A starter’s guide to program management

What is program management?

by Mustafa Hafızoglu

What is a Program Manager and Program management? Here’s a quick guide to program management and the job of a program manager. The program management role emerged as an extension of project management in the late 20th Century. This extension came from the increasing complexity of the projects, the increasing importance and necessity of linking projects with strategic objectives, and the increasing number of interrelated projects to be managed simultaneously. Let’s begin by defining what program management is.

What is program management?

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a program as “a plan or system under which action may be taken towards a goal,” whereas PMI defines it as “related projects, subsidiary programs, and program activities managed in a coordinated manner to obtain benefits not available from managing them individually.” I would suggest defining it as a program is a collection of various components, each having its own goals aiming to create and execute a mindset to realize benefits and obtain a synergy. The components mentioned in this definition can be projects, portfolios, and operations. The program is expected to focus on how to obtain benefits by managing these related components in a coordinated and effective way.

Why program management matters?

A growing organization cannot escape from the increasing number of projects and complexity. Program management provides these organizations with a new system to overcome this complexity by managing related projects in a coordinated way and creating benefits that could not be created otherwise.

In today’s dynamic environment and fierce competition, solely projects and their products cannot be sufficient to reach the defined company-wide goals and strategies. The defined and realized benefits as a result of the programs will be the crucial approaches for the organizations to achieve their vision.

The scope of program management

The full scope of program management work can be defined with performance domains for program management. PMI suggests these domains as:

  • Program strategy alignment: This domain mainly aims to align project benefits with organizational goals. It includes the Program business case, charter, roadmap, environmental assessments, and program risk management strategy.
  • Program benefits management: Benefits are identified, analyzed, planned, delivered, and then sustained within this domain.
  • Program stakeholder engagement: Stakeholders are identified and analyzed within this performance domain so expectations can be managed.
  • Program governance: This domain aims to establish a framework to support the program by enabling program decision-making and providing a monitoring process to ensure its effective management.
  • Program life cycle management: This domain includes three major phases, namely, program definition, program delivery, and program closure.

The role of a program manager

The job of a Program Manager or program management professional is to identify program outputs and outcomes to provide benefits; define, create, and deliver these benefits; ensure that these benefits are aligned with the strategic objectives; identify and analyze stakeholder needs and manage their expectations; establishes platforms to perform program decision making; and manages all program activities from program definition and delivery to program closure.

Sometimes organizations may name large projects as programs or programs as large projects. Moreover, subprojects may be defined under projects. The main differentiator for these terms is “the benefit,” as the definition of the program implies. If an organization aims to obtain benefits that can not be gained by individually managing projects but by managing these related projects together, then a program should be defined. On the other hand, having various related projects that do not need to be managed under a program if the organization does not expect to have a benefit to be gained by managing them together.

The program manager should have a broader perspective compared to a project manager. A project manager is delivery and result-oriented as the projects are expected to be completed on time, within budget and scope, whereas a program manager is benefit-oriented as the programs are expected to deliver benefits.

A great program manager should then be able to analyze and understand the inter-relations of projects, be able to see opportunities as these projects are executed, and, moreover, be able to capture and realize the identified benefits. The following specific skills are important to have to identify in a great program manager:

  • Lead people from different cultures and functions
  • Change and complexity manager
  • Self-motivated
  • Hard-working
  • High emotional intelligence
  • Preventive thinking
  • Creative thinking
  • Communication and coordination skills

The benefits of program management

Program management brings a mindset of benefits realization management and benefits to the organization, which can’t be achieved without defining a program. As an example, space programs have various related projects such as designing a rocket, building an aircraft, training astronauts, etc. Each of these projects has its unique products, services, or results.  A space program, on the other hand, aims to deliver a benefit other than the deliverables of these projects. This benefit may be decreasing the cost of the resources used to achieve the projects, improving the schedule, or creating a new valuable service for society.

Program management also provides a system to overcome increasing complexity. As the organizations grow so, more opportunities are missed, and fewer benefits can be identified. As the number of components and their interactions increase, less time is spent on value-added activities. The program management helps to focus on more value-added activities by decreasing this complexity.

Managing a program aims to focus on benefits; hence organizations starting programs will be able to identify and implement more benefits. Then why miss the benefits, let’s catch the benefits by the help of the programs!

Four key components of a successful program strategy

  • Move from a project-delivery focus to a broader view with a benefit focus
  • Understand the strategic goals and align those goals with your programs and projects
  • Programs are not temporary endeavors, so consider the sustainability of the benefits
  • The people… always be a leader.

Steps to becoming a program manager (i.e., education and training/exams)

The job of a program manager is generally seen at the top of the career path of a project manager. Although project management experience is important, it’s not absolutely necessary to have it to become a program manager. Portfolio management experience is also a plus to becoming a successful program manager.

PMI’s PgMP certification to become a program management professional is the most popular and recognized one for a program manager. There is a limited number of university-level courses, and very few training courses are offered, considering the organization’s need for this role. Hence, generally, organizations prefer to train their program managers by using on-the-job training.

In the near future, as the complexity of organizations and the fierce competition between organizations increases, there will be more and more demand for program managers. In order to catch this opportunity, look for the training and try to obtain the related certifications for program management.

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