Why do we bother with program management?

The use of program management has evolved over the years from its initial incarnation with very large, complex undertakings in aerospace, defense and other industries into much broader application in a business context.  Yet there is still confusion about what it is and how it is distinguished from project management.  Is it just project management on steroids?  Is a program merely the sum of its constituent projects?

A program as we refer to it is invariably a collection of projects for which overarching management and process is required for one reason or another.  One useful definition is as follows:

A vehicle for implementing change, consisting of a set of co-ordinated and controlled activities (including projects) undertaken to achieve business objectives, to implement complex change and to deliver business benefits in an uncertain and changing environment.

 It is useful to contrast this with an equivalent definition of a project:

A unique process consisting of a set of co-ordinated and controlled activities, with start and finish dates, undertaken to deliver a product or result conforming to specific requirements, within the constraints of time, cost and resources.

Some essential differences between projects and programs, based on these definitions, include:

  • A project has a definite start and end point, with the aim of delivering a specific output, such as a product, service or working process.  A program may have a vision of the end-state but may not have clearly defined path to get there
  • Benefits often accrue at the end of a project, after the output has been delivered.  In contrast, a program is more likely integrate the delivery from a set of projects such that benefits can be optimized and realized within the timescales of the program.

Program management is applied when the scale and/or complexity of a project makes the application of basic project management insufficient, either due to the unacceptable level of risk posed or to fundamental issues of feasibility.  For example, the following diagram illustrates how programs and projects interact to deliver a change program.

Program management enables the more predictable realization of benefits that rely on the outputs of multiple initiatives, especially where:

  • There are shared objectives across a number of projects and workstreams, such as where the outputs of a number of projects have to be combined to deliver the benefits required
  • There is complexity of inter-relationships, such as where there are hard dependencies between projects that require close coordination to harmonize design and preserve integrity
  • There is a need for efficient utilization of shared resources, such as where skills from a common pool are in demand across multiple initiatives
  • There is a need for implementation efficiency, for example, where the impacts of multiple projects affect similar areas of the business and there is a desire to minimize disruption to business operations.

A program approach aims to harness synergies and produce a wider set of benefits than the sum of its individual components.  As such, program management provides a set of umbrella disciplines under which several projects can be initiated, prioritized, synchronized and integrated as necessary.  This does not replace project management, rather it is a complementary framework, which imposes a controlled environment for definition, management and delivery of the required objectives and benefits.

Alexander Lowry

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