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Product Management: Program Management

Program Management is an organizational function that oversees a group of individual projects linked together through a shared organizational goal or common area of impact. This programmatic grouping of multiple projects provides synergy, consistent management, and greater visibility to stakeholders than individually managed projects.

Key Functions of Program Management

Program management is a strategic oversight function responsible for consistent delivery of large-scale initiatives. Programs consist of multiple individual projects, which are typically managed discretely by project managers.

Program managers must maintain a strategic plan and schedule for their programs, inform and advise stakeholders, review the status and progress of each project, mentor project managers, and safeguard the quality of each project plan and its deliverables. Program managers take a holistic view of these projects, and evaluate the larger context of the combined organizational impact with the interdependencies by leveraging system thinking.

Smaller companies may view it as a luxury, but for larger organizations program management often provides essential value by coordinating individual projects while applying a strategic lens. Project managers are primarily concerned with their individual deliverables while program managers always apply the big picture lens and context to every situation.

Another benefit is a uniform level of governance and application of standards across multiple projects. With a single point of oversight, project statuses can be easily rolled up for a global view; this allows for baseline quality requirements to be evenly and equally enforced.

Program management is also sometimes where overall budget management occurs. It ensures funds are allocated appropriately across the entire array of active and planned projects instead of each project vying for funding.

Program management adds significant value whenever an organization undertakes large strategic initiatives requiring cross-functional cooperation with external dependencies. Any type of transformational activity—be it business, agile or digital—is nearly impossible to execute without a program management-oriented approach given size and scope.

How Does Program Management Fit Into an Organization?

Many organizations establish a formal Program Management Office (PMO) that serves as the centralized home for managing strategic projects. This office not only assigns program managers to provide oversight, but it is also houses templates, best practices, and standard operating procedures. This process brings a similar level of quality to every project in the organization instead of leaving it up to individual project managers to pick and choose for themselves; which can result in widespread inconsistencies in quality and effectiveness.

Individual project managers can work with program management in several ways. In some cases, project managers work for program managers and are assigned to different initiatives based on their areas of expertise and experience. In other cases, project managers are embedded within different functional areas of the company or lines of business. In this scenario, there may be dotted-line reporting to program managers or they may utilize less formal oversight and information exchange to coordinate activities.

Regardless of the organizational structure, project managers will provide regular status updates to program management and are expected to heed their advice while honoring the priorities of the overall program. Program managers are then able to synthesize the various projects under their purview and evaluate how the overall program is progressing and provide a macro/strategic view to stakeholders compared to the micro/tactical scope of project managers.

Despite their seeming similarities, program management and product management are quite different, yet complementary, roles. Product managers concentrate on what to build and why they should build it, while program managers focus on how it will get built and when it will be delivered.

Effective Program Management

For program managers to be successful, they need a host of skills they can tap into. This first and foremost includes effective communication skills due to their broad responsibilities and high-level visibility given the important nature of the programs they oversee.

There are three distinct types of communication: status reporting, direction setting, and problem solving:

  • Status reporting requires considerable written, verbal, and organizational communication capabilities. They must be able to deliver comprehensive yet efficient status updates to a broad audience in multiple formats with the appropriate level of detail for each individual.
  • Direction setting is required when it comes to informing and shaping the scope and schedule of individual projects (and project managers) that roll up under their programs. Objectives and deadlines must be clear and program managers must be willing to ask hard, probing questions to determine how projects are truly progressing.
  • Problem solving comes into play on a continual basis for program managers. When obstacles, challenges, and resistance arise (which happens quite often over the life of a program), they must be willing to dive into the details and create action plans to ensure the program isn’t put in jeopardy.

A difficult aspect of the role is program managers must demonstrate their authority regarding projects related to their program with very few people responsible for key deliverables that actually report to them. They must establish themselves as both senior leaders and the day-to-day representative for the executive sponsor of the initiative.

Traits of Good Program Management

Consensus building

Create alignment across multiple teams or even lines of business to be sure everyone is marching in the same direction and cognizant of their role in the grand scheme of things.

Risk assessment

As program managers must be able to spot, track, and triage risks as they arise, escalating when required without continually sounding the alarm and ratcheting up the drama. Spotting and getting ahead of issues rather than simply reacting to them after the fact is a key differentiator for great program managers.

Attention to detail

Program management is constantly interpreting project progress and tying it back to budgets, deadlines, and strategic objectives. They’re also typically on the hook for ensuring everything is well-documented, whether they do it themselves or delegate it to others.

Conclusion

Program management prioritizes strategic thinking over purely tactical response, which is not always an easy transition for project managers to make. Program managers provide long-term value for the vision and direction of the company; they help others more concerned with short-term plans, sprints, and deadlines while remaining mindful of the direction of the company as a whole. Programs serve as the connective glue that enable complex initiatives and transitions to be successful, particularly over long periods of time, and demand competent oversight from its managers.