Program Management is often seen as the next logical step for seasoned project managers looking to take on bigger challenges. While project management is more about managing within boundaries of a project and gatekeeping it against anything and everything that threatens the status quo, program management is typically all about breaking those very boundaries and managing across them by taking up anything and everything that threatens the status quo. In this post, I will examine how they differ in its approach on two important aspects – scope management and people management.
Like I mentioned above, a project’s success depends on its ability to retain focus against all odds. Once a project scope is defined, its estimates made, resources allocated and commitments made, the project manager is pretty much focused on gatekeeping everything else out of the scope lest the project success is threatened. In reality, most projects would have a CCB, or a Change Control Board, of some levels of formal authority, there is still a tendency to bulk up the entire requirements in first-pass and do as much as possible in one breath irrespective of how much time it takes and whether the final outcome is acceptable to the customer or not. While most of the traditional world still likes this model for various reasons, software development community identified this as a bottleneck and created the suite of so-called ‘agile methodologies’ that exploit software’s ability to incorporate late changes to specs without seriously endangering the project or its deliverables. Still, at a high level, a project must work around a reasonably stable set of requirements to ring-fence itself against any potential changes to the ‘core’ of a project – the premise being how can you build a successful product on a shaky and wobbly foundation. After all, don’t we pay product managers to do a better job of defining those requirements upfront rather than changing their mind later in the project and calling it as customer change request to cover up what they failed to think of in the first place! Surely, everyone understands changes in workflow or bells and whistles, but I am talking about the core architecture – the fundamental DNA of a product that must be understand before any further allocation of time, money or resources is made. So, clearly, scope is sacrosanct to a project.
A program is a different beast. As the highest level of body chartered to translate an organizational’s strategic intent to reality, it can’t box itself inside any boundaries of defined or undefined scope. Anything that could impact a program’s ability to accrue full ‘benefits’ envisaged from it must be taken up. While in theory, a program must have a defined scope to plan its activities and resources around its deliverables, in practice it is not so trivial. Any reasonably large program has sufficient number of moving parts, uncertainties, conflicting requirements and rapidly changing priorities. It is very typical in a program for the component project managers to carve out their pieces very sharply. A lesser reported fact of life is that developer’s motivation to work in newer and sexier technology often dictates the choice behind a project taking up (or refusing to take up) a given problem. Program organizational structure and governance plays a very important role in ensureing that component projects are not only cleanly defined, they also identify inter-group dependencies and secure commitments to address them. To that end, a project might safeguard itself by rejecting an inter-group request, but eventually the program needs to address it! Similarly, a project manager might complete the work within her boundaries but it takes much more for the program to be ‘done’, let alone be successful. I have seen many situations where project managers would be so focused on their project that they won’t recognize that unless the program was successful as a single entity, their individual progress was meaningless. This could get aggravated when teams are geographically or organizationally dispersed. However, none of those can hide or discount the fact that a program is only as successful as it ability to influence things that might not be in its line of control but whose impact is definitely in a project’s line of success, especially if those things were to backfire.
While a project is like a fortress that must protect itself against all invasions to survive and eventually be successful, a program is more like a university, a rose garden, or a mission – they all deal in ‘soft power’ and maximize the ROI of their mission by keeping their doors open and by teaming up with their potential adversaries.
A project manager in a functional organization wields significant ‘positional power’ and thus has very high ability to influence team members behavior. While today’s organizations are highly flat and democratic, there is still an asymmetric balance of power, for the manager who writes your focal and annual salary revisions also potentially has the power to decide when you should update your resume! Surely we have come a long way in management-worker power-sharing from Taylor and Ford era, make no mistake that there is no such thing as a perfectly symmetric world where a manager and her team member have equal rights. Thus, a project manager has much higher ability to define the work and assign people to it as she feels appropriate. She also has a much higher level of responsibility towards training and career development of her team members, and being the closest face of management to the team, she is the official spokesperson of the upper management. A team will likely listen more to her than to the CEO. She must balance two opposing sets of expectations that, if not aligned properly, can set the project on fire. To that end, people management for a project management must be one of the toughest job.
In high contrast, a program manager manages at boundaries of participating organization in a highly matrix environment, and hence must manage by influence and not by any formal authority. In a software team, a program manager needs to get Development, QA, Product Management, Usability, Documentation, Marketing, and several other functions on the same page. In most organizations, they are organized along the functional lines and hence report to a solid-line manager in the same skill-set pool rather than program manager. Given that many of these resource might be timesharing on a program, their eventual loyalties are still with their respective line managers and hence a program manager can only rely on collaboration and influence as the key measures to get everyone onboarded. In some cases, there might even be a conflict between a component’s goals and the program’s goals and if such issues remain unresolved, the only recourse to make the program successful might be to move the problem up the command chain. Still, there is a big value in managing large and complex endeavors as a program, for it allows an organization to manage its resources and inter-group dependencies and conflicts in a more systemic and transparent manner. Some of the best program managers I have seen were not the ones who stopped managing the interfaces, but went over and above what their jobs required. They established a direct contact with key team members in component projects and created an alternate informal channel to validate project risks and plans, and to feel the pulse of the organization. They would do it very unintrusively without creating any friction between the line manager and them.
How does your organization view these two important functions?