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Beyond project management: Why organizations should consider program management

by Laurie Bacon

In the new world of work, traditional project management can often fall short. While project managers are valuable assets, their scope is also (by design) limited to the project that they are working on. And that’s a problem for many organizations, where short-term projects are often siloed and lack an organization-wide impact.

This is where program managers come in. Just as important as any project manager, program managers are a vital ingredient for your organizational success.
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Programs & projects

But the question remains: What is program management? And how does it differ from project management?

To put it simply, program management is similar to project management, only on a higher level. Project managers have a deeper focus, and are responsible for the outcome of the project and handling the team that’s been assigned to the task. In contrast, program managers are responsible for creating, leading and driving execution of a series of interconnected business projects. This more holistic approach can encompass many projects, departments and people, but is under the direction of one person, driving an overarching strategic vision.

As a basic example, take the development of a new product. A program manager would be tasked with taking that product from concept to delivery, bringing in all relevant areas of the business as needed: engineering, design, marketing, finance and more. During this development period, the organization would begin a number of projects, each with their own project manager driving the tactical execution — e.g., creating and refining a key component of the product, setting up a distribution network for release, or creating a marketing campaign to build buzz and drive sales. Meanwhile, the program manager provides strategic guidance and oversight to keep all of the disparate elements of the program on track.

Creating this hierarchy of workers makes sense for a number of reasons. Project managers can dive deeper into an individual project, focusing on meeting that project’s specific goals and staying within budget. They’re thus freed from the responsibilities of the program manager, who would be responsible for overall strategy and ensuring that the overall program was meeting existing business goals — not to mention being held accountable by the executive team for the outcome of the program. Program managers would also take on the prospect of managing change within the organization caused by the program, and ultimately, are responsible for delivering ROI and bottom-line impact.

​Program managers are responsible for creating, leading and driving execution of a series of interconnected business projects, and ultimately, for delivering ROI and bottom-line impact.

Is it right for your organization?

As you might imagine, the program manager role can be extremely challenging, especially as the size of an organization grows. This is why a strong governing structure is so important for its success. Every major program should be led by a group of forward-thinking leaders, often comprised of the executive team, who have decision-making authority and can respond quickly to issues that arise. Underneath that leadership group is the program manager, who has broad authority and can bring in outside resources to address challenges: consultants, change management experts, business analysts and more. And beneath them would be the individual project managers.

Now, this hierarchical approach may not be for everyone. Horizontal organizations particularly may find this structure to be contrary to their business and values. However, my experience as a consultant has taught me that such an approach is often necessary to handle unforeseen issues as they arise, or to preempt potential problems. 
For example, many organizations have problems with information silos — they have legacy systems that don’t talk to each other, along with manual workflows and processes that impede or stop the flow of information entirely. A project manager could very well tackle the problem of the silo. But a number of issues are outside of their responsibilities: managing relationships between departments, updating organization-wide processes, and perhaps most importantly, creating a change management plan that can help workers impacted by changes to the technology and processes they work with every day. 

Program management: The missing link

Want to get started with program management? A trusted partner can help.
Those are issues best handled by a program manager. And considering the challenges of the new world of work — the increasing amount of information flowing into organizations, a workforce undergoing a demographic shift and technology that’s constantly changing — your organization would be wise to make use of program management to drive your business objectives.
Laurie Bacon
Laurie Bacon, Principal Consultant, Business Process Agility, Enterprise Services Delivery, Ricoh USA, Inc., provides high value to customers’ businesses by assessing current challenges, developing multi-year solution roadmaps aligning with organizational objectives — ultimately helping to maximize operational efficiency and provide valuable return on investment. She has a tremendous track record of success, including driving multi-discipline projects that generated $76 million in customer OG&A expense reduction.