Programme Management

by Andy Taylor

Who needs to be involved?

The work of the programme can be split into two broad areas – that of programme management and that of change management. The two are closely interlinked, but quite distinct in the areas in which they operate.

To deal with programme management first. This is the work needed to ensure the programme delivers something useful at the end of its life. The first question it answers is ‘Are we doing the right things?’

Selecting or establishing the correct projects and other activities in order to deliver a useful outcome for the organisation is fundamental.

Programme Director

The management of the programme is then split into two levels. The Programme Director, sometimes called the Senior Responsible Owner or some similar title, is the person who, at the end of the day, carries the can for the programme. They want the programme to happen, need its outcomes and above all else want to see the business benefits delivered mainly in their area of business responsibility.

Key point

This person needs to be a strong leader, not just a manager of their staff.

They need to show dynamism and enthusiastic expectation for the results of the programme. The expression ‘to walk the talk’ is particularly pertinent for this person. If they aren’t enthusiastically in favour of the work of the programme and its outcomes, then who else will be? They are likely to be a senior manager, perhaps a director or equivalent, particularly in the case of bigger and strategic programmes. This is critical if the right level of sponsorship is to be achieved. The Programme Director, however, is likely to be busy, and for that reason it is most likely they will be only involved with the work of the programme on a part-time basis.

Programme Manager

The Programme Manager is almost always going to be full-time. Their role is to manage the programme on a day-to-day basis on behalf of the director. This involves all the usual activities, including risk, issue, change, finance, resource and progress management, but at the level above that of the detail of the projects.

The project boards and executives, combined with their project managers, must be left to get on with their work without micro-management by the programme team.

That is not to say, though, that the Programme Manager should not be involved at all at project level. It may well be entirely appropriate for the Programme Manager to act as the Project Executive on a major or very risky project, which the programme needs to ensure is delivered as expected. This gives direct control to the Programme Manager, allowing them to improve the chances of success.

One very important point to note here is that the work of a programme manager is not too similar to that of a project manager:

  • The Project Manager is very clearly focussed on delivering the products defined at the beginning, within the stated parameters of time, cost, quality, scope, benefit and risk. This tends to lead to a narrowing of the focus of attention as the project progresses.
  • The Programme Manager will be allowing things to develop and change, perhaps having to deal with a widening of focus as the programme develops. They need to be content to manage flexibility, uncertainty and doubt (not to mention strategic risk), while leaving the projects to deliver in relative calm and stability. The programme must absorb the shifts in, for example, the business environment, the changes in legislation and perhaps even leadership, thereby providing the projects with as stable and fixed an environment as possible and in this way increasing their chances of successful delivery.

Business Change Manager

The second main area of management in the programme, then, is that of Change Management. The definition of change in this context must be given, to avoid any confusion. Change is often mentioned in projects, but this is more usually associated with a change in requirements, in specifications or definitions of the deliverables. The change involved at programme level is that of the shift from old ways of working (today’s world) to the new ways of working (the vision of tomorrow’s world).

Universally, people are loathe to change unless they can see the benefit to them – the ‘What’s-in-it-for-me?’ syndrome. This conservative approach has to be handled and managed if the true business benefits of the programme are to be realised. This is change management, programme style, and is very often the domain of specialists who have a good understanding the psychology of the human mind and know how to encourage, facilitate and pursue the change agenda without alienating all those affected.

The people who drive this aspect of the programme are likely to have two hats. They must have an excellent understanding of the business’s operational world, because they need to understand how the changes being brought in by the programme will affect the business as usual (BAU) work of the organisation. But they must also have bought into the vision of the future being delivered by the programme. As part of the programme team, they must be seen to support the changes and do all they can to facilitate the changes needed in the operational side of the organisation.

The role can be called a Business Change Manager, Change Agent or some other similar term. The level of business knowledge required will often mean they are fairly senior in the departmental sense, perhaps a deputy head of department, with heady aspirations for the future. With the additional knowledge of the change programme and all it delivers, they will be ideally placed to take on the top job when the occasion arises. Almost by definition, they will be part-time in the programme role in order that they maintain their ever-important currency in the operational side of the role.

In many programmes, there will be more than one Business Change Manager because there are several areas of the business affected by the changes. There needs to be a representative for each business area that will need to change as a result of the programme’s outcomes. It should also be noted that these people will also be responsible for actually delivering the business benefits. They will also continue their work after the close of the programme, since most benefits will continue to be accrued after the closure. Indeed, in many organisations this effectively becomes a permanent role.

What skills and competences should the team have?

It is easy simply to say that everyone involved should be trained appropriately to fulfil the role they are required to undertake. In reality, deciding what this means requires a little more subtlety. The Programme Manager, for example, needs to be someone who can deal with risk and uncertainty without panicking. Sure, they should be trained in programme management, and there are a number of courses and bodies of knowledge to help with this. Their personal competences, however, are much more important than the pure mechanics of managing risk, finance or other areas of the programme.

The desired skills and aptitude are not necessarily those found in a project manager and much is being said about the idea that people are promoted into programme management from project management. There are clearly some individuals who succeed in this way and who relish the prospect of dealing with the larger entity of a programme. The management of detail required in a project is impossible and unnecessary in a programme. It is the higher level of management that is required: the programme manager needs to be able to float above the detail of the projects looking more for trends and indications that will help them to predict and pre-empt major issues.

Key point

If the promoted project manager tries to manage the programme as a large project, they are more than likely going to fail and/or possibly become ill with stress.

The same can be said for the Programme Director. Their skills will be business based and it is more than likely that they will have little knowledge or experience of programme management. Thus they will, in many cases, rely heavily at first on an experienced programme manager. But they need to be looking at the big picture and allowing themselves to make judgements and decisions on the best information available at the time, rather than expecting better information to be available soon and therefore waiting until it is.

This is particularly evident at the beginning, when the uncertainty is at its greatest. The Programme Director must have the specific ability to accept that the precise details of the end solution are not available and are unlikely to be available until sometime much further into the programme. The changes to technology, the finance available and the business environment in which the programme and organisation are operating (to name but a few of the variables) could all impact on the eventual solution, so it is neither sensible nor practical to try to tie down every last detail at the beginning. All these things will become clearer as the work progresses until, at the right time, a firm decision can be made and the final solution properly defined.

In addition, there will, of course, need to be those with skills in all the normal disciplines required of any major piece of work in the organisation. Risk, finance, procurement, law, HR, planning, PR, communications and so on all need appropriate management and representation. In many cases, this is simply a new and additional area of responsibility for the existing practitioners – the contracts staff simply take on the additional task of managing the contracts for the programme, for example. However, even here it is important to realise there are some crucial differences between day-to-day contracts management and programme work.

Timescales are one critical area and unless contracts (for example) are delivered effectively and in a very timely fashion, they can have a very serious adverse effect on the work of the programme. This applies to all areas of programmes, where, in general, time is not something of which there is ever too much. Ensuring that the staff involved appreciate the need to deal expeditiously with requests from the programme team can be important and difficult – there will naturally be resistance to ‘queue jumping’ or the equivalent!

Leadership and management

There are differences between leadership and management, and it is clear the Programme Director must be a leader above all else. The most successful programmes are those where there is an inspirational leader at the top, supported by a management team that deals effectively with the issues as they arise. The Programme Manager needs to be in charge of that team, but equally should not get into the detail of projects unless they really need to in order to sort out a problem.

Internal or external?

An external programme manager – contractor or consultant – might be an appropriate option, especially if it is the first time the organisation has attempted formal programme management of this type. The Director, though, needs to be internal, since it has to be in their vested interest to deliver successfully for the organisation.

Business change managers are rather different, although also requiring particular skills and competencies. They, too, must have a strong business knowledge if they are to understand and manage the impact on those business areas. But they also need strong leadership to take the workers affected (sometimes adversely) and lead them through to a successfully-changed working environment. These skills may well be achieved through training, and again there are appropriate change management courses and knowledge bases to help. However, it is more likely that this specific role will need to be very carefully selected from appropriate candidates with the right sort of leadership potential, rather than putting in someone who is less suitable and trying to train them. It is unlikely an outsider (a contractor, for example) would do in this role, since an intimate knowledge of the current business operations is critical.

You do not lead by hitting people over the head – that’s assault, not leadership.

Dwight D Eisenhower