned and new practices emerge.

Program management has only become widespread as a means of realizing complex change over the last five to 10 years. It has emerged in response to diverse organizational demands ranging from coordinating and controlling disparate strands of change to extracting benefits and synergies from managing multiple projects in a coherent way. There is still ambiguity and debate surrounding the nature, use and practice of program management. It is still in the shadow of project management.

Ms. Egbert: A lot of effort is put into developing and maintaining a program management office. Organizations and program managers are not embracing program management offices for several reasons, including a lack of drive from business owners to follow the process. Program management offices need to be more flexible in implementing new processes and better at communicating the benefits to the business owners. I see a continual struggle between the program management office and the program managers that need to follow program management office guidelines. Part of the struggle is personality conflict and the other part is due to lack of understanding or agreement with the guidelines. PM

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