Project Management Institute

Reducing program management complexity

a competency model


Increasingly, organizational leaders are using programs as a way to group projects, subprograms, and other activities that are inter-related in terms of benefits to be achieved. By doing so, greater attention is given to organizational strategies, and resources, if planned and managed successfully, can be reduced, increasing the overall return on investment. However, programs are complex undertakings, and limited research has been conducted in this area. This paper reviews research on complexity from projects and programs, discusses the different meanings of success for projects and programs, describes why programs are complex, and presents elements from competency models for consideration. Competency models, with both performance and personal competencies, and their resulting surveys can be useful for program managers to assess their strengths and areas of improvement so they can better manage the complexity inherent in programs. The results from the surveys, however, must be taken seriously and used by program managers, prospective program managers, and organizational leaders to further success in the program management field.


Complexity has plagued and challenged many project and program managers across all industry sectors and geographies. Research on complexity has been done on project management, but limited research is available on program management complexity even though it is a characteristic of program management. But as complexity increases in a program (defined as a business initiative comprising a group of related subprograms, projects, plus ongoing activities that are best managed in a coordinated way to achieve stated business benefits) the ability of the program manager and his or her team to deliver stated benefits can be, and often is, negatively impacted. Examples include deteriorating team morale, sponsor and client dissatisfaction, cost and time overruns, and poor requirements management. Such negative impact has been quantified, and hundreds of millions of dollars are being misspent as a result of poor program management practices. It is noted in Project Management Institute's Pulse of the Profession™ Report, in which it states “research, which is consistent with other studies, shows that fewer than two-thirds of projects meet their goals and business intent (success rates have been falling since 2008) and about 17 percent fail outright” (PMI, 2013b, p. 2).

While many organizations have embraced a management-by-projects environment and have established Centers of Excellence in Project Management or Enterprise Project Management Offices (PMOs), programs are increasingly used to deliver more benefits that are sustainable over time through grouping the interrelated subprograms, projects, and other activities. Although success rates have not been published yet by PMI on program success, by their definition they are far more complex than managing single projects. A focus on why programs are so complex and ways to reduce it along with how a competency model can assist organizational leaders, program managers, and prospective program managers is emphasized in this paper. The purpose is to see if a program manager can recognize the complexity elements early in the program so he or she apply certain and specific competencies so complexity is not a detriment. This approach can then assist the program manager to use complexity to his or her best advantage.

Program Success and Project Success

Success is also measured differently between programs and projects, and there are numerous definitions available, with program success focused more on benefits realization and sustainment, and project success focused more on specific deliverables. A study by Molloy and Stewart (2013) assessed over 1,600 occurrences of project and program in terms of success and failure. Their results focused on evaluation and expectation and indicated that projects were associated more frequently with failure, while programs had a greater association with success. They also found an overlap between use of the terms, programs and projects, indicating a need to emphasize the processes used on programs versus those on projects. Although not a part of their research, the reason programs had greater success rates could be due to the complexity and length of programs in comparison to most projects, making it easier to determine project success as the deliverables are completed, and more difficult to determine program success since the benefits may not be realized until far longer than the close of the program. Further some programs may be continued indefinitely unless the organization sponsoring the program no longer exists. In these cases, programs are considered to be successful as funding continues to be provided to support them, and the business case to continue them may not be regularly reviewed. These programs often represent the core of the organization's existence and may lead to derivative projects that are only tangentially related in terms of the organization's strategic priorities.


Complexity as a discrete topic has been researched for years. In project management, many journal articles, dissertations and theses focus on it. However, even the word, “complexity” has different definitions. For example, Geraldi points out that “mastering complexity is not a new challenge but an old challenge that is being increasingly recognized and accepted (2008, p. 4). She also states that projects and project management are associated with complexity, but many have difficulty understanding it and then do not consider a project as a complex system, which results typically in negative consequences. Projects, as defined by PMI (2013e) are temporary and unique, meaning there is an element of uncertainty regarding their execution that often results in rework and added time and costs. It is easy for the project manager to become immersed in the technical details of the project and lose sight of its business value and contribution to the overall organizational strategic goals. Many of the concepts associated with complexity in the project world overlap, and partly it is because complexity is not well defined or noted in the field. Cicimil, Cooke-Davies, Crawford, and Richardson (2009, p. 19) pointed out this dilemma stating “dictionary definitions are not particularly helpful” and discuss the fact that “complex projects is bound to encounter risks inherent in the use of language.” Williams (1999) stated the following premises: projects are becoming complex, traditional project management methods are proving inadequate, and new methods of analysis and management are needed.

The first step, though, in attempting to develop tools and techniques to manage complex projects is to define what a complex project is. Baccarini (1996), citing work done in the construction industry, proposed that project complexity be defined as “consisting of many varied interrelated parts” and can be operationalized in terms of differentiation and interdependency. He asserted that this definition could be applied to any project dimension relevant to the project management process including organization, technology, environment, information, decision making, and systems. In this context, then, complexity is a distinctly different concept to other project characteristics such as size and uncertainty. He also suggested that the two types of project complexity most commonly referred to in project management texts are organizational and technological complexity.

He explains differentiation in organizational complexity has two dimensions: vertical (depth of organizational hierarchy) and horizontal (number of organizational units and task structure.) Differentiation as it relates to technological complexity includes such characteristics as number and diversity of inputs, number of specialties, and number of separate tasks to produce the project's end product. Interdependency can encompass the linkage or interconnections between tasks, within a network of tasks, between teams, or between different technologies. Managing such organizational and technological complexity requires integration defined as coordination, communication, and control.

Williams (1999), citing prior research by other noted experts, expanded Baccarini's definition of project complexity by including the concept of uncertainty stating projects can be classified by two parameters: how well defined the goals are, and how well defined the methods are of achieving those goals. Uncertainty in either of these areas will add to project complexity because the fundamental building blocks of project management will not be known. Ambiguity has also been cited as a factor in creating complexity in projects (Helm & Remington, 2005).

Two other factors also add to project complexity: the complexity of the product to be produced by the project, as well as the fact that projects have tended to become more time-constrained over the years. While product complexity can be equated to technological complexity, time constraints are altogether different. As organizations rush to be the first to bring their products to market, the overall project timeline shrinks causing project managers to execute more tasks in parallel, in an overlapping manner, or concurrently, to the greatest extent practicable. This requires a completely different management approach, and as such “fast-tracking” the schedule brings with it certain inherent risks not found when such a method is not employed. The field of concurrent engineering, for example, has emerged as a result of the need to reduce cycle time to be first to market (Williams, 1999).

Some note that project complexity is in the “eye of the beholder” (Bannan, 2006, p. 78). This concept explains that project managers have strategies they can use to handle complex projects and states a complex project is one that is large, has dependencies, has a deadline, and a tight budget.

Program Management Complexity

Far less research has been conducted in program management complexity. It is due to the fact that programs are considerably different from projects, and their management is different as well. The literature thus seems to fall short in two aspects: the first is that much of the research conducted on complexity focuses on large infrastructure, construction, or traditional architect and engineering projects. But many of these projects actually are programs consisting of numerous projects within them before they are considered completed. Second, much of the literature that does exist is related in an indirect and tangential manner to programs.

Partington, Pellegrinelli, and Young (2005) stated that while project management is well recognized, at the same time, corporate program management is emerging. Their research supports that of PMI (2013a) noting that program management, as a discipline, has only existed since approximately 1998, while that of project management has been recognized since about 1953.

Partington et al. (2005, p. 87) described corporate program management as “structures and processes that are used to coordinate and direct the multiple interrelated projects that together constitute an organization's strategy.” Their research focuses on what is necessary for one to be successful in program management and how the role differs from that of the project manager, emphasizing that simply because someone was a competent project manager does not mean he or she will be effective at program management. Their conclusions show program management is different for many reasons, and it requires a blend of interpersonal skills, personal credibility, and political awareness, among other things, to be competent in this area. They further state leaders responsible for providing a succession system of program managers must answer three key questions:

  1. What are the qualities that distinguish an effective program manager?
  2. How can one assess whether the manager possesses these competencies?
  3. Can competence of program managers be developed or is the solution to rely on processes to select or deselect these managers?

Pellegrinelli, Partington, Hemingway, Mohdzain, and Shah (2007, p. 41) noted “the widespread use of programme management has outpaced our ability to grasp and codify a complex and subtle phenomenon.” They explained that program management is used as the way to focus on planned change as it is the way to move forward especially in complex change initiatives. However, they also stated that people working in program management spend time wondering what others in the field mean by this work.

Buuren, Buijs, and Tesiman (2010, p. 673) noted the challenges in program management often involve “the fragile balance between fruitful cooperation and vital competition between projects within a program” as they focused on the value of program management in terms of integrating the project activities and the organization's processes and procedures or whether a single project approach was more preferable. In their research, they recognized the usefulness of program management in terms of resource management and its emphasis on accomplishing organizational strategic objectives. They further stated the complexities of program management in terms of political decisions and the numerous stakeholders involved or interested in the program's outcomes noting the “multiple interferences between projects/programs and its (political, administrative, societal and media) environment” (p. 676). While using a program approach can serve as a competitive advantage, they concluded for success it relies on the program manager's power of persuasion and the support of mutual benefits from a program approach.

However, setting up approaches to reduce complexity on programs along with the associated uncertainty is one way to potentially increase the overall success rate as reported by Molloy and Stewart (2013). Reducing complexity, however, is difficult especially in those programs that are new, considered to have greater risk, use new technologies, and have a large number of stakeholders, both internal and external to the organization. If the organizational leaders are risk adverse but approved the program to be part of the portfolio as they may feel its business value is such that it represents a major return on investment if successful, the leaders will have more interest in it than a routine type of program or one that requires limited time to complete.

Managing Stakeholder Expectations

On programs with a large number of identified stakeholders, they may have different levels of support, influence, involvement, or interest in the program meaning program managers must communicate as often as possible to best manage their expectations, with a balance between working to continue to ensure stakeholders who are positive proponents remain positive, while striving to gain support from ones who are negative, neutral, or seem to lack involvement even though they may be people in influential positions. Additionally, new stakeholders will be identified during the program as others leave for other opportunities. Stakeholder identification, therefore, is a continual process on programs and ensuring the focus is on the most critical stakeholders to best manage their expectations effectively is also ongoing even after the program closes, and benefits move to a transition and sustainment mode. The latter means a different group of stakeholders are involved, and program managers must work with these stakeholders to prepare them for the changes from the program in order that they are ready to work to transition the benefits and sustain them into the future. Such an approach especially adds to complexity with those programs in which the benefits are not realized incrementally but instead are realized after the program is complete.

Program Management Methodologies

Another consideration is the sophistication of the organization's methodologies for program management, whether a PMO is available to support the program manager and the core team, and whether a program management information system (PMIS) is in place or must be developed. While planning is useful to show why the program is under way, its importance, and vision, the extent of the planning documents that are required along with the frequency of the reports to prepare adds to complexity. The more complex the program, the greater the need for more detailed planning especially given the number of subprograms, projects, and operational work. Each time there is a change, and even with an emphasis following an adaptive approach to best manage the change, a controlled process is a positive practice, and it means as well that the documentation requires updates. Complexity further increases given the approvals required for each document.

The core team or a PMO that directly supports a program can spend its time preparing and revising documentation, requiring a PMIS that if not developed elsewhere in the organization is necessary to establish to facilitate planning, executing, monitoring and controlling, and knowledge sharing across the team. The PMIS can become a knowledge repository for the program as it is not limited to scheduling software. If set up correctly, team members can use it to obtain needed information on the program and to promote a culture of knowledge sharing. Further, if a competency model is used in the organization or even on a large program, the PMIS then can serve as the way to locate people with needed areas of expertise to support the program at critical times. Additionally, the PMIS can provide the means to easily retrieve information on the program's status to demonstrate to stakeholders the effective use of resources on the program and to the organization's leadership team the continual alignment of the program to strategic objectives. It becomes a critical tool for rapid retrieval of information to support program decision making if set up and maintained with a focus on quality data with content reviewed before it is added to the PMIS.

Programs and Change Management

All programs represent change in some degree to their customers and end users, and change management adds to the complexity associated with programs. It is particularly important in internal organizational programs such as ones involving reorganizations, downsizing, and mergers and acquisitions. PMI explains the ambiguity and uncertainty so characteristic of program work stating “program management is ideally suited to deal with the complexity of change management” (2013a, p. 64). The program's business case sets forth the changes expected, which if approved, then leads to the need for the program manager to prepare and follow a change management plan. It is not limited to technical changes but focuses as well on the interpersonal issues and the delivery of planned benefits. During the program as changes occur an adaptive approach is a positive practice along with considering each change to see if it can be exploited or embraced to result in additional benefits to stakeholders. Before implementing the changes, work with stakeholders is required to prepare them to accept the change, transition program outcomes and sustain the changes and benefits delivered by the program. PMI (2013a) suggests the use of sensemaking from the beginning of the program throughout its life cycle as a way to promote successful change on programs. It explains the traditional approach is to gather as much information as possible to reduce program uncertainty, which tends to lead to an increase in complexity, while following a sensemaking process can help resolve conflicting perceptions and diverse expectations. It then helps to clarify the changes for stakeholders and to determine the best approach and solution to the change process. It therefore facilitates management of stakeholder expectations by clarifying any issues stakeholders may have as the program ensues to better ensure sustainment of the program's benefits. PMI further states that “true measures of success are embedded into the change activities of the business and the actual realization of value for the organization” (2013a, p. 73).

Governance and Programs

Another aspect of program complexity is governance. As noted by PMI (2013e), the level and degree of autonomy and authority given to the program manager is the responsibility of the Governance Board or comparable group charged to oversee the program to ensure it remains in alignment with the strategic priorities of the organization. While having an oversight group such as a Governance Board is a positive practice especially in determining whether the program is ready to move to another phase in the life cycle, for assistance in resolving issues and risks, and for periodic performance reviews to best ensure programs will deliver their promised benefits, an over-controlling Governance Board can become another level of complexity. The Governance Board ideally is in a supportive role, and the program manager can use its members’ assistance to discuss alternatives and learn of changes in strategic direction, which could cause a project or other component in the program to be terminated or may be an opportunity to add a new component to best adapt to changes. PMI (2013e) states the autonomy given to the program manager is based on his or her experience and competencies in managing programs, meaning the greater the knowledge, skills, and competence one has the greater the level of autonomy and authority.

The Usefulness of Competency Models

Competency models have been developed by many – the most well known by PMI (2007) – the competency development framework for project managers in which the emphasis is on knowledge, performance, and personal competencies. Others have suggested general competency frameworks for project-based organizations (Kasvi, Vartianen, & Haiikari, 2003; Crawford, 2005; Iha & Iyer, 2007). Organizational competencies for successful management are another area of focus (Gareis, 2003; Zibell, 2007). Another category focuses on project type such as in construction (Kwaku, Gavi, & Olomolaiye, 2008), software (Rose, Pedersen, Hosond, & Krammergaard, 2007), or in human resource management (Eicker, Kochbeck, & Schuler, 2008).

Given the level of complexity of programs, the level of one's competence in program management determines one's level of authority and autonomy one has as noted above (PMIe, 2013). Following the framework developed for project managers, Levin and Ward (2011) developed a competency model for program managers.

This model retains the same definitions as in the PMI (2007) standard as follows:

Competence: “A cluster of related knowledge, attitudes, skills, and other personal characteristics that affects a major part of one's job (i.e., one or more key roles or responsibilities), correlates with performance on the job, can be measured against well-accepted standards, and can be improved by means of training and development.” (p. 73)

Knowledge: “Knowing something with the familiarity gained through experience, education, observation, or investigation. It is understanding a process, practice, or technique, or how to use a tool.” (p. 74)

Skill: “Ability to use knowledge, a developed aptitude, and/or a capability to effectively and readily execute or perform an activity.” (p. 75)

Following the PMI (2007) project manager competency format, this model also uses the convention of identifying performance competencies as well as personal competencies. By using both sets of competencies, program managers, prospective program managers, and their organizations’ leaders, can identify any gaps that may exist and determine how best to fill them. Individuals can use the model to help them further improve their overall effectiveness as a program manager or to determine whether or not program management is a desired career path. Organization leaders can use the model, tailoring it as required, to meet their unique needs to best match individuals to open positions as new programs are undertaken, existing program managers leave to take on other assignments, or as existing programs are reprioritized.

Model Overview

Levin and Ward's (2011) model consists of six performance competencies and eight personal competencies that are applied in program management.

Performance Competencies

These competencies are ones that state what the program manager should do by applying his or her knowledge of program management in order to be able to deliver the proposed and planned benefits of the program. These competencies were aligned with the six domains of program management (PMI, 2008), and are updated in this paper for consistency with PMI's Examination Content Outline (PMI, 2011).

Strategic program management – includes activities such as defining the program objectives and requirements, creating a high-level roadmap, conducting an initial stakeholder analysis, validating the program's priority and alignment to strategic objectives, preparing a business case, and obtaining the required authorization to proceed with a program mandate.

Initiating the program – includes activities such as articulating the program mission statement, developing the high level program milestone plan, developing an accountability matrix, establishing project management standards for the component projects, defining measurement criteria, obtaining senior management approval for the program charter, and conducting a program kickoff meeting.

Planning the program – includes activities such as developing a detailed program scope statement and Work Breakdown Structure, establishing the program management plan and baseline, preparing the benefits realization plan, preparing the resource plan and determining whether leveling resource requirements are needed to optimize the program plan, defining the project management information system (PMIS), and developing the transition and benefits sustainment plans.

Executing the program – includes activities such as implementing the program management plan and all subsidiary plans; consolidating project and program data to monitor program performance; chartering component projects, subprograms, and operational activities as necessary; continuously motivating team members through various activities; deploying uniform standards across all components; capturing program status and disseminating information to key stakeholders; and recommending closing components as necessary.

Monitoring and controlling the program – includes activities such as analyzing cost, schedule and quality variances to the program plan and making decisions to correct deficiencies or to promote continued above par performance, forecasting project and program outcomes by gathering relevant data and identifying trends, ensuring stated benefits are being realized or will be realized as a result of execution, and managing change in accordance with the change management plan.

Closing the program – includes activities such as completing a program performance analysis report, executing the transition plan, conducting stakeholder review meetings, ensuring the official closeout of all contracts and agreements, and documenting lessons learned.

In this model, the elements for the performance competencies are expanded to show specific performance criteria and evidence to use to see if the criteria are met. The model recognizes that not all of these performance competencies are required on ever program, but they serve as a guide for organizational leaders as they determine those that are relevant for their programs. This list therefore is neither exhaustive nor exclusive and has representative examples for consideration.

Personal Competencies

However, performance competencies on their own are insufficient as programs and their associated components are performed by people, and in most cases greater emphasis is required on the key personal competencies required for overall success. The personal competencies combined with the performance competencies relate to the interpersonal skills to enhance the program manager's abilities to successfully “perform,” or execute, the performance competencies. Levin and Ward (2011) grouped these personal competencies in eight areas:

Communicating – Project management research has shown that an effective project manager communicates approximately 90% of his or her time. In program management, communications consumes an even greater amount of time as there are more diverse stakeholders and more stakeholders who are external to the organization. Active listening is included in this category. PMI (2013e) implies that communicating is the most important competency as it recognizes the necessity of communications skills to communicate with stakeholders and the importance of a communications management plan. This competency also is the focus on an in-depth report by PMI (2013c), which states 56 perfect of dollars are at risk because of ineffective communications and that communications is a critical core competency for organizations. This report emphasizes that if communications are overlooked, it truly affects success and long-term profitability. Although the PMI report is oriented toward projects, it has implications as well for programs noting that “organizations cannot execute strategic initiatives unless they can effectively communicate their strategic alignment and business benefits” (PMI, 2013c, p. 2). It emphasizes therefore, the importance of tailoring communications to different stakeholder groups.

Leading – Although the vision or end state of the program is set forth in the initial business case, the program manager is responsible for ensuring that this vision is recognized at all levels of involvement in the program. Leadership involves setting forth this vision and establishing the program's direction. Since programs consist of projects, subprograms, and non-project work, it also involves identifying interdependencies between them and making decisions as required. Project managers, for example, will escalate issues and risks to the program manager requiring him or her to make decisions, sometimes quickly, or on others, they may need to escalate these issues and risks to the Program Governance Board for advice and decisions. As noted by PMI, “leadership is embedded in the program manager's job and occurs throughout the course of the program” (PMI, 2013e, p. 15).

Building relationships – In program management, program stakeholder engagement is a domain (PMI, 2013e). The program manager is responsible not only for identifying those stakeholders that may influence or impact his or her program but also is responsible for developing a stakeholder register and expectation plan to engage them throughout the program's life cycle. The specific interests of each stakeholder must be noted and respected and dealing with the various stakeholder groups requires significant time and effort by the program manager and his or her team. It also is necessary to balance one's time as a program manager by working to ensure those who are program proponents remain in this supportive role and also working to best listen and respond to the concerns of those stakeholders who may be negative toward the program to try to ensure they can at least take a neutral stance toward it. Building strong relationships from the beginning enables the stakeholders to be ready to accept the program's benefits and the resulting changes as the program manager focuses on the gap between the current state and the program's vision.

Negotiating – The large number of stakeholders typically involved with a program means that there is a need for the program manager to have the highest level of negotiation skills and competencies, which will be applied to such situations as negotiating for resources, making sure the program remains a top priority in the organization's portfolio, convincing the Governance Board to make certain decisions when undergoing a stage gate review or performance review, and encouraging and promoting stakeholder support. Negotiating skills are emphasized as critical to “diffuse stakeholder opposition to the program and its stated benefits,” recognizing it is especially important in long and complex programs (PMI, 2013e, p. 56).

Thinking critically – A critical thinker is one who has the ability to identify the important questions to ask and problems to solve in a way that defines them clearly. Following identification of the issue, the relevant facts and information are gathered and analyzed in a logical or even an abstract manner. Open-ended questions are useful. Based on the interpretation of the facts at hand, the person then comes to well-reasoned conclusions or solutions, which are then tested against relevant criteria. Critical thinkers have the ability to think openly, to not be influenced by others’ thinking, and to identify the assumptions, constraints, and implications and consequences of their decisions. Thinking critically also means communicating effectively with others in formulating solutions to complex problems. It is, in short, the ability to think about one's thinking, while one is thinking, to make one's thinking better. Better thinking typically yields better results. The program manager addressing complex programs is well served by a competency that promotes more insightful analysis of the problems and opportunities at hand. Given the nature of the interdependencies on complex programs, the ability to “connect the dots” and understand the integrative nature of such endeavors is crucial to managing and controlling such efforts.

Facilitating – It is not the program manager's job to do all of the work of the program – that is the responsibility of the project managers, subprogram managers, operations managers, and the team. That said, the program manager must set the stage for success by creating an environment in which people can do their assigned tasks without extensive roadblocks. If there are issues that require resolution, or risks in which the planned response is not effective, these then must be escalated to the program manager so he or she can assist the project manager or team member as quickly as possible. This facilitation role is also significant if issues or risks must be escalated to higher levels such as to the Governance Board. To be sure, if the priorities of the program change, the program manager must communicate these changes to affected parties. Additionally, the program manager is responsible to ensure that the team's policies, procedures, and processes are conducive to, and will help the team realize, the stated program benefits.

Mentoring – Most programs last a number of years; as such, the program manager can expect staff turnover throughout its life cycle. The program managers, and others in the organization, need to serve as mentors to team members so they can assume additional responsibilities and advance to positions of greater responsibility as the need demands. This mentoring function is one that requires support and commitment by the program manager, as well as by the person being mentored. As such well-defined goals and objectives for the mentoring relationship need to be established. While mentoring can be done informally, many organizations have formal mentoring programs in place. When this is the case a formal documented commitment by each party to the mentoring initiative is required. On a large program, it may be desirable for the program manager to set up a mentoring program at a variety of levels. It may very well be more effective if the mentor is someone who is familiar with the program but lacks direct involvement in it for greater objectivity and confidentiality.

Embracing Change – Unlike the project manager who generally strives to keep changes to his or her project to a minimum, the program manager recognizes that changes are going to occur on the program, and they can be positive. He or she therefore must keep an open mind to, and embrace, change which will have a positive effect on program objectives. An adaptive approach is recommended. Additionally, the program manager must realize that change may come from internal initiatives or external factors. A change on one project, while at first may be perceived as negative, may in fact be a benefit to other projects or other work under way on the program. Given the longer life of most programs than projects, technology changes also may be beneficial. As PMI (2013e) notes, the program manager works with stakeholders to assess the readiness for change, plan for changes that will result, and address stakeholder feedback.

In the model, these eight competencies are described in a similar manner to the performance competencies.

Using Competency Models

The key to competency models is not to develop them but to use them. Levin and Ward's (2011) model is set up so it can be used by organizational leaders, program managers, and prospective program managers through different surveys. Organizational leaders, working in conjunction with the human resource department, can use a competency model through a survey of the existing program managers to assess their proficiencies in the performance and personal competencies. Then, the human resource managers have profiles of the staff members, which can be used in making assignments to manage a program at different degrees of complexity. The human resource managers also can use these profiles to see if training is required in some areas, and also in assigning program managers if interested to serve as mentors to others. Leaders can emphasize why the competency profiles are being set up and the importance of updating them based on new skills that are acquired, credentials or degrees that are attained, and training courses or attendance at conferences. Executives though lead the way to describe the intent of the competency model and survey and why it is being done to focus on “respect for program managers and the organization's investment in its staff members…must encourage their program managers to see the model as a way to help them achieve objectives and personal development in the field” (Levin & Ward, 2011, p. 101).

Program managers can use a competency model survey to assess their strengths and opportunities for improvement focusing on continual learning and to set a baseline. They can discuss the results with peers if desired or with the human resource staff if they feel training is needed in key areas. They also can solicit feedback from stakeholders, including sponsors, which can demonstrate to stakeholders their willingness to listen and to better meet stakeholder expectations. Later, program managers can retake the survey to see if improvements have been made in some areas and where additional effort should be placed. By working with sponsors, program managers can work to prepare a plan to address possible improvements and individual goals and measurable activities to see if desired outcomes are being realized.

Prospective program managers can use a competency survey to see whether they are ready to advance from a project manager to a program manager and to have a standard to see the desired competencies a program manager ideally should possess. They can use the results to consider even if they have been successful at managing multiple projects concurrently whether they wish to move to a program management position.

PMI (2013d) discusses the competitive advantage of talent development. While its focus is on project management, its comments equally apply to program management. It notes the need for technical, leadership, and strategic and business management skills and points out the technical project management skills and those in strategic and business management are ones that can be acquired by training and education. This study indicates the need to locate people with leadership competencies, which leads to a return to program management in which leadership is the major element in a program manager's job especially with the complexity of many programs, some with numerous components and of long duration using as well partners, suppliers, and vendors. Competency models are one approach to assess existing talent in the organization and evaluate strengths and areas in need of improvement. Such competency surveys based on these models also could be used to evaluate prospective talent that express an interest in obtaining a program management position in the organization or even program managers proposed by suppliers since often they have complete responsibility for managing program components. As PMI notes in its study talent management outcomes along with alignment of talent management to organizational strategy, requires some type of metrics to assess outcomes. Competency models and their resulting surveys can assist in this area as well thereby leading to revenue and profit growth, a decrease in staff turnover, an increase in employee satisfaction, and greater employee retention as “to ensure success organizations need to recruit smartly and align their people strategically” (2013d, p. 7).


Complexity has been studied for years at the project level, and with the increase in the use of programs to attain greater benefits than if projects and other components in them were managed separately, it is increasing as an area of focus in program research. Programs by their nature are complex undertakings but are considered by many organizational leaders to be strategic assets to organizations. For success in benefit realization and sustainment, program managers must adapt to the complexity associated with programs and recognize it, hopefully using it to their advantage. Competency models, and their resulting surveys, are one way for program managers to assess their strengths and areas for improvement in both performance and personal arenas. Such models on their own lack usefulness if the data from them are not taken seriously. These data need to be presented in a non-threatening way focusing on continuous improvement and enabling organizational leaders to evaluate the results to increase program success and reduce the talent gap in this field.

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© 2013, Ginger Levin and J. LeRoy Ward
Originally published as a part of 2013 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – New Orleans, LA, USA



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