Attitude adjustment




Making the leap from project manager to program manager requires not just different skills but a different mindset. We asked seven experienced program managers, “What should project managers know and do when taking on broader, more strategic roles?”


“As a program manager, I have learned to become more proactive in resolving conflict rather than reacting to crisis. I think in terms of escalation rather than reporting. Reporting only conveys the status of an issue; there's no obligation from the receivers to take action. Escalation gets the leadership team involved in solving the problem. From my experience, escalation can be considered complaining, so in the kickoff meeting for any project, I try to define when issues will be escalated and to whom.

In moving toward a more proactive role, I tend to think less about teams and more about broader issues of governance. When I talk about governance, I'm thinking of ways to help all of the stakeholders, functional teams and delivery teams align with the strategic objectives of the programs. Governance brings ownership and accountability. In turn, the respective teams start considering what needs to be done to reach their best performance.”

—Sethunarayanan Thiru, PMP, is the lead program manager for the field products line of business at Honeywell Technology Solutions Lab in Bengaluru, India.

“The program manager is not a firefighter, but instead looks for changes or delays in activities, identifies possible risks and prepares the team for things that could go wrong.”

—Philip Doty, PMI-RMP, PMP, PgMP, Serco North America, Reston, Virginia, USA


When you gain responsibilities, you give up some control.

“To have greater influence over the program, you give up direct control over each project task. The program manager is not a firefighter, but instead looks for changes or delays in activities, identifies possible risks and prepares the team for things that could go wrong.

Don't wait for stakeholders to read their report and react. As you get to know their habits, you will learn that some need a phone call or targeted email to draw their attention. If a stakeholder flags an issue, then, as the program manager, you need to determine a corrective course of action. When the stakeholders are engaged, they can support with resources and monitoring. That will encourage team members to address the issues.

Look for problems and facilitate prompt resolution, and be available for your teams when they need you.”

—Philip Doty, PMI-RMP, PMP, PgMP, is program manager, citizen & defense services, for Serco North America in Reston, Virginia, USA.


Bring high-level executives on board, and think like one.

“While effective project management is an essential foundation for any change initiative, it is rarely enough on its own. What is almost always required is an extra layer—program management—to bring together a project and its supporting change activities, focused on delivering the organization's strategic priorities. The three big pillars of successful change programs are senior management sponsorship, stakeholder engagement and communication, and benefits management.

Recently, I was asked to lead a business transformation initiative to boost sales and change a company's culture. As a first step, we made sure that we got the senior management team aligned around the strategic objectives. As a second step, instead of thinking only of one single project with deliverables on time and budget, we conducted a workshop to draw the map for the change journey ahead. The map provided an excellent framework, and using it throughout the program for progress reporting proved invaluable to helping the stakeholders visualize how far we had come with benefits realization.”

—Christian de Loës, PMP, is managing director and interim change program manager for Prosensit Management Consulting AB in Stockholm, Sweden.


You need a strategic perspective, but your project managers do, too.

“As a young project manager, I was lucky to work for an organization that clearly expressed its strategy and encouraged managers to show their employees how their daily tasks helped the company reach its goals. This approach has been an integral part of my program management practice. Working in the IT world, I have to lead highly technical teams, which I've found have a hard time thinking in terms of business value instead of product features.

With a new team, I like to ask: ‘What do you think the user or client would not be able to do without this project or product?' Not-so-good answers are related to product features—for example, in IT projects for oil companies, an answer like, ‘With this project, the company will increase its data backup capacity.’ I try to coach the team toward answers that are more like the following: ‘This project helps the company achieve its target production for barrels of oil this year.’ These questions help teams express the program or project value for the organization.

Focusing on the business value for the client has helped my teams select the best solution for each project, facilitate decision-making on product construction methods and prioritize projects within the program.”

—Jose Rafael Alcala Gomez, PMP, is a project manager for Avalon Tecnologias de la Informacion in Madrid, Spain. He has managed programs for an oil and gas company in Latin America and a national government in Europe.


“Developing a program plan is a means of ensuring that you successfully achieve the organization's objectives. Learn to visualize how the projects and operational activities fit within your plan.”

—Jihan Al-Sherif, PMP, Software AG, Doha, Qatar


Understand the bigger picture—and the people in it.

“Developing a program plan is a means of ensuring that you successfully achieve the organization's objectives. Learn to visualize how the projects and operational activities fit within your plan. This will connect the dots within your program, as well as externally with other programs and projects, to ensure stakeholders’ engagement and a successful program.

It's also especially important as a program manager that you really know your project teams’ personalities. Some of my team members were introverts and valued control, while others were extroverts and valued social interactions and showing excellent communication skills. Understanding their personalities gives me, as a program manager, a better sense of whom to select for which projects. In program management, different projects require different types of project managers. You need to know who is best to lead a fast-paced project, who can handle a project with a lot of ambiguities and who is best for a project that is politically sensitive.”

—Jihan Al-Sherif, PMP, is a principal consultant at Software AG in Doha, Qatar.

The Talent Triangle


© 2015 Project Management Institute. All rights reserved

Considering making the leap from project to program management? Keep the “talent triangle” in mind.

While technical skills are at the core of project and program management, they're not enough in today's increasingly complex and competitive global marketplace. Companies are seeking added skills in leadership and business intelligence—competencies that can support longer-range strategic objectives that contribute to the bottom line.

The ideal skill set—what PMI calls the “talent triangle”—is a combination of technical, leadership, and strategic and business management expertise.

Practitioners looking to move into program management should focus on filling skill gaps to meet the profession's evolving demands—and seizing opportunities to become a strategic partner in business success.


Consider how teams, not just team members, interact.

“As a program manager, I learned to lead cross-functional teams instead of managing a particular team. The difference is that I now have to balance the conflicting objectives of different functional teams to align with the overall program objective. A program manager needs to perfect the art of the tradeoffs required by a few of the teams. Otherwise, when everyone focuses on their own self-interest, it can be difficult to take the organizational strategy to the next level.

“A program manager needs to perfect the art of the trade-offs required by a few of the teams.”

—Duraideivamani Sankararajan, PMP, IBM India, Bengaluru, India

I always project myself as a volunteer, rather than a program manager or leader. With minimal oversight, I encourage project managers to prepare a required subplan for each knowledge area, which I review in detail and let them know how they can improve. Upon completion of a project, I also encourage them to volunteer to review another project. This encouragement gives them confidence that they really know the subject and helps them reinforce their expertise.”

—Duraideivamani Sankararajan, PMP, is program manager at IBM India, a PMI Global Executive Council member, in Bengaluru, India.


Alignment Alert

Program managers need to keep projects in line with their organizations’ strategic goals. These warning signs indicate that a project might be headed off track.


“Recently I was brought on board to assist on planning and controlling an enterprise-wide IT up-grade project. The project had been around for 18 months with no real value to show. It had several important and undocumented dependencies with other projects, and even though it was included on the client's list of strategic projects, it lacked formal sponsorship. This project was headed for failure.

It was clear there was no way this project could be executed without careful integration with two other corporate initiatives. So we worked on documenting how these three projects were interconnected and the value that they, as a whole, would add to the organization. We identified communications needs, set up information channels and established common reporting for the three projects. In other words, we established a corporate program delivering a shared view of the situation to upper management and facilitating the tracking of issues and problems.”

—Jose Rafael Alcala Gomez, PMP


“In a business process management project at an organization where I consulted, the stakeholders were not on board. The project's complexity, deliverables and magnitude had not been properly communicated.

I immediately had to change course. I held an educational session for the senior management and their advisers to ensure that they saw the value of the project. On the other hand, the middle management team worried that my project would reduce the scope of their projects. As a result, I organized follow-up sessions for them to understand their pain points and help them feel less threatened by the project. They worried it would reduce the scope of their own projects.

I talked about what business process management really means, and I demonstrated how it helps strategy execution and contributes to a successful project. I showed the link between the business process management project and other current projects, as well as upcoming strategic projects. I was able to gain support and increase the chances of the project's success.”

—Jihan Al-Sherif, PMP


Sharpen your translation skills.

“As a program manager, I've taken responsibility for projects that span different regions, and I've learned that cultural biases can impact the perception of a project's status. We often use the RAG (red-amber-green) method, but when you are part of a global initiative, it can become difficult to present a consistent view.

One program I was involved in deployed a transcontinental strategic business change. I found that in certain countries, people refuse to present a ‘red’ status even if a project is in terrible condition because senior managers forbid it. In other regions, team members sometimes say that a project is proceeding poorly because they want management's attention.

When I was head of release management for a Swiss bank, as part of the software delivery team, the ‘watermelon’ status—green on the surface, but red in reality—was the most dangerous, as one missed deliverable could endanger a whole release weekend. I have learned to coach all project managers to provide evidence that their reported status is in line with reality and is done in a consistent manner.”

—Marc Burlereaux, PMI-ACP, PMI-RMP, PMP, PgMP, is a member of the change delivery team at HSBC Private Bank in Geneva, Switzerland.



“On one program, I worked for an outsourcing company to implement a banking software package. It was difficult to gain a shared view about the program status and which features to implement because of different understandings between the bank client, the banking software provider, and my company leading the program and the project teams in charge of the implementation. In spite of trying to reconcile the program status among all these groups, we were forced to accept a challenging delivery timeline.

We had to delay the go-live date more than four times, which meant a costly project review each time. During the assessment status and rescheduling, we stopped all the work and the team sat idle. When you ask a program team four times to walk the extra mile to achieve a deadline, you have to make sure the last time is a good one. The final rollout went very well, but a more sustainable pace and approach would have been better and less costly to implement.”

—Marc Burlereaux, PMI-ACP, PMI-RMP, PMP, PgMP


“Conflict between what the sales team promises and what the project team is able to achieve is one of the most common complaints I hear, project after project. I have to explain the scope of the project, as defined in the contract or statement of work. I try to understand the differences between the contracted scope and the assurances of the sales team, and I review internally what it would take to meet the client's expectations, if feasible. A collaborative approach helps the client understand that the scope of the project is something they have reviewed and agreed to in the contract.

As a program manager, I spend time with each of the key members on the program or project side and on the customer side as well. If there is any disconnect, I try to explain how it has to be modified, if required, to align to the program objective. This kind of discussion brings everyone on the same page.”

—Duraideivamani Sankararajan, PMP

“A collaborative approach helps the client understand that the scope of the project is something they have reviewed and agreed to in the contract.”

—Duraideivamani Sankararajan, PMP




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