Roy Cobby Researcher with a professional background in marketing and social media management in education and public policy, at business schools, academic journals, and stakeholder-based organizations.

What is program management?

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What Is Program Management

In the business Stone Age, program management would have been a meaningless term. The team was the team, the boss was the boss, and the latter ensured that the former carried out any necessary tasks. But with the development of contemporary business practices, management, and supervision techniques have evolved.

The key difference with today’s enterprises is the constant search for optimization. Of course, responsibility and accountability still matter, which is why we have retained chains of command.

Today, these office generals are not just required to define and hit targets — they must also think of ways to constantly optimize their approach to devoting human and other resources. This is exactly what program management is about, and why its associated roles have become increasingly important in business.


Table of contents


What is program management?

Program management refers to the supervision of separate projects that share a unifying theme or enterprise target. However, it is more than the mere sum of these parts. The person(s) in charge of program management adopt a comprehensive perspective on how the different projects fit together around wider stakeholder and company interests. It’s constantly optimizing around this intersection where program managers prove their worth.

How can different project milestones feed into each other? Which bottlenecks are more urgent? What can we do to transfer lessons from one project to another?

Program management is helps provide answers to these questions. And there is a very specific reason why these are important.

In an ideal world where resources are infinite, there would probably be less useful for this function. However, companies operate under resource constraints and, after projects launch, it’s easy to become lost in the day-to-day. Program management emerges to keep track of whole-project developments, with an emphasis on learning for productive transformation.

Roles, responsibilities, and traits of the program manager

Let’s talk about the general roles, responsibilities, and traits that define program managers.

Various roles of a program manager

The program manager role components naturally follow from the enterprise function. We’ll go through some useful concepts that summarize it.

The booster

Those overseeing enterprise programs must retain the big picture within their sights, and guide everyone else toward a clear resolution. For project teams, temporary setbacks can be upsetting and offset carefully planned schedules. Program managers are there to keep them on track, reminding individuals of the key role they play in overall delivery.

One-to-ones, fireside chats, presentations, and other internal advocacy tools are essential to fulfill this role.

The tracker

Is it still necessary to insist on the importance of evidence-based decision-making?

Modern workplaces run on data. As important as collecting information is to exactly define the benchmarks and metrics that will assess alignment between requirements and outcomes. This is where program managers play an important role, as they must spend time before, during, and after the completion of different projects to make sense of their impact. And it is not a simple adding exercise, as projects will not necessarily share translatable metrics.

The broker

Things do not even need to be going wrong for conflict to emerge between enterprise teams. All the more important is to be able to rely on a “project general” that can reach productive peace agreements.

Program managers can act as honest brokers precisely because they are tied to the big picture, and see no specific benefit in the office politics of small milestones. Rather, they have the mission to translate an original vision into a set of deliverables, which helps them gain the trust of divided stakeholders.

The breaker

Almost all of these functions would be more or less present in old-style enterprises. However, today’s ruthless and rapid business world also demands a proactive vision that is not afraid of change. Through supporting, monitoring, and solving conflicts between projects, program management should focus on learning to improve.

Once projects are complete and teams get reassigned, breaking ways of doing things is often the best way to progress. While local stakeholders can be caught up their processes, program managers can rely on their whole understanding to implement transformation for the next cycle.

Overview of program manager responsibilities

In terms of responsibilities, there are multiple ways in which higher-level teams will measure a program manager’s performance. Above all, of course, there is the sheer quantitative factor. If all (or most) projects are completed in time with the appropriate use of resources and time, it means the program was successfully managed. But certain companies might choose to assign specific responsibilities to program managers.

As discussed above, more and more enterprises adopt iterative perspectives on their project and product approach. That is, fast iterations or cycles allow for quicker product development, but also require embedded learning and change practices to multiply results.

Program managers, with a portfolio of projects under their helm, are often judged on their ability to learn from teams, come up with solutions, and implement them to improve numbers at their next challenge.

Traits program managers should have

Finally, a program manager will tend to possess certain professional and personal traits.

Firstly, they must feel comfortable managing conflicting deadlines and teams. They must have an ability to quickly assess resource and time investments. They should know how to translate technical information across different audiences. They should have a good ear to listen and act as intermediaries between projects.

Most of all, they must have a flexible attitude. Are you aware of how many unexpected changes a single project can have? Multiply that by five, or 10, or 20, and you will evoke how ready program managers must be for redirecting efforts at emerging challenges.

Key differences between program and project management

PM is a tricky acronym, as it can refer to program management, project management, and, particularly in tech contexts, product management. Many people confuse the former two, so how do program and project managers differ?

Obviously, there is a size difference. Program managers are in charge of supervising and optimizing a portfolio of operations led by project managers.

In brief, whereas project managers could feasibly deliver a one-week target for a single department, program managers take the long-term and big-picture view. Unlike project managers, program managers embody a dynamic, continuous approach to enterprise operations that do not necessarily have an end. Many other elements reflect this too.

While project managers can become highly specific experts at one or two enterprise functions, program managers must remain aware of the present and future business areas.

While project managers can target their internal advocacy to a select group of internal stakeholders, program managers must maintain a balance between different groups and business functions.

While project managers usually have to operate under resource and time constraints, program managers should know how to optimize and reassign to make the most of dynamic opportunities.

And finally, while project managers will tend to identify direct, valuable indicators to measure their progress, program managers will often rely on indirect, approximate data sources to compare success between projects.

Essential knowledge for successful program managers

The following are vital steps for all program managers overseeing large projects.

Connecting

Think of yourself as the embodiment of the operational network that links projects with larger business goals. You must perceive how the overall portfolio contributes to your enterprise, how different teams interact together, and how different resources and tools complement or slow down each other.

This is usually reflected in early program documentation that gathers and updates all key information (stakeholders, metrics, etc.) relevant to the projects.

Inquiring

Here comes the detective work. You should sit down with all teams, or, at large companies, representatives of each team. Learn about their strengths and worries, project perceptions, and key interdependencies regarding other teams and resources. Do as much as possible to learn about the human element at the start. You’ll be better prepared for less savory meetings in the future.

Formal or informal notes taken at meetings, project journals, or meeting schedules best reflect this.

Accounting

This is the moment for the scientist in you. Carefully align goals and resources around feasible milestones. Make time estimations and try to understand how multiple project management can actually work to your advantage.

For instance, you can make the most of a particular team or tool if you understand the moments when they will be most available. Define terms as precisely as possible, but be ready for alternative pathways. This is usually reflected in project maps or charts on basic Excel (or more sophisticated project planning software).

Preventing

This is you as a security guard. Think of all the things that could go wrong, and start again. You can overcommit resources and time if you are too careful, so make sure to be balanced.

The best way to go about this is using simplified SWOT tables, where you and your team should launch a creative exercise where hypothetical scenarios force you to be prepared for the unexpected. This is usually reflected in the assortment of hypothetical and actual insurance mechanisms put in place against identified risks.

Finally: keep learning! There is no limit to what a successful program manager should know. You must decide when and where your skills are most needed.

Conclusion

In sum, program management refers to the business function that supervises and optimizes various projects, seeking to solve bottlenecks, prevent risks and develop opportunities as they emerge.

Program managers are boosters (support projects), trackers (measure performance), brokers (align teams), and breakers (iterate approaches).

Project management is usually a single, often finite task. It focuses on various projects with an emphasis on alignment with the bigger picture and process improvement.

Successful program managers link project teams, find out about their resources and limits, develop ways of understanding outcomes, and estimate risks.

Featured image source: IconScout

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Roy Cobby Researcher with a professional background in marketing and social media management in education and public policy, at business schools, academic journals, and stakeholder-based organizations.

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