Project Management Institute

Understanding and assessing programme management competence

Sergio Pellegrinelli, David Partington & Malcolm Young


In publications by project management's professional bodies, programmes have conventionally been placed at the top of a scope-based hierarchy of project work. Programme management has been implicitly or explicitly treated as an advanced form of project management. In practice, this positioning has over-simplified a more complex and subtle phenomenon.

Programmes and programme management are frequently used, especially by large organisations, to implement complex strategic initiatives. In such cases, programme work transcends the management of related projects and involves managing the ambiguities of strategy as well as the interpersonal, cultural and political dynamics operating within organisations. A practical concern at senior management level is the selection and development of competent programme managers and directors. To date there has been little useful formal knowledge on the competence entailed in undertaking such strategic initiatives - frameworks extrapolated from project management are too narrow in their focus and overly rationalistic.

This paper describes the results of empirical research, using an interpretive methodology called phenomenography, into programme management competence. Phenomenography is an approach to identifying a limited number of qualitatively different ways in which people experience a given aspect of reality. It draws on the notion, taken from educational psychology, that any aspect of reality is experienced by an individual in one of a limited number of distinctively different ways. The way something is experienced by someone – their conception – has a specific position in a hierarchy of conceptions. The research involved interviews with, and in some cases observation of, 15 programme managers and their clients, superiors, peers and team members in 7 sectors.

An entirely new framework for project and programme management competence is put forward consisting of 17 attributes of programme management work each conceived at 4 levels. These enacted conceptions define the nature of programme work – what, and the approach to the work – how, and determine the competence of the individual.

The paper also outlines how the competence framework was used to assess programme managers and directors in a major UK financial services organisation, and to inform their professional development. The paper discusses the challenges in attaining higher-order conceptions and the types of experiences and interventions that might facilitate individuals' development.

Keywords: Programme management, competence, phenomenography


As project management practitioners have taken on ever more varied, multi-faceted and complex change initiatives, they have adapted and extended their approaches and created programme management. Programme management is now an acknowledged, high-profile approach in a wide variety of sectors, including defence, aerospace, financial services, software development, telecommunications, health, pharmaceuticals, utilities and other infrastructure industries. Incrementally, a new discipline has emerged and has being codified and disseminated (CCTA, 1999; PMI, 1996; APM, 2000).

The Project Management Institute's Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®) defines a programme as: “a group of related projects managed in a co-ordinated way” (PMI, 1996). Similarly, the UK Association for Project Management's Body of Knowledge (APM BoK) acknowledges widespread variation in the use of the term “programme”, suggesting that, “the most common – and cogent – definition is that a programme is a collection of projects related to some common objective” (APM, 2000, p.15). The project management associations thus conceive of a programme as a collection of projects. This represents a logical extension of the rationalist-reductionist approach characteristic of project management as a discipline. Projects are a collection of lower-level packages of work, each of which is delivered through the accomplishment of discrete smaller tasks. In the same way tasks, work packages and projects may be combined in ever-increasing layers of scope and complexity, with programmes representing the top level.

This project-based view is sustained by the relative absence of programme management outside project management literature. It is reinforced by the prevalence of attractive, commercially-available software and generic, packaged procedures that claim to embrace both project and programme management. In turn, programme management competence is placed at the pinnacle of a hierarchy of project management competence. Further, it suggests that an organisation's pool of potential candidates for promotion into programme management roles may be drawn from its reserves of project management talent.

While the project management community and its professional bodies have tended to stress the commonality between projects and programmes, others have sought to accentuate their differences and have argued that programmes are qualitatively different phenomena. Based on empirical research into how programmes are used in the telecommunications sector, Pellegrinelli (1997) argues that organisations that view programmes as large projects, blurring the distinctions, tend to shoe-horn programmes into project-level thinking. As a result these organisations lose most of the benefits sought in setting up programmes in the first place. Grundy (2001) argues that concepts and techniques from strategic management may be valuable when projects and programmes are used to co-ordinate and direct the multiple inter-related initiatives and actions which together constitute an organisation's strategy. Partington (2001), echoing earlier work by Boddy and Buchanan (1992), describes the challenges and pitfalls inherent in adopting project and programme management for implementing strategy.

The divergence in perspective is greatest when programmes are used to implement strategy. Assigning a strategic role and orientation to programmes separates programme management from project management and established project management concepts. The starting point for conceiving programmes is not project management but strategic programming – the articulation and elaboration of strategies or visions that already exist (Mintzberg, 1994), which has been practised for many years usually under the guise of strategic planning. In contrasting the ‘strategic programming’ perspective with the ‘project management’ perspective of programme management, four key differences emerge.

First, programmes are emergent phenomena and programme managers need to be more conscious of, and responsive to, external change and shifting strategic goals than indicated by a project management perspective that promotes the definition and pursuit of fixed objectives and scope. Second, programmes are conceived as frameworks or structures, and so atemporal or with indeterminate time horizons, rather than having linear life-cycles akin to projects. Third, as a vehicle for enhancing corporate vitality programme management is concerned with the nurturing of individual and organisation-wide capabilities as well as the efficient deployment of resources. Fourth, programme management work is intimately bound up with, and determined by, context rather than governed by a common set of principles and processes.

If programme management is not at the pinnacle of pinnacle of a hierarchy of project management competence, then project management expertise alone may not be sufficient to perform programme management roles well. Pellegrinelli (2001) argues that:

“Where programmes provide a bridge between projects and the organisation's strategy, programme management takes on many of the characteristics and competencies of strategic change management and organisational development.” (2001, p229)

The paper cites the case study of a global systems consultancy experiencing difficulties as it promoted successful project managers into programme roles. The consultancy found that many of these individuals lacked the competence to deal with complex, systems implementations aimed at effecting significant business transformation in client organisations. These newly appointed programme managers needed to ‘raise their games’ significantly to address the cultural, political and organisational challenges.

These differences in perspective and poor experiences create dilemmas and concern amongst senior managers in relation to the selection and development of competent programme managers. While programme managers are becoming increasingly pivotal in ensuring organisational success, there is limited rigorous research into the nature of programme management competence.


Our research aims were: (1) to develop a fuller understand of the meaning of programmes in diverse contexts; and (2) to explore the competence possessed and applied by individuals who exhibit a capacity to perform the role of programme manager/ director.

Viewed simply, ‘competence’ is about being good at something. However, underlying this naïve conceptualisation there is a large body of literature on human competence at work which reveals contrasting methodologies and perspectives, and some controversy. The work-oriented competence research uses functional analysis of work activities to define performance standards typically for use in management development activity. The worker-oriented approach to studying individual competence takes the competent worker – rather than the work – as the point of departure to infer the attributes associated with superior performance. Both models have significant shortcomings in relation to the field of research and our own philosophical perspectives. The models are inwardly-focused, based on the assembled opinions of professional experts and predefine what constitutes competence. As a result they may not capture workers' competence, especially where there is disagreement on the very nature of the work and where ‘backstage’, tacit or covert dimensions of competence may be important.

Inspired by the ground breaking work of Jorgen Sandberg (1994, 2000), we adopted an interpretive approach known as phenomenography. Phenomenography, first developed within the field of educational psychology to explain why some students are better at learning than others, is specifically designed to describe variations in people's experiences of given aspects of reality (Marton, 1981; 1994). Sandberg applied the approach, with its robust built-in theoretical and philosophical foundations, in a management context to explore different levels of competence among individuals in a group of engine optimisers in an automobile factory.

Central to the phenomenographic approach is the researcher's aim of understanding how an individual apprehends, makes sense of and enacts a specific aspect of their world, termed a conception. The methodology is predicated on the fundamental tenet that a person's competence at work consists of, and is inseparable from, the way they conceptualise that work. Unlike ‘rationalistic’ models of competence typified by both work-oriented and worker-oriented approaches, phenomenography does not separate worker and work, nor assume that researchers have access to objective knowledge of competence which is independent of the minds of those who are competent. As such we did not need to formulate a potentially restrictive or vague definition of what constitutes programme management (as would have been required by the work-oriented approach), nor rely on ‘experts’ to identify the best performing programme managers/ directors (as would have been required by the worker-oriented approach).

The phenomenographic method allowed us simultaneously to understand how practitioners themselves conceived of programme management work and to understand what it means to be competent in programme management. In any group of people, there are always a limited number (typically between two and six) of conceptions of the same aspect of reality (Marton, 1981), and that the conception held by an individual governs the awareness, appreciation and actions of that individual. Crucially for research into programme management competence, conceptions of any aspect of reality (in this case programme management work) form a hierarchy of mental models. Higher-order conceptions are more holistic, integrative and encompassing than the lower-order conceptions. Individuals holding higher-order conceptions can recognise and appreciate, though not necessarily apply or agree with, lower-order conceptions, but not vice versa (Sandberg, 1994, 2000).

Our research involved understanding what individuals from a range of sectors involved in project and programme management conceived as work, and through asking for examples and observing their actions in a work context how they conceive of their work. Between October 2001 and September 2002, we conducted in-depth phenomenographic interviews with 15 programme managers or directors from 7 large organisations based in the UK representing different sectors. Where possible we shadowed them, observing behaviour at key meetings and other events. We also conducted phenomenographic interviews with a range of superiors, clients, peers and members of the programme team. Appendix 1 summarises our data collection.

Using the interview transcripts and observation notes, our analysis sought to identify our informants' most essential and basic meaning structures; what they conceived as programme management work, how they conceived of it and through the examples the relationship between the what and the how. By comparing these meaning structures – attributes, between individuals, we developed and refined a generic set of attributes.

For instance it soon became clear that a common feature or attribute of programme management work is the ability to focus appropriately on the programme's detail and/or its wider context. At one level, this entailed understanding the detail and the relationship between activities. At another level this entailed having a ‘helicopter view’, operating at a summary level and not getting swamped in detail, with only occasional reactive involvement in detail for the individual's own reassurance. At another, higher-order level this entailed holding an overall view of the programme, but also exploring and/or experiencing detail to gain a deeper appreciation of the issues and outcome for key stakeholders (e.g. customers or staff). At level 4, the highest level we found, this entailed holding an overall view and selected aspects of detail, and appreciating the impact of programme decisions and actions outside the programme (e.g. own or client organisation) and potential future consequences (e.g. inadequate functionality or capacity).

The analysis ran in parallel with the data collection, and the process was refined through a series of iterations involving identifying, prioritising, developing and arranging attributes and their levels between informants and between researchers. Once we had concluded our data collection and analysis, we invited all those who had participated in the research to attend a one-day workshop. Our purpose was to explain the programme competence model that was emerging, and to get comments, suggestions and other feedback. The workshop, attended by 70% of those invited, provided an excellent forum for discussion and resulted in some clarification and minor modifications of the model. The model of programme management competence that emerged from the research is included as Appendix 2.

The model has 17 attributes at 4 levels, with the attributes grouped into three categories broadly representing: (1) the relationship between the individual and the programme work; (2) the relationship between the individual and the programme team; and (3) the relationship between the individual and the programme environment. Each level forms a broadly coherent whole across the attributes - a distinct conception of programme management work.

Some of the attributes are cumulative across level, for instance purpose of enquiry (O4). Individuals with the highest order conception tend to ask many more questions. Like individuals holding lower order conceptions, they use questions to clarify an issue and challenge assumptions, but they also use questions to foster creativity and to shape others' understanding and response to a situation.

Other attributes are qualitatively different at the 4 levels, for instance attitude to time (E7). An individual holding a level 1 conception thinks of time primarily in terms of the project/ programme schedule, the duration of activities, float, deadlines. An individual holding a level 2 conception tries to think ahead of the current plan and pre-empt the need to mobilise resources and prepare for possible future work. An individual holding a level 3 conception is concerned about the flow of change (or deliverables) emanating from the programme and the rate at which the client or the organisation can absorb or accommodate the change. An individual holding a level 4 conception has a more strategic, opportunistic view of time and is concerned about windows of opportunity or set of circumstances that would make the client or organisation predisposed to the changes to be brought about by the programme.

In some cases the changes in levels are discontinuous, for instance emotional attachment (S2). There is an increasing personal emotional commitment to the work and the outcomes, with individuals at level 3 expressing a passion for the programme work and objectives. Individuals at level 4, while still committed, can detach themselves and see their work and the programme in its broader context.


One of the organisations that participated in the research was Lloyds TSB Group plc, a major UK financial services organisation, and in particular the Group Project Services (GPS) division. GPS's role is to provide change management support to the rest of the Group, ranging from business analysis to managing complex strategic initiatives. The GPS Executive were keen to identify from their pool of experienced managers, which programme managers had the competence or potential to handle the major strategic change mandated by the Group Board.

The GPS Executive invited us to design and facilitate a series of one-day development centres, building on the research, for a cadre of experienced programme managers. The aims were to determine the competence and potential of individual managers, and to inform their personal development. As it transpired, the experience and insights gained from the development centres also suggested broader initiatives for the GPS to increase the overall capability of the division and to redress specific cultural biases.

The development centre comprised an in-depth phenomenographic interview and two business simulations set broadly within a Lloyds TSB context. For the interview a series of questions were devised to access managers' conceptions on 8 of the attributes in the competency framework. Some of the questions were deliberately vague since we were interested in the way managers interpreted them. Most of the questions invited participants to recall specific instances from their experiences, both directly and based on observations of others. It was stressed to participants that they should try to describe meaningful instances and examples in answering the questions. The business simulations were designed to access conceptions on the other attributes and some also covered by the interview.

In the first four months of 2003, 33 managers participated in the development centres. The interviews and simulations were jointly conducted by either Dr David Partington or Dr Sergio Pellegrinelli and a senior manager from GPS, and were tape recorded and subsequently analysed. A detailed feedback document was prepared for each participants, and reviewed with them at a debrief session, again jointly conducted by either Dr David Partington or Dr Sergio Pellegrinelli and a senior manager from GPS. At the debrief session, issues and questions were addressed and specific development actions were agreed with the participant.

Given that the participating managers were at the same organisational grade, there was a surprising and unexpected variation in the levels of conceptions they held, varying from level 2 (bordering on a level 1) to level 4. Moreover, some perceived ‘high-flyers’ exhibited level 2 conceptions, while some respected, but not high profile, programme managers exhibited level 4 conceptions. The senior GPS managers facilitating at the development centres and the debrief sessions found the approach both robust and insightful. In many cases these senior managers had known the participants for many years, but had not fully recognised their potential or had not been able to articulate vaguely sensed shortcomings. For many participants the feedback reinforced their own perceptions of their competence. Some individuals were disappointed about the feedback, but acknowledged its accuracy in terms of their performances on the day and valued the suggestions for personal development.

An overall analysis of the performance of all the participating managers highlighted areas of relative weakness with GPS. For instance, during the simulations participants tended to ask relatively few questions and mostly to clarify the situation, despite being briefed beforehand, and invited during the simulation, to ask questions. These findings were discussed with GPS senior managers to explore the implication of what appeared to be a cultural bias.


The research, described above, into the nature of programme management and programme management competence adds to our understanding of what practitioners conceive of their work and how they conceive it. The phenomenon labelled as programme management is more complex and more diverse than indicated by the prevailing, predominantly normative literature.

The conceptions of programme management that underpin the competence frameworks point towards a reconciliation of the competing schools of thought. Our research participants had no difficulty in labelling the level 1 conception as a typical approach to project management work. In the research itself, this conception was typically held by individuals performing a project manager role. Within a level 1 conception, programmes are simply large projects. A level 2 conception of programme management work reflects greater proactive intent, adaptation and anticipation, and recognises in the work itself more complexity, divergence and detachment. Programmes transcend, but at the same time comprise projects. Programme management work encompasses and extents the agenda, horizon and disciplines of project management. From within a level 2 conception programme management naturally emerges from and builds on project management. Programme management is obviously at the pinnacle of a hierarchy of project management endeavour.

At the other end of our hierarchy of conceptions, level 4, there is a strong future and strategic orientation. The boundaries between the text – the programme, and the context are blurred, permeable, and malleable. Programme work is seen as shaping, aligning, mediating, developing, nurturing, seizing opportunities. From within a level 4 conception, programme work shares many characteristic of strategy implementation and strategic management (Balogun & Hope Hailey, 1999).

Each conception is a valid and empirically observable interpretation of programme management work. The hierarchy of conceptions includes and relates existing theoretical perspectives, and so provides a common framework for dialogue and the generation of richer and more informed insights into an important area of management. It also provides a route map for the development of competent programme managers and directors, since higher-order conceptions are linked with superior performance. Our challenge, though, is to recognise and acknowledge our own conceptions, and then to begin to appreciate others' conceptions. The application of the research, especially when set in the context of previous work into the nature of conceptions (Sandberg, 2000; Marton, 1981, 1994), suggests that this is far from easy.

Conceptions are coherent self-contained ways of perceiving, making sense of and acting upon an aspect of reality – in this case programme management work. Our research supports Sandberg's (2000) findings that individuals holding lower-order conceptions do not recognise or appreciate behaviours, attitudes and actions emanating from higher-order conceptions. While they may readily acknowledge the good or superior performance of an individual with a higher-order conception, they explain the performance in terms of their own, lower-order conception. Despite many years' experience in project and programme roles, numerous individuals who participated in the GPS development centres held lower-order conceptions. Their performance in the roles had not been in any way inadequate – they had simply approached their work in the way in which they conceived it, and that had been deemed adequate. The sensed problem within the GPS Executive was that such an approach would not be adequate for the more challenging and complex strategic programmes.

This part of the research is both revealing and disturbing. First, it suggests that success, or even excellence, in ‘project management’ is unlikely to be, on its own, a relevant guide to prospective or potential performance in managing complex strategic programmes. Individuals may simply not appreciate the subtleties and seek to re-create the approach and environment which has served them well on simpler, more defined initiatives. Second, it suggests that the support and direction of some senior managers may be holding back rather than promoting the development of competence – namely acquiring and applying higher-order conceptions. Senior managers who themselves hold low-order conceptions may be poor role models - setting limited expectations, or exhibiting lower-order behaviour. Higher-order behaviours are unlikely to be recognised and rewarded, and they may even be deemed wasteful, inappropriate or disruptive.

Breaking through the ‘glass ceiling’ of a level of conception seems to require significant effort. Other, non-routine experiences seem important, especially those that prompt deep reflection and the questioning of one's own approach. Research participants who exhibited higher-order conceptions tended to have worked for a number of organisations, in different roles, and some in different countries. Development initiatives need to stimulate new perspectives and experiences – conceptions, in our meaning of the word, are ways of experiencing an aspect of reality, not a set of abstract ideas. Individuals also need time and support to embed new conceptions once they become aware of them and begin to put them into practice.


The challenge of finding frameworks and methods for developing programme management competence is not purely an academic one. It is of pressing concern to senior managers in most large organisations who rely on programme managers to bring about the complex change.

In this paper, we have outlined the different, largely theoretical and ‘expert’ driven perspectives on the nature of programme management work. We have described research, based on the phenomenographic method, into what practitioners conceive as programme management work, and how they conceive it. The resulting hierarchy of conceptions provides a new, distinctive and integrative understanding of programme management. The competency framework of 17 attributes at 4 levels offers a tested template for assessing, selecting and developing competent programme managers.

We are convinced our work makes a significant contribution to the project and programme management community and its key stakeholders, and extends existing knowledge in important ways. We are aware that further research would draw out the subtleties and richness of the conceptions – the experience of the development centres has hinted at areas for deeper inquiry, analysis and refinement. But the more pressing need is to find effective ways of helping aspiring managers to develop their competence. We trust that at least we have provided some guidance on the next steps.


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Programme identification by sector Nature of programme Prog. manager shadow (days) Individuals interviewed
Prog. manager Superiors Clients Peers Team members
Aerospace 1 Defence 2 Yes 1 2 1
Aerospace 2 Defence 2 Yes 1 2 1
Aerospace 3 Civil 2 Yes 1 1 1 2
Software development 1 Treasury systems for central banks Yes
Software development 2 Integrated suite for rail operator Yes
Pharmaceuticals 1 Drug development Yes 2 1 2
Pharmaceuticals 2 Drug development 1 Yes 2 1 2
Pharmaceuticals 3 Drug development Yes 2 1 1 1
Construction 1 Schools 2 Yes 2 1 1 3
Construction 2 Offices 2 Yes 2 1 4
Construction 3 Rail Yes
Financial services 1 Customer service initiatives 2 Yes 2 2 2
Financial services 2 Shared services platform 2 Yes 1 3 3
Telecoms 1 Broadband expansion Yes 1
Public utilities 1 Construction 1 Yes 1



Attribute Level 1 Level 2 Level 3 Level 4
Relationship between self and work
S1 Granularity of focus Detailed view of plan; day-to-day reactive involvement in detail within project boundaries Broad view of plan, including understanding of wider impact within the organisation; occasional reactive involvement in detail for own reassurance Level 2, plus occasional proactive involvement in detail to experience customers' perspective Level 3, plus strong orientation towards the future, including awareness of organisation-wide and external impacts/benefits
S2 Emotional attachment Professional attitude to delivery of scope Ardent commitment to delivery of scope Ardent commitment to achievement of programme benefits Professional commitment to delivery of organisation-wide and external outcomes
S3 Disposition for action Reactive; procedural Reactive; flexible Proactive; flexible Opportunistic; intuitive ability to reshape, reconfigure and realign
S4 Approach to role plurality Comfortable with a focused, single role Able to fulfil multiple roles, but is uncomfortable when roles conflict Copes with multiple conflicting roles by adopting a clear position Deliberately takes on multiple conflicting roles to integrate divergent interests
Relationship between self and others
O1 Engagement with team Supportive; transactional; sets tasks Seeks detachment; transactional; uses ‘need to know’ approach; sets objectives Inclusive; explains where and how individuals are adding value Seeks to inspire; charismatic and credibility; able to get people to modify their natural behaviour
O2 Approach to conflict and divergence Not considered legitimate – procedural or imposed solution Considered legitimate – adopts procedural/ rational approach to derive solution Seeks reconciliation and negotiated solution Uses subtle facilitation to encourage creative and value-adding solution
O3 Development and support Helps others to solve their problems Directs others where to look to solve their problems Coaches in how to influence the situation – provides the approach Coaches in context to enable understanding and influence
O4 Purpose of enquiry Own clarification Level 1, plus challenge others Level 2, plus encourage creative thinking Level 3, plus redefine problem or reframe purpose
O5 Expectations of others Expects contracted effort Expects special effort when required Exploits individuals' talents, prepared to drive hard but not burn out Extends individuals' talents, but not burn out
Relationship between self and programme environment
E1 Adaptive intent Does what has worked in the past; applies standard processes Adapts approach to suit environment Adapts programme environment to suit own approach Adapts environment to suit organisational purpose
E2 Awareness of organizational constraints Aware of capacity constraints; reports impact Aware of capacity constraints; pushes for priority and delivery Aware of capacity and technical constraints; prepared to go outside for support or resources Aware of capacity, technical and cultural constraints; facilitates development and knowledge transfer from outside
E3 Approach to risk Analyses, reports, monitors Attempts to manage out or mitigate risks Prepares extreme contingency; uses back-up and redundancy Is ready for failure; anticipates wider consequences
E4 Approach to communications Reports objective facts (consistent style) Provides analysis and opinions (consistent style) Level 2, plus sells vision of outcome (style more sensitive to audience) Level 3, plus cultural and audience sensitivity
E5 Approach to governance Uses standardised management, control and reporting hierarchy Creates stable structures; appropriate involvement and adequate control/ direction Adapts/ changes management and control processes to specific/ dynamic situations Seeks to embed programme in organisational management structures/ processes
E6 Attitude to scope Defined at outset and fixed until changes authorised Scope subject to influence through cost/ benefit analysis Staged definition of scope; experimentation and learning via trials/ pilots/ prototypes Shaped to meet emerging and changing business needs
E7 Attitude to time Schedule driven based on defined scope; reschedule when necessary Level 1, plus anticipates and plans for possible work, recognises mobilisation time Level 2, plus takes into account the rate at which change can be absorbed or accommodated Level 3, plus conscious of issues of timeliness and maturity
E8 Attitude to funding Budget driven; manages allocated funds Points out consequences of under-funding Aware of budget ambiguities and financial uncertainty Creates funding from achievement – self financing
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PMI Congress 2003 – Europe Paper
Pellegrinelli, Partington and Young



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