De-mystifying program management

guidelines for success

Ginger Levin, Independent Consultant


This paper de-mystifies program management by offering a competency model for program managers that is focused on identifying and dealing with program complexity. It describes the six performance and eight personal competencies research by the authors, which have been shown to be critical to success for a program manager working on large and complex initiatives. The paper presents an example of a program whose complexity was unforeseen at the outset, followed by a description of certain key concepts in complexity theory. Then, the model is discussed at a high level with relevant examples. The authors then describe three assessments, which can be completed by organizations based on the model's components, and finishes with a five-step action plan on how to conduct the assessments.

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner

There are plenty of examples of program complexity that have seriously affected program results. A recent example is the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, Boeing's answer to the future of air travel. First, a few facts: this is a very complex aircraft and is made of a new composite material developed just for it. Boeing estimated that the time to develop the 787 would be equal to the time it took to develop planes they had made for years, which is tantamount to accelerating the schedule. Eighty percent of the plane was outsourced, up from 50% for past aircraft. This significant increase in outsourcing resulted in Boeing having 43 top tier contractors and literally hundreds of subcontractors creating a very complex global supply chain.

The complexity in the supply chain was revealed, for example, when one subcontractor five tiers down in the chain could not complete its deliverables on time, which affected the deliverables of all other contractors along that particular line in the supply chain. Ultimately, such disruptions caused enormous problems for the aeronautical giant. Boeing simply did not anticipate this level of complexity in the supply chain and has admitted so in numerous articles in the popular and trade press.

Given the problems associated with this complexity the plane was delayed by over two years (it is still not in service as of the writing of this paper). As a consequence, Boeing lost billions in anticipated profits, suffered millions in contract penalties, and took a massive hit to its reputation.

Concepts in Complexity

Complexity has many components and underlying intellectual constructs. Two are relevant here. The first is something called “non-linear” dynamics, or as Edward Lorenz, the noted meteorologist called it, “The Butterfly Effect” (Cooke-Davies, et al. 2007). Simply put, this “effect” posits that a small perturbation in one part of the system can cause a substantive impact in other parts of the system. Lorenz described this in the title of his landmark paper, which was presented at the 1979 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science: “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly's Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” We see this effect at work in the Boeing example, where the delays experienced by one subcontractor many tiers below the prime caused massive delays in the program's intermediate deliverables, with the main cause being the late delivery of the main deliverable, the aircraft itself.

The second key concept is called “self-organization.” This simply means that in the absence of specific direction, a group, or organization, will largely direct its own activities. The world saw this play itself out in the uprisings that led to the eventual overthrow of the Tunisian and Egyptian governments, which began with the self-immolation of the poor Tunisian street vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi. There was no one in charge, yet millions took to the streets to protest their plight and demand sweeping reform using social media as the organizing mechanism.

In the Boeing case, the authors speculate that given the sheer number of subcontractors on the program, the 787 program office was not able to coordinate all the various actions and “lost control” of the activities of so many organizations.

The Levin-Ward Competency Model

The authors have noted that although there has been research published on project complexity, there has been little, if any research reported on program complexity. And yet, programs, by their very nature are more complex than projects and their end results are typically more substantive and pervasive in scale. Thus, it is critical to address program complexity and effective ways for identifying and dealing with it. The result of the authors’ research in this area is the Levin-Ward Competency Model shown in Exhibit 1 which has been taken from Levin and Ward's publication Program Management Complexity: A Competency Model (2011).

The model describes the performance and personal competencies that have shown to be helpful to program managers when dealing with complexity. Following is a brief description of each of the performance and personal competencies that form the model.

Levin-Ward Competency Model

Exhibit 1⍰ Levin-Ward Competency Model

Performance Competencies

Defining ‐ First, we need to define objectives and requirements, create a high-level roadmap as to what our program will accomplish, prepare an initial benefits realization plan, conduct a stakeholder analysis, make sure our program aligns with our organization's strategic objectives, and obtain the needed authorization to proceed.

Initiating ‐ Actions here involve preparing a mission statement, developing a program-level WBS, developing a resource accountability matrix, establishing standards for the component projects, define measurement criteria and most importantly obtain senior management approval of the program charter.

Planning ‐ Planning at the program level is just as important as planning at the project level, perhaps even more so. We need to develop a detailed program scope statement, a detailed program WBS, prepare a program management plan, and ensure we have the needed resources to do the work and optimize the plan. We also need to define our program management information system as well as define the manner in which we will transition the outcomes of our program once it ends to customers, end users, or a product or support group.

Executing ‐ Executing the program is where the program manager and his or her team are actively working to make sure the program's deliverables are finished and its benefits are realized. Here, we are implementing our program management plan and all our subsidiary plans, monitoring performance, adding new projects to the program if needed and canceling and closing others if appropriate, motivating our team, making sure standards are followed, and making sure our stakeholders are apprised of the program's status.

Monitoring & Controlling ‐ The program manager must analyze cost, schedule, and quality variances making sure a variance on one of the projects in the program does not affect other projects or the program itself. He or she must correct any deficiencies before they become major problems so performance is above par, forecast outcomes, identify trends, make sure benefits are meeting expectations, and manage change.

Closing ‐ Finally, it is time to close but often programs take years to complete. In closing the program manager oversees the work done by project managers as individual projects close, oversees work done to close procurements, holds meetings with stakeholders, documents lessons learned, and executes the transition plan.

Exhibit 2 shows an example of one of the elements in the Performance Competency “Planning” is used. The specific competency is “A Benefits Realization Plan is Prepared.”

Performance Competency describing the best practice of Benefits Realization

Exhibit 2: Performance Competency describing the best practice of Benefits Realization

Personal Competencies

Leading ‐ The program manager must lead his or her team and make sure everyone understands the vision of the program and its intended direction. Leading also involves recognizing how the various components of the program –the projects and any ongoing work— inter-relate to one another. As the leader, the program manager is the decision maker!

Building Relationships ‐ The program manager must work to actively identify and engage the various stakeholders, both internal and external, and work to turn anyone who may be a negative stakeholder into a positive program proponent, or at the very least, a neutral force. Dealing with the various stakeholder groups is an ongoing responsibility for every program manager.

Negotiating ‐ Because there are so many stakeholders involved with programs, the program manager must have the highest level of negotiation skills and competencies such as in negotiating for resources, making sure the program remains a major priority to the organization in its portfolio, convincing the Governance Board to make key decisions at gate reviews, and promoting stakeholder support.

Thinking Critically ‐ A critical thinker is one with the ability to identify the important questions to ask and problems to solve in a way that defines them clearly. Relevant facts and information must be gathered and analyzed in logical or even an abstract manner. Program managers who are critical thinkers have the ability to think openly and not be influenced by others and to identify the assumptions, constraints, and implications of the consequences of their decisions. Better thinking tends to yield better support.

Facilitating ‐ It is not the program manager's job to do the work of the program; that is the responsibility of the project managers and the team; however, he or she must create an environment that is conducive to success. This means removing roadblocks, resolving issues or risks, and communicating priority changes if they occur. He or she also must make sure the atmosphere is one in which the policies and procedures that must be followed are not overly bureaucratic and focus on best practices to follow so the program's benefits can be realized.

Mentoring ‐ Mentoring is a role that must be performed in a delicate manner and not imposed on others but is critical in terms of helping others on the team develop skills and competencies to best prepare them to assume a variety of roles and more responsibilities especially since some programs last for years.

Embracing Change ‐ Unlike a project in which project managers tend to focus on ensuring there are minimal changes, program managers must embrace and exploit change. He or she must take a positive attitude toward change as it is inevitable that it will occur. For example, a change on one project in the program at first may appear to be negative but with a more flexible attitude toward change, the program manager may then see that it may positively affect other projects in the program or projects or programs elsewhere in the organization.

Communicating ‐ Communicating is considered by many to be the most important competency; and, we know from research that project managers tend to spend 90% of their time communicating; it takes on even greater importance in program management given their inherent complexity, the greater number of stakeholders, and the need to focus on active listening to ensure concerns are not missed and that may have a major impact to the program.

Exhibit 3 shows an example of how one of the elements in the Personal Competency “Mentoring” has been written. The specific competency is “Recognizes and Rewards Individual and Team Accomplishments.”

Personal Competency Element “Recognizes and Rewards Individual and Team Accomplishments”

Exhibit 3: Personal Competency Element “Recognizes and Rewards Individual and Team Accomplishments”

Assessing Program Management Competency using the Levin-Ward Model

Models have no value unless they can be used and put to the test. Toward that end, the authors have prepared three assessments that organizations can use to collect information on current practice. A brief description of each follows:

Organizational Assessment – this assessment includes 62 questions on performance competencies and 35 questions on personal competencies. The focus of these questions is on organizational current practice in program management. The assessment will reveal the extent to which organizations are using best practices in program management. There is no pass rate or fail rate, but the emphasis is on identifying strengths in place in key areas as well as areas for opportunities to have a collective picture as to how program management is practiced across an organization.

Individual Program Manager Assessment – this assessment can be used to assess the competencies of individual program managers. A program manager can set a baseline when the assessment is first taken and then can retake the assessment in the future to gauge improvement. The objective is to not have to be the hero to save the day but to improve the way a program manager does his or her work to manage complexity, thus reducing overall stress and ensuring that the program's benefits are delivered.

Prospective Program Manager Assessment – this is a multiple-choice series of questions an individual who is interested in becoming a program manager will complete and is largely based on knowledge and skills of program management. The assessment reveals the level of “knowledge” the respondent has in program management. It does not purport to attempt to identify who a good program manager will be; as such, it should not be used as a recruiting or evaluation instrument. Similar to the two other assessments, it is best used to develop a roadmap of professional improvement activities.

Implementing the Model ⍰ A Five-Step Process

The authors have conducted numerous assessments over the past fifteen years. As a result, we have developed a five- step process that any organization can use, with some minor modifications as conditions require, that works extremely well, and that is relatively “painless” for the audience to be surveyed. Project professionals today can often be “survey weary” as a result of numerous surveys being conducted within their organization, and we want to make our program assessment surveys as easy as possible for the audience as well as those responsible for administering the assessments.

Our suggested five-step process is presented below in bullet-item format.

Task ⍰ Define the User Requirements

▪    Define the “respondent” population – it's important to specifically identify to whom the survey will be sent.

▪    Create email distribution lists – the survey is easiest done when done through email communications.

▪    Define the scope of assessment – the organization needs to define exactly what is the nature of the survey; for example, will it be an organizational assessment, an individual program manager assessment, or both.

▪    Define demographics section – this is very critical. By demographics we mean such information as name, title, organization, division, department, geography, and so forth. In other words, any qualifying data you want to use to sort the survey data after it has been collected and analyzed. Many clients, for example, want to compare the results across various geographies. In order to do this sort, the geographic locations of the respondents must be collected.

Task 2 ⍰ Customize the Survey Content

In addition to the survey questions prepared by the authors, organizations may wish to include other questions regarding the degree to which their program managers are:

▪    Employing the program management methodology

▪    Applying key best practices

▪    Adhering to stated practices

▪    Capturing lessons learned

Task 3 ⍰ Develop the Online Survey

The authors have found the best way to reach a critical mass of respondents is to execute the survey completely online. There are various survey tools available today, for little or no charge, which are easy to use and have fairly robust reporting capabilities. Activities included in this task are:

▪    Develop the survey – if an organization is customizing the content, a thorough review of the additional questions and how they are worded are important. Always ask: if we ask this question how are we going to use the information collected? In many instances a question might seem interesting but when questioning its inclusion people realize the question will not yield information that is altogether important.

▪    Send a link to the organization's contacts for review – a thorough review by key stakeholders will help to ensure that the questions asked are clear and concise.

▪    Refine survey questions – based on the review, the question list will be modified.

Task 4 ⍰ Deploy the Survey

▪    Send email survey invitation – this email is typically sent by the key stakeholder in the organization, such as the CIO, Head of the PMO, Business Unit VP, etc.

▪    Specific time period noted – the email should include information as to how many days the respondent has to complete the survey.

▪    Include contact name and email for questions – the email should include contact information if the respondent is having technical difficulties accessing and completing the survey.

▪    Send reminder and “thank you” emails – it is very helpful to send a “gentle reminder” email to the respondents half-way through the time period identified in order to attempt to achieve as high a response rate as possible. And, never forget to thank the respondents for participating in the survey.

Task 5 ⍰ Data Analysis and Assessment

▪    Analyze data – this is one of the most difficult steps in that insights must be drawn from the collective response and articulated clearly to those reading the report.

▪    Write draft report and distribute – after a draft of the findings has been prepared, the authors recommend that a group of key stakeholders read and comment on the findings.

▪    Review comments/write final report – the comments are then reviewed and a final report drafted.

▪    Develop presentation of findings – as a practical matter, many people will not read the entire report; rather, a presentation of the findings should be prepared and presented by the sponsor or designated representative to various stakeholders.

▪    Refine improvement roadmap – the purpose of the survey is to collect information on current practice with the goal of establishing a roadmap for organizational and individual improvement. The key value of the report is the performance improvement roadmap developed based on the survey's findings.

Final Thoughts

The purpose of the Levin-Ward Program Management Complexity Model isto help develop the competencies of organizations and program managers to promote greater effectiveness in overcoming program complexity and ensuring delivery of proposed program benefits. Often, the complex aspects of a program are not discovered until the program is well into the executing phase in the life cycle, especially if new technology is in use. In short, the program manager, or organization, becomes overwhelmed with issue after issue, progress grinds to a halt, and the costs begin to skyrocket.

The complexity inherent in large programs requires further study so that useful tools, techniques, and approaches can be successfully applied by organizations and their program managers. The Levin-Ward model is the first step in identifying competencies critical for success in dealing with program complexity. Its use by organizations, program managers, and prospective program managers will uncover areas where greater focus is needed to boost the chances of program success. It's not a “silver bullet,” but we hope it leads the reader in the direction of greater success

Cooke-Davies, T., Cicmil, S., Crawford, L., & Richardson, K. (2007). We’re not in Kansas anymore Toto: Mapping the strange landscape of complexity theory, and its relationship to project management. Project Management Journal, 38(2), 50-61.

Levin, G., & Ward, J. LeRoy. (2011). Program management complexity: A competency model. New York: CRC Press

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.

© 2011, J. LeRoy Ward & Ginger Levin
Originally published as a part of 2011 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Dallas, Texas



Related Content


Publishing or acceptance of an advertisement is neither a guarantee nor endorsement of the advertiser's product or service. View advertising policy.