Program Managers: More Than Just Super Project Managers

By Bob McGannon, PMP

You have successfully managed increasingly larger projects and are looking forward to “taking the next step” in your career path and assuming the role of Program Manager in your next assignment. An exciting opportunity, program management provides the means for managing larger and more complex inter-related projects. Beware however; the job of the program manager is more than just being a very competent project manager – a whole new set of skills is required to handle the myriad responsibilities that come with program management. Let’s examine a few of the unique aspects of program management.

Business Focus

First and foremost, the greatest apparent change when moving from project management to a program management role is the focus on the business surrounding the program. This business focus significantly reduces the manager’s direct involvement with the projects and their deliverables. Positioning the program from a business strategy perspective, understanding the priority of the program against other active initiatives your business has in the portfolio and determining the sponsorship approach with a number of senior executives is required, just to initiate the program. From that point forward, a complete understanding as to how the product(s) of your program are going to impact the marketplace – for your business directly and when compared with your competitors – is required on an ongoing basis. This diligent focus on the business is required to maintain the vitality of the program and continue to ensure it maintains its place in the priority of your sponsoring business.

Dealing with multiple business stakeholders – who often aren’t sharing the same agenda – present a real and ongoing challenge for the program manager. This aspect of the program manager’s business focus can be especially significant because the stakeholders in conflict often hold positions of great prominence in the organization. Negotiating, making the correct level of decisions – exercising control of the program and its projects without usurping the authority of a major stakeholder – can be a tricky yet vital part of the program manager’s business responsibilities.

Delegation and Coaching

Examining the responsibilities in the previous section reveals a significant fact: none of the activities mentioned involve running a project! The Program Manager relies even more significantly on delegation than does the project manager. Certainly, the project manager has to delegate items – especially technical items – to team members with specialized skills. However, the program manager relies on individuals to perform those specialized skills, but also must call upon others to actually manage the projects, coordinate status reporting, detect and resolve project-level issues and handle customer interactions. The Program Manager must be sensitive to the abilities of others as a means of knowing when to intervene for the sake of the overall program, without demeaning the individual project manager. Coaching is the key, without imposing specific approaches or styles the Program Manager would use.

Coaching is pivotal to the success of the Program Manager. Successful program management involves capitalizing on the skills of the staff you bring together – which means fully utilizing people with drastically varying styles in the role of project management for the program’s projects. Understanding these styles, being able to select the right people for the right roles and making each individual feel as if they have the ability to run their own piece of the program is a task that can be more art than science.
Guiding the project managers, without imposing your specific style or approach is critical to success. No individual can perform well when utilizing an approach with which they aren’t comfortable. The key to a program manager’s coaching is to leverage the individual strengths of each project manager and successfully accommodate his or her areas of weakness. This needs to be done on a one-on-one basis and with the team of project managers working on the program. The program manager’s project management team must be able to work independently yet must strategically work together to determine if organizational issues will have an affect on the projects and the program they support.

A “Change Perspective”

Managing change is one of the first concepts presented to new project managers, so it shouldn’t be different for program managers, right? Well…think again. Project managers have to assess, handle and determine if change is appropriate and beneficial for their projects. Program managers however have to embrace change in a much different way. Programs are usually much more encompassing than projects, have much longer lifetimes and “touch” a much broader cross-section of the business. In a quickly changing competitive world, change for a program is inevitable versus something that must be assessed for it’s short-term value, as in a project. This being the case, program managers must design their programs to handle change from both a business and a technical perspective.

Change from a business perspective will come to fruition due to the actions of competitors, new demands from customers, or other changes in the marketplace that cause your business to have to react. These can have a bearing on the program causing priorities to shift, certain deliverables of the program to elevate in importance, or key skills may be directed elsewhere for a period of time. Each of these changes will have a significant affect on the program and it’s projects, generating a need to re-plan, determine a new approach or schedule, and requiring a whole new round of communications to team members, key stakeholders and the sponsor.

Changes from a technical perspective also can cause adjustments to the program, especially in the approach that is taken to produce the deliverables. When dealing with deliverable components that are susceptible to quick advances in technology (such as personal computers) the entire program might have to be planned – and later reassessed – around the latest technological breakthrough. For instance, let’s say you are involved in a three-year program to create a new specialized manufacturing line that involves robotics and high-end workstations. To design the program to create deliverables based upon today’s level of technology could sub-optimize the resulting product. The program must be designed to produce pieces of the infrastructure ahead of time, and wait until the latest possible moment to select the technology so as to make the best choice and optimize the result. As technology changes can be significant, capitalizing on the latest and greatest can make all the difference for your business when it comes to your program’s product producing in the marketplace. However this approach has its risks, as changes to the technology can also mean changes in how and where the technology is used…welcome to Program Management! Speaking of risk….

Risk Management

Just like change, risk management is another aspect of program management that takes different forms. All the characteristics of risk management in our project management days still apply, as we have a number of projects in our programs that will incur risk. However, risk management in a program environment is much larger, having influences from virtually the entire business that sponsors your program, to the marketplace at large, competitors, etc. The most difficult aspect of risk management for a program manager is scope and control – so many risk events can occur that are entirely out of the program managers sphere of influence that there is much to consider. Additionally, visibility to these risk events is limited at best – the program manager’s crystal ball doesn’t usually work!

Anticipation and contingency plans are the key, and need to be much more comprehensive than at the project manager’s level. The willingness to address the unknown, and move forward with significant contingency plans serves the program manager well. These contingency plans need to consider significant changes in the triple constraints, scope and stakeholder changes.

So, still thinking the program management job is one you would like to tackle? Let us help…Mindavation offers a Complex Project Management class that covers the program management issues we have discussed here, plus others. The class provides tools and techniques to handle these issues we have presented here – plus gives you a “killer” case study to work through to test your mettle. Are you ready for the challenge?

Bob McGannon is a Founder and Principal of MINDAVATION, a company providing project management training and consulting, leadership workshops and keynoting programs throughout North America. Bob can be reached at MINDAVATION via the web at WWW.MINDAVATION.COM or by calling 866-888-MIND (6463).


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