Project or program management?

by Mark Becker, PMP


SEMANTIC CONFUSION AND even mystique surround “program” and “project” management. While the concepts are related, each has a clear meaning and distinct set of benefits. Program management, however, is often neglected, or seen simply as jargon used to describe the conduct of a “big” project. What then is program management—and do organizations really need it?

They're related, but not twins. Do organizations need big brother, little brother, or both to effect strategic change?

Program management is about implementing strategic change and realizing benefit. A precise definition would be: “The effective implementation of change through multiple projects to realize distinct and measurable benefits for an organization.” Program management, therefore, aims to maximize the benefits of multiple projects.

Program management is a specific approach that sits above project management. It helps senior managers by providing a clear, structured framework within which one can define organizational change requirements, articulate a benefits model, prioritize resulting projects, and conduct change impact analysis.

Traditional project management has concentrated on scoping, planning, management, and control. It aims to deliver well-defined tangibles or deliverables within specified parameters of cost, time, and quality. Projects are typically aligned to a single business area or change dimension. Whereas project risk assessment is focused on the risk to deliverables, at the program level a primary focus should be assessment of the risks impacting the realization of the benefits.

In the program environment, while each project retains its own scope and goals, all teams are tuned into the overall “program goal.” This program goal is what the organization is striving to achieve, given a specific time frame and set of anticipated benefits.

The key features of programs, therefore, are that they impact across business areas and are driven by a focus on business benefit and business environment. Programs thus require a far higher degree of cross-business function coordination and direct alignment to business goals. They often face a large set of external inputs and constraints and by their nature they carry far higher strategic and financial risk. Communication and interfacing needs are often substantial and complex. Programs will nearly always bring change in the three principal areas of business: process, people, and technology, together with the interrelationships among them. Experience has also shown that top-level sponsorship is essential to achieve successful implementation and realization of each program's benefits.

Mark Bedker, PMP, is a director at KPMG Management Consulting and former president of the Project Management Institute UK Chapter.

Leading People. Program management aims to set and sustain the strategic goals and vision required to mobilize commitment at board level and throughout the organization. At a tactical level, this means managing resources across functional departments and identifying and controlling cross-project dependencies. This is done through a combination of detailed resource planning and persuasion. Managers will obviously provide guidance on common ways of working, reporting, and controlling, but this in itself may not be enough. Effective program managers will also show that vital, but often missed, quality—leadership.

Leadership is all the more vital because, as well as guiding the project managers, the program manager is the main interface to the board. He or she must carefully balance the expectations of board members, project managers, and other groups affected by the program. “Expectation gaps” arising among different groups can seriously damage a project's perceived benefits.

One effective technique for managing expectations is to ensure widespread confidence in the program from the start. Programs often have challenging benefit targets to be realized sometime in the future. In order to prove that the long-term benefits are worthwhile and reduce fears about cost and risk, some benefits should be visible from the early days of the program. The initial implementation should, therefore, include “quick win” projects. With this in mind, it may help to divide programs into three stages: (1) quick win, (2) fast track, and (3) longer term.

Too often managing people takes second place because technology dominates programs. This leads to weak operational practice, which should not happen if the programs balance change and development across people, process, and technology to ensure that overall benefits are maximized.

Managing Change. Whereas projects are best implemented within a framework of firm requirements and minimum change, programs must accommodate changing needs, benefits, and environments during their implementation. This means it is essential that management controls are set up to allow timely impact analysis and benefits reassessment throughout the program. Both internal and external changes should be assessed, particularly at key milestones, against a benefits model.

Change is an emotive concept. It creates an atmosphere of uncertainty, threat, opportunity and risk. Change, whether to an organization, process, culture, set of values, system, or the relationships between these, means people have to operate outside their comfort zones and normal practices. This needs to be recognized and proactively managed. Change should ideally catalyze people to perform better and it will do so if the end-vision is alluring enough.

The need for effective leadership and communication to create and reinforce this vision is clear. Equally important is a program strategy that evokes a high degree of collaboration and participation among the architects, deliverers, and recipients of the program. Involvement and participation engender acceptance, which is crucial to success.

The Program Manager. The program manager must lead and coordinate the scoping, planning and delivery of the objectives and benefits ascribed to each element of business: process, people and technology. In particular, the program manager is responsible for:

images Constructing a business case for the change program

images Developing the program charter (or initiation document)

images Establishing the program organization, ensuring high levels of user participation

images Structuring the program into coordinated strands and establishing the terms of reference for each strand

images Leading the detailed scoping and planning

images Undertaking business analysis and design

images Developing a communications strategy, coordinating and communicating

images Aligning decision-making to timely achievement of program goals

images Setting up a benefits management regimen

images Measuring and reporting progress across all the projects

images Managing issues and expediting their resolution

images Managing external and internal change and influences across all projects

images Assessing and managing risks

images Establishing quality standards and managing quality.

A planned, structured, energetic, and professional approach to the management, drive, and coordination of the program is prerequisite to the total implementation, acceptance, and benefits realization. Experienced practitioners, familiar with the business issues and environment, are required to achieve this.

SO WHAT'S THE ANSWER: Do organizations need project or program management? Clearly, the answer is both. Project management is well understood, but program management has specific features which can bring about fundamental organizational change in a more cost-effective and timely manner than the often single-threaded project approach. Program management offers a clear, benefits-oriented framework, cross-project planning techniques, dependencies control, and a prioritization method aligned to strategic organization goals. Without it, many millions of dollars can be spent on overlapping or conflicting initiatives, with little resulting benefit. images

Reader Service Number 096

October 1999 PM Network



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