Project Management Institute

The good, the bad, the ugly-- adventures in program management


The fundamental skills of project management are also the fundamental skills of program management. Successful program management requires program managers to engage stakeholders using concepts and vocabulary associated with project management – concepts and vocabulary which stakeholders have the most familiarity. This paper discusses the methods successful program management utilizes, and those methods most likely to be met with stakeholder resistance. This paper serves as a summary of three case studies of separate program management opportunities presented at the 2011 PMI North America conference. .


Begin with the end in mind. (Covey, 1990)

Queue the famous music – you know the scene at the end of “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” (Leone,1966) where Clint Eastwood, Lee Von Cleeve, and Eli Wallach wait for the moment to fire. If you’ve been in the program management game for any length of time, you’ve likely experienced the same scenario, only the scene stars you as program manager, your stakeholders, and your project managers in a tense standoff – each member expecting the their own chest of gold based after winning the standoff.

Stakeholders, of course, want to maximize the number of individual projects and the speed of project delivery to maximize business value. Project Managers, of course, want to minimize the number and pace of projects within a program to allow them the greatest potential of individual project success. Program Managers, of course, want to balance the triple constraints of scope, schedule, and costs while maintaining a positive working relationship with both stakeholders and project managers.

This paper describes three separate programs, each with good, bad, and ugly elements, and each program’s individual lessons learned.

Defining Terms

As with projects, the definition of program management success is a combination of meeting stakeholder expectations in relation to the number of projects completed, program management costs, and the overall schedule of project delivery.

For purposes of this whitepaper and presentation the following definitions are used.


Bad program management can be defined as the delivery of multiple projects, with no clear governance associated with the determination of the overall an individual project’s value to the organization. Projects in this environment are haphazardly scheduled requiring project resources to work far above the reasonable call of duty.

With these programs, project resources typically consist of three types:

  1. Heroes – those employees who consistently go above and beyond the call of duty.
  2. Zeros – those employees who are disengaged due to the overall lack of program organization.
  3. The Rest – those employees who “do as they’re told” with little overall motivation.


Ugly program management can be defined as the delivery of multiple projects, with only major projects being actively project managed. Other projects are completed based on the “loudest” demand from stakeholders, with little/no clear project value to the organization. Major projects in this environment are typically scheduled with minimum contingency.

Ugly programs most resemble sausage factories. Work is completed, but few would want to tour the factory. Employee’s job satisfaction is dependent on which projects the employee is assigned.


Good program management can be defined as the delivery of multiple projects, with projects tightly aligned to an organization’s goals. A high degree of project success starts before the project every formally begins as projects are have a formal project prioritization process which aligns projects to overall program deliverables.

Project resources in these programs are typically long tenured, high performing employees who would happily recommend the company to others.

Program One – Healthcare Provider Practice

Setting the Scene

  • Information Technology Program
  • Cardiology healthcare provider practice
  • Eight physical locations spread across 1000 square miles
  • Five Information Technology Professionals
  • Fifty+ projects annually
  • $500,000 annual technology budget

Sample Projects

  • Replacement of a Mainframe Billing System to a new Client Server System
  • Replacement of Practice Management System used to collect all patient information
  • Replacement 120 PCs/Terminals
  • Update Windows 240 PCs
  • Replacement of 12 Servers
  • Replacement of every WAN/LAN Circuit, Router, Switch
  • Installation of VPN Concentrator
  • Installation of Diagnostic Video Archive
  • Remodelling of Server Room


  • 14 months to deliver projects


  • 4.5 -> 6.5 IT FTEs

Portfolio Planning Process

  • Budgetary
  • Minimal IT Involvement

Portfolio Planning Tools

  • Flipchart paper
  • Post-it-notes

Case Study One is typical of many small businesses - several projects with competing timelines impacting the same resources, with limited program planning by Sr. Management.

Project start dates were defined by Sr. Management within the annual budgeting process with limited/no technical predecessors defined between projects. When projects did not meet timelines defined in the budget process the IT manager responsible for these projects was fired for not meeting project timelines.

Case Study One is an example of bad program management. During the recovery phase of this program, the program manager engaged Sr. Management and IT resources in a dialogue to discuss the technical dependencies between projects and determine what flexibility existed in timing of project budgets based on an individual project's value to the organization.

Unfortunately, the timelines determined by Sr. Management were fixed based on contracting decisions made without IT involvement or estimates. This inflexibility in the time leg of the triple constraint triangle increased program costs due to the need for contracted services, expedited shipping of equipment, and overtime costs. Time inflexibility also lead to decreased quality as significant rework was required to meet individual project timelines based on contracting needs rather than true business needs.

Finally, the time inflexibility within individual project deliveries led to 85% turnover of IT resources within 18 months due to massive overtime requirements to meet project deliverables.

In Case Study One Sr. Management did not follow basic project management best practices for adequately defining a work breakdown structure within projects, or between projects. Effort and duration estimates for tasks within the work breakdown structure were not estimated by resources performing the work, and the business needs for the projects were determined in a vacuum without an understanding of the technical infrastructure required to successfully deliver projects.

Case Study Two – Home Mortgage Provider

Setting the Scene

  • Business transformation program
  • IT, business reengineering, and regulatory compliance projects

Sample Projects

  • Replacement of Mortgage Underwriting Engine
  • Replacement of Consumer Web Site
  • Constant regulatory changes to existing systems
  • Constant cost/benefit workflow improvements to existing systems


  • Time = 3-5 Year Portfolio


  • 10-15 IT FTEs

Portfolio Planning Process

  • Fully engaged team of Sr. Managers and Project Resources

Portfolio Planning Tools

  • Microsoft Project

Case Study Two is typical of many small corporations - multiple projects with competing timelines impacting the same resources. Resources who are also responsible for day-to-day operations.

In this case study, Sr. Management had a directive to transform the business. The Sr. Management team was told to establish a plan to handle a 1000% increase in mortgage loans processed per year. As most management teams would, they called in the consultants to help with planning.

As most consultants do, the consultants set up shop and settled in for what they hoped would be the long haul. Off-site strategic meetings were held where every facet of the loan production process was analysed. As-is and to-be process flows were developed. Gap analysis performed. Requirement and development estimates gathered. Three ring binders stuffed with charts, graphs, and assorted artefacts distributed to management. Wall sized Gantt charts received from outsourced printshops to display progress. An exceedingly well defined, well researched, well communicated program was developed with but one large flaw: What happens if the business only gets a 45% increase in mortgage loans?

In this case study, the cost factor of the triple constraint was not woven into the fabric of the program. Go/no-go decision points based on business growth and costs were not built into the program, nor were contingencies. This program suffered the issue of fixed time, fixed scope, but no associated funding growth to support the program.

When the anticipated growth did not materialize, the Project Sponsors of individual program initiatives began politicking, in earnest, to keep their pet projects alive, while attempting to kill others, with little regard for the overall business value of any individual project. This led to project resources becoming coerced into working on “unofficial” projects to keep their management “happy.”

While the planning for this program would receive a text-book perfect “A” it would receive a real-world “C-” and meets the Bad program management definition. The squeakiest wheels get their projects completed, while sacrificing other more impactful projects for sake of keeping the boss happy.

Case Study Three – Government IT Development Contractor

Setting the Scene

  • Federal Government contractor responsible for annual delivery of $10 mil in projects

Sample Projects

  • Replacement of national data collection system used by every nursing home in the county
  • Replacement of national data collection system used by every home health provider
  • Constant regulatory changes to existing systems
  • 100 projects per year


  • 3 year portfolio with rolling 1 year prioritization


  • 80 IT FTEs

Portfolio Planning Process

  • Fully engaged team of Customers, Sr. Managers and Project Resources

Portfolio Planning Tools

  • Microsoft Project
  • Microsoft Project Server

Case Study Three is a somewhat atypical case study of a successful transformation from bad to ugly to good program management.

The program management transformation began with Sr. Leadership recognition that a more thoughtful approach to project scheduling was needed to more accurately determine project delivery dates. During the 3 years which this case study covers, Sr. Management identified project priorities using a simple method. Projects were first identified as being either 1) Legislatively Mandated – those projects which were required by law with fixed deadlines, 2) Politically Astute – those projects which were not mandated, but important to complete for political reasons, and 3) Other.

Sr. Management then met in person once per year to review all projects and determine if any projects identified as Politically Astute or Other were technically required for the Legislatively Mandated projects. The entire portfolio of projects was then rank ordered based on importance relative to other projects within the portfolio. The projects received effort, resource, and duration estimates. Based on these estimates, the projects were then scheduled to maximize the delivery of projects based on rank order, while allowing resource limitations to drive delivery schedules if appropriate. If resources available to perform project work were not efficient to meet delivery expectations, resources would be retrained, if possible, to perform work required or augmented by new resources. Finally, if on-time delivery of a project was not possible, based on the estimates provided or the addition of resources, negotiations with the customer to divide the scope of Legislatively Mandated projects into requirements crucial to law and those requirements which could be deferred.

This program serves as the poster child for good program management. Well prioritized projects, where the time, cost, and scope are all negotiated are key to successful program management.


Program management requires use of core project management processes in identifying the triple constraints inherent within each individual project and the interaction of projects. This interaction between projects and a diligent project prioritization process will lead to a successful program.


Covey, S.R. (1990) The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People New York, NY: The Free Press

Leone, S. (Director) (1967) The Good, the Bad and the Ugly[Film] Los Angeles: MGM

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

©2011Dane Pelfrey
Originally published as part of Proceedings PMI Global Congress 2011 – Dallas/Ft. Worth, TX



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