If you’ve been reading this blog, you’re likely familiar with project management and everything it involves.
Program management is something similar, yet very different.
In a nutshell, program management is the management of different but related projects. When you have multiple projects connected to each other, you group them together and manage them as a whole “program”.
In this article, I’ll give you a detailed rundown of the definition, processes, roles and responsibilities in program management.
I’ll also share a number of program management resources to give you a deeper understanding of this vital skill.
What is Program Management?
If you’re reading this, you likely already know the definition of project management.
As the PMI says, a project is:
“...a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result.”
Ergo, project management is:
“...the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements.”
But what if you have multiple projects that are somehow related to each other? Say, a project to create a website and another to run a marketing campaign for it?
In such cases, you group the projects together as a program.
Grouping closely related projects together often brings in benefits you wouldn’t realize otherwise. In the above example, the design and development of a website would be informed by the marketing campaign to promote it - and vice versa.
Managing both the projects as a single program would allow the marketing team and the development team to interface better, leading to better overall results.
Thus, program management is:
- Grouping together related projects as a program, and
- Using specific management techniques, knowledge and skills to manage the program.
In the next section, I’ll look at the difference between program managers and project managers in more detail.
Program Manager vs. Project Manager
A program is made up of several projects.
A program manager, thus, manages multiple projects. You can think of his/her responsibilities as "meta-project management".
While this admittedly crude definition works, there are several nuanced differences between program managers and project managers.
The easiest way to understand these differences is to look at job descriptions for these two positions.
For example, here’s a job description for a program manager:
Notice how the job responsibilities underscore the need to work with senior leaders across multiple departments?
That’s a quintessential feature of program management - it is longer and strategic in nature.
Now contrast that with a job description for a project manager:
You’ll notice that the job emphasizes execution and delivery.
That is: project managers deal with tactical responsibilities of managing deliverables, not defining strategy.
Let’s look at some of the differences between program managers and project managers in more detail below:
1. Program Management is Long-Term
As the PMI defines above, a project is a temporary undertaking. It has a definite beginning and end. Once the project is finished, the team disbands and resources are redistributed to other projects.
A program, on the other hand, is meant to meet a business' long-term strategic goals. It can have dozens (or more) of smaller projects, all with varying durations. You might add/remove projects to the program as long as it fits the strategic requirements.
2. Program Management is More Strategic
A strategic goal will have several smaller tactical goals attached to it.
“Develop a digital strategy” is a strategic goal. “Digitize sales collateral” and “Enable sales to track deliveries” are tactical goals.
A program manager is responsible for meeting these strategic goals. Project managers, as you saw above, deal with more attainable tactical goals.
3. Program Management is Tied to the Financial Calendar
Because of the strategic nature of programs, the program manager is tied to the organization’s financial calendar. That is, if you’re a program manager, you’ll have to deliver quarterly results.
Projects, on the other hand, exist mostly in isolation. A project manager will be given a budget and a deadline. He/she doesn’t have to stay aligned with the organization’s broader financial calendar.
4. Program Managers Have to Deal With Senior Stakeholders
Programs are usually initiated and driven by senior leaders. As a program manager, you’ll be expected to interface with senior leaders and stakeholders across departments.
Rather than day-to-day communication, you’ll be involved in resolving conflicts, building consensus and influencing decisions at the senior management level.
Project managers, on the other hand, are more concerned with the day-to-day operations of the project. You will have to interface with senior leaders, of course, but your work will typically be much less governance intensive.
You now know the differences between program and project management.
This brings an obvious question to mind: what are some of the benefits of program management for an organization?
Let’s look at some answers in the next section.
Program Management Benefits
The obvious question now is: why even bother with program management? Why not manage each project individually as you normally would?
A few reasons why:
1. Better Alignment With Strategic Goals
Picture this: you’re developing a new digital campaign for a product. It’s a complex undertaking with multiple resources from different departments.
Right before launch date, you hear the news: your competitor just announced a groundbreaking new product. Your once cutting-edge digital campaign now suddenly looks outdated.
(Like the thousands of businesses that had to change their mobile strategy completely after the launch of the original iPhone.)
Such environmental, competitive and organizational changes are part and parcel of the business landscape.
To respond to such changes, you need the flexibility to modify, redefine, accelerate or terminate projects quickly.
Managing closely related projects together as a program makes this much easier. For instance, if a new product disrupts your existing digital strategy, you can bring in people from a related IT project to overhaul your digital campaign.
This flexibility and adaptability is one of the core benefits of program management.
2. Manage Project Interdependencies Better
The success of one project often depends on the success of another. A digital marketing campaign requires a competent website to be effective. The website, in turn, requires support from the IT team.
What happens to the marketing campaign if the website goes down due to lack of IT resources?
Program management makes it possible to see such connections and interdependencies between different projects in the program. If two (or more) projects have shared components, you can manage them better through a combined program.
Besides better allocation of resources (shared components can also share resources), this also reduces risk. You can map out vital shared components and manage them in a way that doesn’t affect the rest of the project(s).
At the same time, closely managing related projects gives you the ability to communicate better across teams and projects. Lessons from one project can be transferred to another, helping you develop best practices and reducing risk.
3. Better Resource Management
In any two (or more) closely related projects, you’re going to invariably share some resources. For instance, your marketing project requires designers and developers, as does the website redesign project.
Would it not be better if you could share resources across the two projects?
This is another benefit of program management. Since you can see the interdependencies between related projects, you also get a better overview of their resource requirements.
More importantly, you get insight into the timeline for different resources.
This makes it possible to map out the demand for different resources and prioritize their distribution. In the above case, if the marketing campaign depends on the website, you can devote your design resources to the website first (or vice versa).
The benefits of program management extend beyond these - it helps mitigate and manage risk, makes for better synergy across the organization, gives you a better “big picture” overview of the business.
The question now is: what are all the roles and responsibilities in program management? What program management strategies and processes can you use?
I’ll look at these and more in the next section.
Program Management Roles and Responsibilities
A role is a short, succinct description of a person's responsibilities within a job. The role defines what part you play in different processes within the organization.
As with most jobs, there are several roles in program management covering different responsibilities. Some of these require dedicated personnel (such as "program manager") Other roles are handled by existing personnel in addition to their current responsibilities (such as "sponsor").
Given how program and project management are interconnected, many program management roles are similar to project management roles, though generally with a more expansive set of responsibilities.
Let's look at some of the most important roles in program management, and the responsibilities associated with them, below.
Sponsor or Sponsoring Group
You often hear how a program was someone's "brainchild" within the business.
This person, who initiates the program and nurtures it to completion is, called the 'Sponsor'.
The sponsor is usually a senior executive (or group of executives) who wants to bring about a change in the business. This change can be narrow ('change website CMS') or broad ('overhaul digital strategy') based on the sponsor's domain.
The sponsor is arguably the most important person in a program since all decisions flow from him/her. If a program manager needs a higher budget, cross-department support, and leadership, he/she will turn to the sponsor.
The sponsor's seniority means that he's hardly concerned with the day-to-day activities of the program.
Instead, the sponsor's job is to:
- Approve the program and authorize its initiation
- Approve funding for the program
- Interface with senior stakeholders across departments to resolve strategic issues
- Appoint an SRO (see below)
- Confirm and approve final delivery of the program
- Provide leadership by supporting the program through roadblocks and challenges
Senior Responsible Owner (SRO)
The sponsor initiates the program but has too little time (on account of his/her seniority) to track its day-to-day progress.
This is where the Senior Responsible Owner (SRO) enters the picture.
The SRO is a senior person who is the recognizable leader of the program. He/she is appointed by and reports directly to the sponsor.
If you're following the PRINCE2 project management methodology, you'll call the SRO the "Program/Project Executive".
Anything the program needs at an executive level - more funds, more cross-department support, etc. - is handled by the SRO. The SRO has decision-making authority and is usually only accountable to the sponsor.
The SRO's responsibilities are mostly high-level and strategic in nature. This includes:
- Owning the program's brief and business case
- Ensuring that a program meets its objectives and deliverables
- Cultivating relationships between senior stakeholders and ensuring their agreement with program objectives
- Monitoring the program's progress at a high-level, stepping in when necessary
- Securing the funding necessary to achieve the program's goals
Business Change Manager (BCM)
The SRO might champion the program through the executive ranks, but he also needs someone to ensure that the program actually realizes its benefits.
This is where the BCM comes in.
The business change manager is responsible for overseeing the business goals of the program. Rather than the day-to-day management of the program, the BCM cares about ensuring that the program actually realizes its stated business objectives.
This often involves working across departments to integrate the program's solutions into the business.
For example, in a program to "overhaul digital strategy", the BCM will be responsible for integrating newly developed digital products into operations, sales or marketing departments.
The BCM is appointed by the SRO and works closely with the program manager.
Business Change Manager Responsibilities
The responsibilities of the business change manager include:
- Working with the sponsor and SRO to understand their interests, and ensuring that the program meets these goals
- Defining the business-focused benefits of the program
- Working with the program manager to ensure that the program meets the above defined benefits
- Developing a 'benefit realization plan' to ensure that the program's results are integrated into the business
- Working with different departments to integrate the program's solutions into the business
In a nutshell, the program manager is the person responsible for the successful delivery of the program. He/she coordinates with all of the program's project teams and works with stakeholders to meet their strategic interests.
The program manager is more hands-on than the other roles discussed earlier. Instead of working purely at a strategic or leadership level, the program manager will work directly with multiple project teams (and their project managers) to ensure successful delivery of the project.
At the same time, the role is also highly strategic. The program manager will work with the business change manager, SRO and sponsors to see that their interests and business objectives are met.
Program Manager Responsibilities
The responsibilities of the program manager include, but aren't limited to:
- Planning the program and monitoring its issues
- Resolving issues across project teams, individual project stakeholders, and program stakeholders & sponsors.
- Coordinating resources across all project teams and allocating funds as necessary.
- Managing the program's budget, monitoring expenditure and ensuring that the program realizes its financial & business benefits.
- Managing risk and taking corrective measures to resolve issues
- Managing communication across all stakeholders, third-party contributors and project leaders
- Maintaining the program documentation, including all plans, timelines and briefs.
These aren’t the only roles in program management. Depending on the size of the program, you might have a program director, a program board, or a program office manager (POM). Each of these roles differs in its responsibilities, though they all work closely with the program manager.
For most programs however, the above four roles will be sufficient.
The roles in program management tell you how programs work.
But to give you better insight, I’ll take a short detour to explain the program management process below.
The Program Management Process
The program management process isn't too dissimilar to how project management works. Although programs are substantially longer, they have distinct preparation, execution and completion phases.
I'll show you this process in more detail below.
Program Management Lifecycle
A typical program management lifecycle goes through five distinct stages:
- Initiation: In this stage, senior stakeholders and sponsors identify opportunities for change. Once identified, the stakeholders decide whether the opportunity requires mandating a new program, or whether it can be folded into an existing program/project. In most cases, the opportunity must be substantial enough to warrant a separate program.
- Definition: Post initiation, the program is defined and documented. This is where the stakeholders make a business case for the program and document everything required to make it a success. At the end of this stage, you will have a Program Definition Document (PDD). This will guide the rest of the program from start-up to completion.
- Establishment: Once the program is defined, it's time to identify and implement all the resources, infrastructure and processes required to achieve the program's goals. At this point, all the people in the program management team are identified and handed their responsibilities.
- Management: The longest stage covering the actual execution of the program and all its constituent projects.
- Closure: Once the program's deliverables are completed and business benefits realized, the program is said to be 'completed' and is terminated. The program team disbands and moves on to other programs.
Visually, you can represent these five stages as follows:
The first three stages are folded into the 'Preparation' phase. The active day-to-day management is a part of the 'Execution' phase and program closure is a part of the 'Completion' phase.
Before the Preparation phase can start, however, there needs to be a clear mandate for the program.
The mandate is essentially a concise document detailing the reason for the program's existence. The 'why' of the program, so to speak. The mandate lists the gaps in the organization's performance and what can be done to bridge them at a strategic level.
In a typical program management process, the mandate is followed by a detailed strategy document before the program 'Preparation' phase starts.
Of course, this describes the 'ideal' process.
In reality, things are rarely so well structured.
A program might start simply because a senior executive requests it. Or it might fold because the executive suddenly departs, leaving the program without a sponsor.
To put it simply, program management is far less rigid than project management. Individual stages are seldom linear. Instead, they might overlap with other programs or terminate early as the competitive environment changes. It’s not unusual to spin off a bunch of related projects into separate programs.
The above should, however, give you an idea of how a typical program actually works.
Before we leave, I’ll share a bunch of program management resources to help you understand this vital skill better.
Program Management Resources
If you’re interested in becoming a program manager (or any other role), using program management in your organization, or adding program management to your existing project management skills, the following resources will come in handy:
- Brandeis University offers a graduate program in program management. The University of Denver has a course in program management with a focus on arts development. Georgia Tech’s College of Design offers a course for managing construction projects.
- For shorter courses, PMI offers a 4 day in-person program management master class. The University of Charlotte has a certificate course for IT management. The University of California - Santa Cruz, has an online program and project management course as well. Ryerson University offers a certificate in program and portfolio management.
- The University of Illinois has a comprehensive program management toolkit to help you establish and manage a program. This is a free offering and doesn’t require sign-up.
- Salesforce has comprehensive program management resources, including webinars and eBooks.
- As for books, PMI’s “The Standard for Program Management” is as comprehensive as it gets for understanding program management. Michel Thiry’s “Program Management” is also a good introduction to the topic.
- Although it’s focused more on project management, the PM Podcast has great insight. For a friendlier podcast, turn to PM for the Masses.
Program management is similar to project management, yet very different from it. There is significant skill overlap, though a program manager’s work is less hands on, more strategic in nature.
Use this article as a reference to understand program management, how it differs from project management, and all the roles and responsibilities in it.
Questions or comments? Drop us a line below.