10 keys to successful program management

Context

This paper explores program management competences for various program types. It challenges the implicit ‘one-size-fits-all’ assumption that dominates mainstream program management competence literature.

Results

By establishing the link between the program typologies literature and program management competence literature, the paper shows that programs should not be treated as a generic and homogenous category in discussions on program management competences. In addition, the findings highlight program content as a significant contingency variable for understanding program management dynamics.

Relevance

The paper suggests a conceptual framework that combines program types with program management competence profiles that could be applied to appointment decisions, staff assessments and organizational development.

Reference

Maxim Miterev, Mats Engwall, Anna Jerbrant (2016). Exploring program management competences for various program types. Elsevier, International Journal of Project Management. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0263786315001167

Expert Opinion by Victor van Haeren

The key findings in paragraph 5 of this paper suggest 2 things:

  • ‘that there are distinctively different requirements for program management competence profiles between various program types; in this case, the ‘coordinator’ for portfolio-like programs, the ‘commander’ for goal-oriented programs and the ‘convincer’ for heartbeatprograms’;
  • that program management is affected by the type of program to be managed.

Based on my own research on successful program management and my own experience with project, program and portfolio management I tend to disagree with both of these findings, especially where it concerns organizational change of some kind. The key reasons for that are:

  1. Projects, Programs, Portfolio’s are too intertwined with the standing organization to ignore the interference between them.
  2. ‘The project that wouldn’t die. Projects and programs are ‘corporate entropy’. It only seems to increase.
  3. Program success is determined by the ability of program manager and program sponsor to influence key success factors.

Ad 1. Projects, Programs, Portfolio’s are too intertwined with the standing organization to ignore the interference between them.

There remains a big ambiguity regarding the precise definition of projects, programs or portfolio’s. Consequently, project management, program management and portfolio management mean different things to different people. Several scholars attempt to conceptualize, define and standardize these terms, but to my knowledge there is not one agreed definition. The authors of this article also ran into this problem.

Likewise, the concept of “standing organization”, or organizational context, to which the project, program or portfolio is supposed to achieve some form of change is not always clear. The ‘standing organization’ is sometimes hardly recognizable as it quite often operates as a 'permanent project' organization with fuzzy, intertwined and sometimes conflicting internal governance requirements between the project/program boards and the line management.

There is an implicit belief, that is possible or useful to create a parallel reality (project, program), withits own focus, governance and management styles and competencies which will shield the actors from confusing interference from the standing organization. And shield them long enough to create a project/program benefit or momentum. The envisaged change is then supposed to happen through ‘incremental acceptance’ by the standing organization. Intrinsically motivated change agents from the standing organization are expected to inspire other employees by proving the benefits of the project/program results. This belief itself is questionable, and food for a separate debate.

For the purpose of this reaction to the research, I state that distinctions between the standing organization and project/program “organization” are blurred. They are each systems with their own dynamics and interact and interfere with each other continuously. An action in the standing organization might well have a (un)intended consequence in the program organization and vice versa.

For example, take the case where a manager’s bonus depends on divisional results, while he/she is also part of a steering group overseeing change initiatives that require key staff involvement from his/her own department or division to succeed. That key staff involvement takes resources and focus away from divisional short-term priorities. That might negatively impact his/her results. Once quarterly results are in focus, short term interest take priority in the decision process. At best, it causes delays in the project/program executions due to unavailability of key staff, at worst it jeopardizes the benefits case of the envisaged change. I have seen this effect many times.

Ad 2 ‘The project that wouldn’t die. Projects and programs are ‘corporate entropy’. It only seems to increase.

Years ago, Video Arts produced a satiric, yet all too realistic video called ‘the meeting that wouldn’t die’. The participants held each other hostage in a vicious circle of pointless arguments, dragging the meeting on until the participants dropped from exhaustion. Projects suffer from this phenomenon too.

Apparently, it is always easier to start a new project than to kill existing ones. And if you have to kill a project, it better be your neighbor’s than your own. The preferred strategy is to ‘phase projects out’, i.e. starve them of resources and let them die a natural death. This however feeds a deep corporate cynicism, and loss of confidence in the leadership. It leaves behind a boulevard of broken dreams.

As portfolio manager for a large railroad company I once tallied at least 1.200 initiatives that employees referred to as project, that co-existed simultaneously. Some of them stand-alone projects (which could still be huge by the way), some of them clustered in programs or (sub) portfolio’s. Each having project or program governance and resources.

Each on its own, the 1.200 individual initiatives seemed to make some sense if you were to believe the Project Brief, or were claimed to have little interference with the normal business operations or other projects in the portfolio. Upon closer inspection, quite a few initiatives that were called projects, appeared to be business as usual. Sometimes with good reason: clearing a backlog of work for example. But sometimes it seemed that the business as usual was considered too uninspiring and ‘sourced out’ to a project structure.

You might argue: ‘so what’? The combined effect was a tremendous waste of corporate energy and loss of focus. Stacked layers of project/program governance were interfering with the regular organizational governance requiring additional co-ordination mechanisms. Program overhead creating corporate overhead.

In addition, the compounded effect of all the 1.200 individual ‘cases for change’ is impossible to communicate to the organization in whose name and for whose benefit these initiatives declared themselves to operate. We even proved and calculated this waste. Despite Board awareness, the standing organization was unable to reduce this number of projects. I myself, despite considerable mandate as portfolio manager, was not able to reduce this portfolio in a significant way. Just too many resistance from individual internal and external project and program managers and their project of program boards fearing loss of income, influence or visibility. Quite shocking really: None of the governance structures, be it in the standing organization or project/program organization seemed able or willing to control this corporate entropy: it kept growing and renewing itself. Smaller organizations do not suffer from this entropy so much. They would collapse if they let it continue.

Clearly, such an entropic environment is indifferent to program competence or at least program competence will not have a predictable, sustainable effect.

Ad 3 Program success is determined by the ability of the program manager and program sponsor to influence key success factors.

Now, considering all this I do not quite see a relationship between program type and program management competences. I do believe however that it is necessary:

  1. to clearly understand always which success factor influence the desired outcome of a project or program most;
  2. to clearly understand who can influence that success factor most effectively: the sponsor(s) or the program manager or his team members;
  3. to define a very precise intervention to exert that influence.

It is the combination of these factors that determine the appropriate management style and situational competence.

In my own research, we identified the factors contributing most to the success of a program and plotted these on 2-axes: the x-axis representing the degree to which the program sponsor could influence them, and y-axis representing the degree to which the program manager could influence them. Quite a few success factors are more influenced by the program sponsor than by the program manager. Which led me to the conclusion that yes, while the competence of the program manager is instrumental, it is not sufficient to the program’s success.

Regarding the ‘right’ program management competence, I belief it is situationally defined. For example: Some years ago, I was program manager at the pension division of a large insurance company. With only 4 months left to meet regulatory requirements and with huge financial and reputational risks at stake, there was a high sense of urgency at board level. That sense of urgency watered down at the lower management level, with year-end results and bonuses coming up. The lower level management clearly felt this urgency much less.

Many people suggested a ‘directive’ approach (‘commander’ style), even though my predecessor at the job failed to produce results through that approach. The Board also suggested or favored this commander approach. I found this puzzling. Apparently, there was a belief that only a commander could ‘get things done’, even though it had failed so far to prevent the dire straits they were in. A directive/commander style as a default style does not match with my personality and my convictions regarding motivating the right people. Directiveness is confused with effectiveness. There is no relation between them. So, in this case we did the opposite: we created and empowered several small teams with high autonomy and send them down the corporate cracks to get the work done. When you sow trust, you harvest trust.

Summarizing: finding the right program manager

To conclude, I think there is limited practical relevance in the findings of the article. Yes, program typologies may exist for some time, but they also change with the lifecycle of the project/program. And yes, particular challenges to get things done may require particular competence and intervention styles. But the style and the competence should be considered in the context of specific challenges that affect the progress or benefits case of the project/program. The question remains whether management problems require a project/program approach at all, and if so how to find the best men/women for the job. A thorough problem analysis at the outset, will avoid putting the solution before the problem. Regarding choosing the best man/women for the job is requiring him/her to do the problem analysis and propose the roadmap. From the intelligence of the analysis, it will become clear if the person ‘gets it’ in terms of the subject matter, corporate sensitivities, the speed of change the organization is capable of handling, and credibility of the benefits case.

Have a team of experienced old hands from the organization sit in and validate/challenge the presentation. Intuition, experience and common sense do matter! If he/she passes the scrutiny he/she will also be the right program manager for the job!

Afterthought for the Program Sponsor

If you are a program sponsor: pay attention. You are the key to a program’s success. If you wonder how you can contribute to that success, here are 10 points to consider:

  1. Validate the commonality of the program goal.
  2. Validate the quality of the program manager
  3. Create the sponsorship role map
  4. Visualize the critical path
  5. Check all program communication statements yourself
  6. Keep the program organization (too) small
  7. Empower the change agents
  8. Integrate existing business and program governance structures as much as possible
  9. Get the business managers in timely
  10. Make it 'fun'

References

Forcefive, Wat is het geheim van succesvolle programma’s? Onderzoeksrapport, CIO Magazine, december 2009. http://www.forcefive.nl/images/Publicaties/2010_1_ForceFive%202009_geheim_van_succesvolle_programmas-1.pdf

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