Project Management Institute

A learning loop for successful program management

Michel Thiry, PMP

More and more project managers are asked to look beyond the set boundaries of strict project delivery, before the initiating and after the closing processes. But are project managers well prepared for what they will encounter? Is it part of their role to do this? The PMBOK® Guide clearly defines five process groups for managing projects; from initiating —the appointment of the project manager— to closing —the delivery of the outcome. In no way is the project managers’ role expected to extend beyond these two points.

On the other hand, project managers are expected to practice project integration, which “involves making tradeoffs among competing objectives and alternatives in order to meet or exceed stakeholders expectations” (PMI, 1996, p. 39). The argument of this paper is that project management is about delivering set objectives with limited resources; it is a “performing process.” The task of defining priorities among stakeholder objectives and identify alternatives, which will enable project managers to “make tradeoffs,” is part of a program management process. Program management goes beyond the five fundamental process groups of project management; it is both about making sure projects deliver their expected objectives and benefits, but it is also about evaluating options and making the “right” decisions, which will enable project managers to deliver these.

Program management requires more than just a performing process; it requires a “learning process.” The use of a value management process, to complement the project management process, will enable programs to exceed expectations and maximize opportunities by adding a learning loop to the project performing loop.

Change and Change Management

This paper will group change into two broad areas that have specifically been identified as “deliberate” and “emergent” (Mintzberg & Westley, 1992).

A deliberate change is basically a change that is considered as part of a strategy to achieve a modified state. [...] An emergent change is an unpredictable input that triggers a change in an ongoing process (Thiry, 1999).

Projects can be considered as “deliberate” change; “emergent” (or unplanned) change, on the other hand, is often triggered by external or internal factors falling outside the scope of project management as defined in the PMBOK® Guide. Externally, it will emanate from customers, competition, shareholders, regulatory bodies and other stakeholders. Internally, it will come from personnel, and be driven by changing needs for systems, structures, culture and management styles. Obviously, programs need to support projects, but they are also required to evaluate the most beneficial options and make the best decisions for the delivery of organizational and business benefits.


Some theorists associate learning purely to the acquisition of knowledge. Bramley (1996) defines it as “acquiring the ability to behave in new kinds of ways.” In Chinese “learning” literally means “study and practice constantly” (Senge, 1994); finally Nevis, Di Bella and Gould (1997) defined learning as “the capacity or processes [...] to maintain or improve performance based on experience.” At an organizational or group level, learning can be defined as:

“... individual and collective capabilities to understand complex, interdependent issues; engage in reflective, generative conversation; and nurture personal and shared aspirations” (The Society for Organizational Learning (SoL), 1999).

Learning can therefore go from a simple acquisition of knowledge to a fully integrated social process of sustained development through acquisition of knowledge, testing, feedback and self-assessment. This paper will focus on the latter definition and, consider that there is both a social process and a need for improvement in learning.

Program Management

The discipline of program management is fast emerging as a fundamental method of ensuring that an organization gains maximum benefit from the integration of project management activities. As with any emergent discipline, there are variations in the interpretation and implementation of program principles, methods and techniques used by different organizations and practitioners. Murray-Webster and Thiry (2000) have defined a program as: “A collection of change actions (projects and operational activities) purposefully grouped together to realize strategic and/or tactical benefits.” They argue that: “Increasingly there is a recognition that programs should be the means of ensuring that an organization's strategy and initiatives are efficiently and coherently implemented; a way of dealing with emergent change in the business environment, and a way of gaining optimal use of resources.”

Exhibit 1. The Performing Loop

The Performing Loop

Program management is the means by which organizations ensure delivery of benefits; it needs to focus both on the delivery of specific project objectives, and on the development of effective responses to emergent change. Program management is the process through which a business strategy is implemented. Business strategies are typically the result of a joint input from cultural and political framework, customer or market pressures and business needs. These create a pressure to change that requires a response, which is usually expressed through the definition of expected business benefits. Benefits are translated into objectives often called Critical Success Factors (CSFs), which will be the basis for the selection and prioritization of projects and project objectives.

Performing and Learning Loops

David Hurst (1995) developed what he named an ”ecocycle,” to describe change in organizations. It is composed of two “loops”: the “performance loop” or “conventional life-cycle,” triggered by choice and the “learning loop” or “renewal life-cycle,” triggered by crisis. We will use this model to develop the concept supporting this paper.

Performing Loop

Once a decision is made to implement a project, objectives are translated into finite time, cost and functionality/quality objectives. The aim of projects is to achieve these set deliverables (scope, functionality and quality) with the least possible resources (time, cost and human resources), whereas programs are aimed at making best use of resources to achieve the most benefits. Projects require a more “efficient” approach, where programs will strive for a more “effective” perspective, based on the principles of value management.

Project management is specifically aimed at improving the performance of limited resources to deliver set objectives. The whole concept of project management is based on tools and techniques that will achieve clear and specific deliverables with the least possible resources—definitely a performance loop. The Process groups are specifically designed to enhance performance of the project team and the overall project process and achieve the least deviation from plan. Following a decision, it goes through initiating, planning, execution, control and closing, leading to delivery.

The problem, or pressure to change, occurs before a decision is made, when emergent change, or deviation, become inevitable and require a response. This is when another type of process is required.

Learning Loop

The nature of emergent change is such that rapid responses are often required to maintain the organization's competitive position or compliance with market and/or regulatory expectations. Such responses may mean responding to external or internal pressures with a new project; modifying or replacing existing project objectives with more appropriate solutions; altering the relative priority between projects; utilizing key staff in different areas of the business or any other such action.

Whereas, in the past, such decisions were relatively straightforward, because of the slow rate of change and the small number of stakeholders (usually one or two), the current accelerating rate of change and multiplicity of stakeholders make it impossible for performance-based project management to respond effectively in those situations. Effective response can only be achieved through the use of a learning loop aimed at increasing the decision-makers’ knowledge of the situation, as well as clearly identifying and balancing the needs and expectations of diverse stakeholders.

For more than 50 years, value management has developed tools and techniques aimed at achieving those objectives. The recently published European Standard on Value Management (2000) defines value in the following terms:

“Value lies in achieving a balance between the satisfaction of many differing needs and the resources used in doing so. [...] The fewer resources used or the greater the satisfaction of the need, the greater is the value.” Further, the standard states: “The Value Management contributions to a formal project [...] will coincide with specific project milestones in order to assist the project management team progress from one phase of the project to the next.”

Hurst (1995) describes the start of the learning loop as a state of confusion, which then stimulates a creative response leading to a choice. This description corresponds very closely to the typical value management process of information/function analysis (sensemaking), creativity, evaluation/development and recommendation (choice) (Thiry, 1997). Based on the author's experience in using value management at strategic level, this paper recommends that program management should use a learning loop process to respond to emergent change. This learning process is based on five process groups:

Exhibit 2. The Learning Loop

The Learning Loop

1. Identifying—Identifying that there is a pressure to change.

2. Sensemaking—Making sense of the situation.

3. Seeking—Using creativity to generate alternatives.

4. Evaluating—Analysing and developing options.

5. Deciding—Making a choice among the options.

Those five process groups, a value management process, pave the way to the performance loop and five process groups recommended in the PMBOK® Guide. Together they form the complete program ecocycle, as shown in Exhibit 4.

We will now examine each process of the learning loop in turn.


Inputs: unplanned emergent external or internal pressures that require a change.

Tools and Techniques: effectiveness models; SWOT, gap analysis, change deficit, etc.

Outputs: identified unsatisfactory situations, which require action.

One of the first steps in any change process is to “determine that a change has occurred” (PMI, 1996) or that an unsatisfactory situation requires a change. The PMI describes change management as: “maintaining the integrity of the performance measurement baselines”; in program management, we are dealing with a flexible baseline and negotiated performance measurement. Program management is aiming as much to maximize opportunities as to minimize risks.

As the identification process can be associated with a control process, it can prove useful to define control. Whereas control, in projects, can be associated to “a ‘warning bell’, a signal [...] that all is [...] not going according to plan leading to a discussion of the causes of deviation from anticipated performance and necessary remedies.” (Quinn, 1996, p. 384); programs, on the other hand, require a more positive, or should we say, “proactive,” way to exercise control.

Quinn (1996) states that in a multiple stakeholder context, whatever perspective is taken, except top-down control, “extensive discussion should occur between parties involved in the control process” (p. 387), which introduces the need for the stakeholders to make sense of the need to change and to negotiate solutions.


Inputs: identified unsatisfactory situations, which require action.

Tools and Techniques: stakeholder analysis, functional analysis; soft systems techniques, modeling techniques, balanced scorecard; critical success factors, etc.

Outputs: an agreed model of the situation to address or statement of the problem to solve.

Today's clients are represented by a number of individuals or parties who have different and sometimes conflicting interests. Guba and Lincoln (1989) talk about stakeholders as being “groups at risk” from the outcome. Sensemaking can be seen as a system of interactions between different stakeholders, who are building a collective understanding of a situation, based on cues. The process involves the development of a shared model of the situation and definition of a shared, desired outcome. This interaction process usually results from the challenge of established order and the need to anchor one's thoughts to known concepts.

Sensemaking is triggered by the need for individuals to make sense of the world around them. It is set in motion by ambiguity and uncertainty. For groups, it involves a constructivist interaction, which is characterised by effective communication based on co-operation and the development of a shared frame of reference. The sensemaking process can lead to either positive or negative results that are influenced by the way information is communicated. The confidence of achieving desired goals also affects the sensemaking process. All these factors create cognitive behaviours which [...] need to [be] manage[d] in order to achieve the desired consensus on objectives (Thiry, 2000).

Contrarily to the requirements of a performance loop, sensemaking requires time. Sufficient time allocation will allow participants to construct new ideas from shared information and cross-fertilization. This is particularly true where ambiguity and uncertainty are higher and is therefore even more required as project management addresses more and more soft issues, when the process requires increased interaction between stakeholders.

“Interaction [can] no longer be the expression and transmission of meaning—an information process; it [is] about the construction and negotiation of meaning—a communication process” (Deetz, 1995).

The sensemaking process can be compared to an evaluation of the situation. According to Guba and Lincoln (1989, p. 190), assessment of complex situations can be both: “formative” (to improve) or “summative” (to assess). Within a sensemaking perspective, both “summative” and “formative” evaluation will take place to formulate the desired outcome. In the case of formative evaluation, decision-making and action are set in a cooperative construction context. All the stakeholders will require exposure to the new information and an opportunity to grow to the required level of sophistication; “constructors” will require an openness to change. Opportunities for input must be instigated and input must be “honored” (Guba & Lincoln, 1989).

Additionally, sensemaking requires iteration during the project, in order to deliver customer needs “when the delivery is made” (Neal, 1995). These sensemaking actions should be included in the review-approval process, which is part of the program management process.

Seeking (Creativity)

Inputs: statement of the problem/model of the situation.

Tools and Techniques: brainstorming and all its variations, Delphi technique, stakeholder analysis, Pareto analysis, etc.

Outputs: a list of alternatives to be evaluated and/or developed into workable options.

The main objective of the seeking phase is to identify and generate alternative solutions to be evaluated.

“Creative thinking is a product of the imagination where a new combination of thoughts and things are brought together” Lawrence D. Miles (1972).

Creativity and innovation need to be fostered in order to reach the most “valuable” options, both at the strategic level, for the selection of projects, and for change management. Most studies on creativity agree that the objective of a creative process is to use the right side (imagination, lateral thinking) and the left side (analytical, vertical thinking) of the brain in sequence in order to offer the analytical mind a greater number of ideas to select from. If the two are used concurrently, the ideas will be skimmed too early, not allowing for cross-fertilization and piggybacking. de Bono (1990) talks about lateral and vertical thinking; he states:

Lateral thinking is useful for generating ideas and approaches and vertical thinking is useful for developing them. Lateral Thinking enhances the effectiveness of vertical thinking by offering it more ideas to develop. Vertical thinking multiplies the effectiveness of lateral thinking by making good use of the ideas generated.

Creative thinking is not a standard project management tool, project managers are more used to focus and deliver; change is seen as disturbing, whereas the creative or innovative process thrives on change and sees it as potential opportunities. “With vertical thinking, one concentrates and excludes what is irrelevant, with lateral thinking one welcomes chance intrusions” (de Bono, 1990).

The creative process must not be passive; it must be actively managed in order to deliver the expected results.

The management of creativity also involves focusing the creativity process on the situation to be addressed, using the 20/80 Pareto rule. It is recommended that the creativity process be externally facilitated to provide the best results and prevent the facilitator from being “challenged.”


Inputs: a list of alternatives to be evaluated and/or developed into workable options.

Tools and Techniques: selection criteria, selection matrices, ranking and rating, grouping, categorization, prioritization, etc.

Outputs: recommendation of most beneficial option(s).

According to Kubr (1996) “effective evaluation requires collaboration.” He points out that evaluation should be “open and constructive.” Evaluation needs to be done thoroughly and be based on the right criteria: the critical success factors (CSFs) of the project. In program management, the goal of evaluation is to assess the ‘intent’ versus the “capability.”

Evaluating comprises three main aspects (Johnson & Scholes, 1997):

• Suitability—alignment with strategy (CSFs, project parameters, etc.)

Exhibit 3. Project Evaluation Matrix

Project Evaluation Matrix

• Acceptability—long term assessment (likely benefits vs. expectations)

• Feasibility—capability assessment (required resources vs. capability and probability of success)

The objective of evaluation is to identify the options with the best balance of all these factors.

Whereas suitability and acceptability mostly concentrate on qualitative aspects of evaluation, emanating from the stakeholders’ analysis and functional analysis; feasibility focuses on the following quantitative aspects:

• Financial factors

• Capital cost

• Cash flow

• Life-cycle costs

• Resourcing factors

• Resource availability

• Resource competence

• Customer perception.

It is therefore crucial, before undertaking evaluation, to understand both the intent, which has been identified in the sensemaking phase, and the organization's capabilities, which will be determined at the evaluation stage. Each alternative must be assessed against the organization's capacity to carry it out. Non-viable alternatives must be eliminated. After having fixed minimum and expectation points for each aspect of the evaluation; alternatives will be assessed. Those who do not achieve minimum requirements must be eliminated, whereas those that are above the minimum, but below expectation need to be improved and reevaluated. The program team will end up with a series of alternatives that are suitable, acceptable and feasible.


Inputs: recommendation of most beneficial option(s).

Tools and Techniques: group decision techniques, consensus, vote, leader decision, etc.

Outputs: decision to undertake a project or implement an action.

It is not the objective of this paper to develop the concepts of decision making in projects; let us just mention that the understanding of group decision-making and decisions under uncertainty and ambiguity are essential to the success of this process. Decision processes vary according to the complexity and ambiguity of the context, whereas low uncertainty and low ambiguity situations can afford an analytical decision process, high uncertainty and ambiguity require a more intuitive decision model. Group decision making, on the other hand, should be based on “representation.”

“Representation means that the values, needs and priorities of individuals and groups have an opportunity to influence relevant decision-making” (Deetz, 1997, p. 128).

Representation is the guarantee that the key stakeholders will share the decision resulting in the initiating process and therefore gain their commitment.

The Whole Program Eco-cycle

A complete program management lifecycle will ensure that emergent change is analyzed and managed through a “learning loop” of sensemaking, creativity and evaluation, which is based on a value management process. Decisions made in response to change in the business environment will then be implemented through a “performance loop” of planning, execution and control, based on a project management process.

Exhibit 4. Program Management Eco-Cycle

Program Management Eco-Cycle

Following the initial decision to implement a deliberate change—a project—these “learning loops” must be repeated at each review/approval stage as part of the overall change control process of projects to reassess deliverables against business objectives and needs and expectations, using value management methodology. This will ensure a constant dialogue between the project sponsors and the project team and warrant a successful outcome to the project at the time of delivery. “Most current writers [...] agree on the importance of dialogue and debate between the interested parties to the control process” (Quinn, 1996, p. 381).


Hopefully, this paper has demonstrated that the “performance loop,” which is the characteristic of “good” project management, is not sufficient when applied to programs. A “learning loop,” composed of five new ‘process groups’ is an essential component of the whole program life cycle—an emergent-deliberate change process.

These process groups are identifying; sensemaking; seeking; evaluating; and deciding. The success of these process groups has been demonstrated in the value management process for more than half a century. In order to achieve stakeholder satisfaction at delivery, it is essential that program managers iterate this loop at each project milestone review and approval stage to reassess stakeholders’ objectives and expected benefits as well as to assess potential change requests.

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Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
September 7–16, 2000 • Houston, Texas, USA



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