Programme Management Initiation

What to Focus on in the First 90 Days


Mayo Clinic

Have you noticed that some projects are bigger than a single project? Is it a programme? What is the difference? How do you set one up? Learn the five focus areas necessary to establish a programme early on for success:

  • Vision and scope
  • Relationships with key stakeholders
  • Programme organisation and governance
  • Communications and cadence
  • Tools and processes

A practitioner shares examples and lessons learned from three large, complex multimillion dollar programmes.

Keywords: programme, project, initiation, first steps



So you have been asked to take on a large project more complex than anything you have ever managed. You start to dig into the details of the schedule, scope, and resources and are overwhelmed. You wonder if this is something that one person can actually lead. Questions keep coming to mind: Is it a programme? What is a programme? What should the structure be for this effort? What should be focused on in the first few months that can help ensure success?

After managing dozens of projects in the past six years, I was given three large projects that really were programmes. I have learned much about the initiation phase and the importance of planning this phase of a programme carefully to help set the stage for success.

A programme is “a group of related projects, sub-programmes, and programme activities managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits not available from managing them individually” (PMI, 2013, p. 553).

This is a broad definition. I have found that many organisations do not use this term for a programme. Rather, they call it a “large project.” If organisations haven't been embracing project, programme, and portfolio management for very long, they may have existing efforts referred to as programmes that are more about the business initiating work and not organising it formally the way the Project Management Institute (PMI) suggests. In my experience, there is confusion about the term programme and the level of formality necessary to properly plan and implement one.

My recommendation is to use PMI's definition and apply it to your organisation. Explain the benefits of using an industry standard term and formally organising your work around documented good practices.


Three of my most recent programmes involved knowledge management, healthy living, and a major network refresh. All three were complex, with multiple stakeholders, complicated funding mechanisms, multimillion dollar budgets, and partnering organisations involved in the solution. This made the planning in the first several months key to the future success of the endeavours.


A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth Edition is an excellent resource for planning and organising the work. But for success, you have to emphasize some areas more than others, and I recommend focus on these five areas:

  1. Vision and scope
  2. Relationships with key stakeholders
  3. Programme organisation and governance
  4. Communications and cadence
  5. Tools and processes


First, be sure you capture the proponent's vision. For my knowledge management programme, the key stakeholders created the vision, “Organise Mayo Clinic's information and knowledge and make it universally accessible, useful and actionable.” This vision was used throughout the planning and execution of the programme to anchor the team and ensure the scope aligned with that vision. The scope was iteratively described and documented with the vision at the forefront of the sessions. During the first few months of planning, the key stakeholders and programme management leadership established a scope and discussed the various ways the work could be divided into logical projects, each with its own well-defined scope and resources.


During the initial planning and establishment of the programme, I found it beneficial to also develop strong relationships with the key stakeholders. Across the three programmes, as is typical of technology-focused programmes and projects at Mayo Clinic, we had a physician leader, information technology leaders, and one or more key clinical or other business leaders at the table during these key initiation and planning phases. I spent significant time—probably 50 percent or more in the first few months—developing relationships and communicating with them about their vision and the iterative documentation of the plans for the programme. I made sure to find the right way to communicate openly and transparently. My experience has taught me that the key stakeholders have to be kept constantly aware of the programme's status. Finding out what is important to them and how they prefer to hear of status and get engaged should deliberately figure into the next key process—establishing organisation and governance.


As your programme management plan develops from the vision and scope, and you build great relationships, you must determine the best method of organising the programme and the governance. The typical organisational chart format usually works well for formatting the structure. By now it should be evident that this is not a big project but instead a programme with distinct scopes of work that can be more effectively managed as integrated projects within a programme structure. Each of the projects should be led by a seasoned project manager. Staff should be dedicated to the programme, not working on other projects or programmes. A core team should be established with the programme manager, each project manager, a leader from each of the stakeholder groups and a technical specialist. Each project should be chartered and treated as an interdependent project.

Once the structure has been put in place, design the project and programme governance to keep decision making at the lowest possible level within the structure when the scope, schedule, and budgets are adhered to. Document how decisions are made and when escalations are necessary from the projects up to the core team and from there up to the key stakeholder committees or governing groups.


Once you establish the governance and organisational structure, set up regular meetings to discuss topics, such as escalation of issues and risks. In addition, regularly report status across the projects in the programme and throughout the enterprise. For the programmes I managed, the project managers reported status weekly and I reported the overall programme status monthly until we were closer to major milestones. Then I reported programme status weekly and even daily during key times, such as during an implementation phase or when dealing with a critical issue. As part of relationship management, the programme and project managers must ensure transparency of issues, risks, and changes from the beginning of the programme. This sets the stage for the programme to ensure all information needed to keep the vision and scope intact will be communicated timely, accurately, and completely.

Another important aspect of communications and relationship building that successful programmes have is making work fun. The successful programmes I have been part of were fun to work on. One programme team went snow tubing with team members’ families. Another programme team held a holiday party and posted baby pictures of team members. We awarded prizes to those with the most correct associations. A third team created a Facebook-like paper book for people to have a picture of every team member and a place to write down things they learned about each other.

With all of them, we made sure to use humor to release the ever-present stress.


Determine what tools and processes are needed and set them up early on in the programme. Most projects and programmes need a centralized place to store information, such as distribution lists and conferencing numbers. You will likely want tools for instant messaging and often a programme website for team members and customers. You will need to define processes for activities, such as team meetings, agendas, onboarding new staff, and granting access to various tools. Unfortunately, often not enough time and attention is spent early on in documenting processes and establishing the various tools across the entire programme. The time it takes is underestimated significantly, especially when outside partners and contractors are involved. This can significantly affect the productivity and communication across the programme.

Specific tools I have found to be effective in managing programmes are:

  • Microsoft SharePoint
  • Microsoft Skype for Business
  • Microsoft Team Foundation Server
  • Microsoft Project
  • Computer Associates Clarity software
  • Polycom CX Series phone with 360 degree panorama video camera

In addition to the processes referenced in a programme management plan, I have found these to be very helpful when established at programme kick-off:

  • Procurement of resources (human and other), on-boarding procedures. These are also important to convey the vision, scope, key messages governance, and communications.
  • Security access procedures (if not directly part of on-boarding), status reporting processes and templates


While reflecting on what I have learned, I also created a survey to poll other project and programme managers to see what they felt was key to focus on. To the survey I sent out to my organisation, a local PMI chapter, and posted on a few LinkedIn pages, 128 people responded.: 73% were certified Project Management Professionals (PMP)®; 2% were Program Management Professionals (PgMP)®, and the rest held other certifications or no certifications. Well over 80% of these participants worked more than six years as a programme or project manager; 40%, more than 16 years.

More than one-fifth of the respondents mentioned topics that fell within four of the five areas I've listed. The least mentioned focus area was the establishment of tools and processes.

Other themes the participants referenced were:

  • Confirming you have enough of the right resources
  • Ensuring you have the budget/funds to execute the programme
  • Setting up the programme management plan
  • Confirming requirements
  • Managing the schedule
  • Creating a road map
  • Determining success factors
  • Managing risks

Overall, the survey results confirmed the five areas to focus on that I recommend for successful programme management.



Andrew Galbus is IT Programme Manager for Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, USA. He has 28 years in health care, IT, process analysis, and compliance. His last 16 years have been in programme, project, and portfolio management. He has managed multimillion dollar programmes, working with budgets across multiple cost centres, complex scope, schedule, risks, issues, organisational change management, and multiple stakeholders. He also has 11 years of experience in IT analysis, development, and support. Andrew has a B.S. in CompuBusiness Administration-Marketing, PMP, MBA, and certifications in IT Service Management, CPHIMS, and ISO20000.


img            |        img Andrew Galbus

img    @AndyGalbus

Project Management Institute. (2013). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK®guide) – Fifth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

© 2016, Andrew C. Galbus
Originally published as part of the 2016 PMI® Global Congress Proceedings – Barcelona, Spain



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