Programs aren’t projects – three things to note

We are seeing a plethora of “Program Offices” being established – if you haven’t got a “Program” you’re not in the game. But a Program is not without cost. You only want one if it adds real value, and if you do want one you had better know what it is that you want. Caveat Emptor.

What is a Program and when should I have one?

In some ways it is easier to say what isn’t a Program – it’s not an uber project. Projects can be complicated, but they are straightforward. They have a beginning and an end, a deliverable, and a budget. You can manage a group of Projects – but if they are largely independent, that’s a portfolio of Projects. You get value from common services and support, and the prioritisation of assets and resources. But it’s not a Program.

The reason it matters is because of the cost and overhead of management, the imposition on reporting and alignment – and the outcome for which you are striving.

A Program has the specific characteristics that if you align project activities and deliverables you gain enhanced business or capability benefits. Equally you have choices to terminate, or adjust, a Project – while understanding the impact on program benefits. Done properly you will gain benefits that are not available by managing projects individually. Here is what you need.

A Program architecture

Every Program is different, but everyone needs an architecture:
• An objective- the benefit the Program will deliver. Hard, measurable, deliverables, valuable. If you don’t know where you are going you have no chance of getting there.
• The alignment of Projects and where they fit.
• Tranche of capability or business benefit contributed to by the individual Projects. It might be a milestone element of a Project, or Project completion. Project start and end dates may be different. the impact of delay, change or project termination can be clearly seen.

Do this, and you can make wise choices. It moves you from management to leadership.

Most Programs don’t have an architecture. We saw one, produced by the knowledgeable Big 4, that took up most of a wall, multi-coloured and must have cost a million dollars to produce. It was a wonderful work of art that could have had a place hanging in the Guggenheim – but it had no place in program management. It failed synthesis – a monument to a team’s self-importance. If it can’t be described on a page or two then it can’t be comprehended – and is of little use to the executive or the leadership.


You can have governance galore.

MSP/Prince2 brought to you by the UK, the US alternative view by the Project Management Institute (PMI), and a plethora of proprietary approaches. Beware, though, of death by governance. While the models all say they can be adapted, few do.

Too many Programs overlay governance on governance: Project and Program boards, Project and Program initiation and reporting documents, and so on. In one Program, established to respond to a Government Review, we saw so many Project and Program boards all needing the same attendees that no one had time to read the papers let alone do their day job. In the end they stopped it, but why did they start?

Ultimately because neither the buyer nor the well renowned company supporting the Program actually knew what they were doing – they simply implemented a methodology that had been designed around someone else’s problem. You have to be a knowledgeable buyer!

I lean to PMI over others as it is more principled based – more easily adapted to current circumstances. We find MSP and Prince2 to be too prescriptive. We, of course, have our own adaptation designed for the public sector.

A Program Management Office (PMO)

One cannot survive without a PMO, surely? After all who is going to collate and provide all the reports, the secretariat, be the font of all knowledge for the program, set standards and so on?

That’s not a PMO, that’s a centralised project reporting clearing house. A PMO without effect. It may be what you want but make it a conscious decision and don’t let them get in the way. Every rule, process and guidance, every form and every report should be tested. Is it adding value with the minimum impost?

These centralised reporting centres, often staffed by junior consultants following a prescribed methodology, writing papers and reports unbacked by experience. They have a habit of gaining a life of their own, and like most life forms, if unchecked grow exponentially in control, influence, and cost. To a point where they, and the organisation they support, believe they are in control.

We think PMOs are largely out of control in Government. Often poorly implemented, not tailored, and enthusiastic in their growth. Give them an inch and they will take twenty desks.

Be wise, measure their value and ensure they are adding to outcomes not interfering with the projects that comprise a program – where the rubber actually hits the road.

To be successful you need to know enough to keep the PMO apocalypse under control

Surviving the Program apocalypse

Good PMOs are useful. They align Project activity, identifying and unlocking value that is not evident or even available through uncoordinated individual Projects.

But what makes them good?

PMOs should be more about enabling program leadership than project control. They are not just finding a way through the forest, they help you work out which forest, in which sequence – and to know when you are stumbling, and what to do about it. They are strategic in their insight and foresight.

PMO’s need to be staffed by the right people with the right experiences. Methodologies help, but individuals lead. The team must become invested in the outcome, not be full of individuals at a temporary waystation on their journey to somewhere else. You need a team built around the problem, not the team that happens to be available. Nor is this the province for junior consultants. It takes experience to lead

Take your time, build the right team. Make sure you know what you need.

If you haven’t got the capacity to study program design and program offices, you might find our rapid program assessment useful. A quick insight into what you need, in your context, and if you have got it covered.

Give us a call.

You will, at least, be able to ask a better question – in which case you should get a better answer.

Programs Aint Projects 3 Things To Consider