What are the most common challenges you’re hearing about program management?
I’m hearing a lot about challenges that organizations are facing with program management. I think a lot of that is because program management is becoming more important. The problem is – a lot of organizations don’t understand what it is. A lot of organization think of a program as a big project or a project with more zeros at the end of it. If you want to really do a good job with program management, you have to understand – what it is and how it works. It has to be a way of viewing an investment – not a way of viewing and executing on work. It’s that mindset shift that is the biggest challenges that people have to overcome. They have to Start thinking of a program as a top down investment vehicle. Not a bottom up, roll-up of status reporting and work effort. If you can do that, then you’re well on your way to improving your program management approach.
What is driving organizations to improve program management?
First, let’s start with, What is Program Management? A simple definition for Program Management is a collection of related projects which share a common goal or objective. An example could be a Program to build a new company headquarters or campus. This program would have several projects all connected to the building of the new headquarters or campus.
Just as organizations are seeking to improve project delivery capabilities, they are also working to improve program delivery capabilities. Considering that the program is a collection of projects, the effect or impact of successful delivery can be greater in a program than in a single project.
Program Managers are generally more experienced than Project Managers and understand the nuances of leading a program vs a project. It is hard enough to lead a single project, imagine have to lead a program of 10 connected projects!
What is the next big thing that program management will offer organizations?
For the last 25 years of either being a PMO leader for 15 years or running my company and supporting clients and students with implementing their projects and programs and and products according to the strategy that they are trying to define. The next big thing is that there really isn’t a next big thing. The challenge is that organizations are being told about new trends and new ideas and new way of doing things and everything you’ve done before is nothing because this next thing is going to be the answer. Here is the problem with that. The business question that your business leaders have been asking you to address, at least for the last 25 years that I’ve been doing it, is for the PMO to help deliver on the business strategy with the highest possible return on investment as quickly as possible. No new trends, or ideas or breakthroughs are going to solve that any different than going back to the basics and solving the question of what are you doing to help the organization achieve their strategy with the highest possible return on investment as quickly as possible. You don’t need a new way of how to solve that problem if you just look at the problem right from the start – you don’t need any fancy new trends. So whether it’s we need to go all agile, or big transformation, or product vs. program or project, all of that can be useful in solving the problem, but PMO 2.0, 3.0, X.0 isn’t your path to success as being very laser focused on helping support the entire strategy lifecycle an setting up your programs from top down so that they are always aligned with the strategy and helping to achieve those intended business benefits. If you do that, you don’t need a next big thing you just need to solve the problems your business leaders are asking you to solve and ensure that you are doing it in a streamlined, optimized way that creates the greatest throughput so you are achieving the fastest possible return on investment.
What steps would you recommend to improve program management?
The steps that I would recommend to improve program management don’t actually start with program management. They start with strategic planning. Start by defining the work you want to do in terms of the benefits you want to achieve. So an organization set its goals and objectives for the year, but oftentimes that’s as far as the executives go. They communicate those goals and objectives out to the organization and then expect their department heads or product owners to start figuring out work that aligns with that. That’s not how it should work. Once you’ve got your goals and objectives in place, executives should then drive major investment vehicles. That’s where programs come in! Not all those investment vehicles will be structured as a program, some may be structured as a project. But programs make up a large part of that. Executives say in order to achieve our goal of revenue growth, market share growth, increased profitability we’re going to initiate a program to develop a brand new product to enter a new market segment that we’ve never done before. You’re immediately saying, I know what I want to achieve and here’s the program that I will use to achieve that. Then assign that program to an individual owner like a program manager and let that person really have accountability for it. They own the work, they break the program out into projects to epics or however you want to manage the work. They create the teams, assign the resources, manage the budget for the program, track the performance and make sure what’s happening is moving toward the outcome. If you take that top-down approach, it’s not a massive change. It’s a bit of a change in shift of thinking, but it isn’t a big change in how you do the work. But that will make a huge difference, that top down mindset, the autonomy for the investment owner and you’ll make a lot of progress really quickly. It’s key to success.
How does program management need to be addressed differently for different levels of PMO maturity?
Whenever an organization is first starting out, PMO or otherwise, you need to remember to keep everything simple and everything solving one business problem at a time. Our students in our IMPACT Engine PMO program and all of our clients understand that it’s about iterating your way to IMPACT. Keeping your solutions finite and contained so they can be designed and developed according to the assessed business needs and implemented quickly. Instead of big bang approach, the fastest way to elevate your PMO maturity, and therefore your program management maturity is to address one business problem at a time. So, assess your organization and understand the most critical business problems and pain points that you must address. Find the right solution for that pain point and in the case of program management a minimal solution so you can group the projects together that solve the right program and ensure that that program management function is designed from the strategy so that we are very clear on what the strategic objectives are and we stay aligned with those strategic objectives right from the start. As your PMO evolves you continue to iterate your way to greater impact, you can ask yourself what else can we do. Don’t start big up front because you just need to solve one business problem at a time. As a PMO that helps you build credibility and helps you answer what have you done for me lately because you are iterating your way to impact and showing that value over time. As your maturity improves in what you are able to accomplish it will become natural and easy to determine what’s next because you’ll always be asking yourself what is the next problem I need to solve by continuing those assessment conversations and continue to deliver on that ability one program and one program management functionality at a time.
What steps can organizations take to solve for program management challenges?
Whenever you’re facing challenges in your organizations and need to evaluate what’s going on, I always recommend going back to the business problem you’re trying to solve and asking yourself are we still on track to solve that business problem. Whenever you’re setting up a business case or taking on a change initiative, the first question you need to ask is what business problem we are solving and how are we going to measure our success. In the what business problem you are solving, you get to the why. Why are we doing this? What is the intended benefit? How are you going to know you’re successful.
The same thing happens at the program management level. When you’re trying to establish program management in the organization, you need to look at what is the business problem we are solving, why are we even doing these programs in the first place and how do we set up our program management process and framework to support that because the answer to that question is you are trying to ensure that the organization is able to achieve it’s business strategy quickly with the highest level of return on the investment as possible. Everything you do with this program is helping you achieve that business objective, so everything you do needs to make that happen better, faster and more effective.
That means driving faster driving faster decisions, that means assigning resources effectively so they can deliver on those strategic objectives and get to those results. It's not just about checking boxes that you completed the project and the deliverables for the projects, but it’s about ensuring it was worth doing in the first place. When you are having challenges in program management you need to take a step back and answer the question – what business problem are we solving and how are we going to know if we are successful. Then align everything that you are doing to those two questions and acting upon those answers. That will get you back on track with any particular program or program management framework that will help you drive those business outcomes and impact you’re trying to create.
What is the role of the PMO in program management improvement?
When it comes to program management improvement, the PMO is critical to success. Executives would define programs, programs would be owned by program managers, and they’ll break out that work into projects and epics and actually make sure that work delivers. But those program managers are focused on just one program, just their individual piece. The PMO has a much broader perspective of what’s going on. They see the bigger picture. They understand dependencies over here can impact work being done over here. They need understand what’s going on with all of the programs to make sure not just one in particular program is successful but every program is successful. It may require compromise and it may require adjustments to be made, but they bring in the enterprise-wide, broader perspective that individual program managers don’t have. At the end of the day, the organization succeeds when every investment succeeds. So you need to have the PMO there to ensure the focus remains on every investment. An individual program manager simply can’t do that because they are only concerned about their individual piece. If you don’t have the PMO in place, all you’re really doing is replacing departmental silos with program silos. We all know silos are not the most effective way of getting work delivered and achieving the end goals of the organization. So the PMO is absolutely essential that it’s there and in place.
How to get internal buy-in for proper program management?
I hear from a lot of PMOs that they have trouble getting buy-in for a proper program management approach. I think there is two separate issues there. One is the PMO itself and one is the program management piece. We know that PMOs are sometimes not seen as value-drivers in an organization. If that’s the issue here, that’s bigger than program management. That’s something that PMOs have to figure out with their leadership. Leadership has to understand the role of the PMO and how it delivers value. If that piece is in place, actually getting buy-in for program management is not that difficult because all you need to do is talk to the executives, the stakeholders, in terms that matter to them. Ultimately, that’s money – every investment that an organization makes it has to generate a return on investment. It doesn’t matter if you’re a public sector, a non-profit, it’s always about getting the most from the resources that you’re spending. In more organizations, that’s simply not happening.
The PMI has been doing a survey for almost a decade now that covers the amount of wastage in project management. It’s been consistently between 8-12% over the last few years. That’s a ton of money and effort that’s going to waste because we aren’t managing work properly. Program management will reduce that by giving you a structured approach to what you need to achieve with what you’re actually doing. It helps everybody to understand what’s going on. The PMO needs to speak to executives in that language, look if we take this program management approach if we drive our investments from the top, we can eliminate this time and effort wasted on doing the wrong stuff. We can improve the overall return on investment. The PMO that can have that conversation and demonstrate that that’s really what can happen will have absolutely no problem getting executive buy-in. They then have to deliver to get the continued buy in.
What stakeholders should be included in program management decisions?
I believe it is critical to have one sponsor for every major project and that might ultimately mean one sponsor at the program level. Then you can have advisory and steering committees that can support that one program sponsor in making the ultimate decisions. You ultimately need to determine who you need to drive it forward. You always need to make sure you have one clear sponsor to make the decisions and drive that program forward as fast as possible. Doing this by committee can break your program progress by needing to get a whole bunch of people together everything a decision needs to be made. A program must set up governance so the right people are in the right conversations with a lens toward how can we minimally drive this forward so we can achieve things faster. The most people involved in the process the longer it’s going to take to answer the questions, make the right decisions and get them moving forward. Consider who needs to be informed versus who is responsible versus who is in charge of driving the ultimate decisions. On a program that might mean you have different sponsors for your projects, but ultimately one program owner that is driving the decisions of that program because the goal is faster answers to questions, faster decision making, so that you can accelerate getting to that impact for that program.