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Sunday, 08 April 2018 15:13

Why good project managers can make terrible program managers

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There’s a common behaviour when programme managers act as “big” project managers. This builds on the view that a programme is just a big project. There’s no doubt that many good project managers go on to become good programme managers – but it is not a given.

Sometimes very good project managers go on to become terrible programme managers. Having been such good project managers, they assume that becoming a successful programme manager means doing more of the same.

It doesn’t!


A bit of background

Outside the world of text books and models, there is not a black and white divide separating projects from programmes – there’s a spectrum. Some things are definitely projects and some definitely programmes, but there are a lot of activities that are somewhere in the middle. Programmes come in all shapes and sizes.

What I am thinking of when I talk of programmes are activities that needs to be divided into a series of separate projects, each with their own project managers. What makes it a programme, rather than a group of projects, is that these projects are interdependent, and contribute towards a common programme goal.

Often good project managers progress on to become good programme managers – but not always. The reason it does not always work is that the work of a programme manager, whilst superficially similar to that of a project manager, is in many ways quite different

And this isn’t just an issue of scale or seniority. There can be very big projects with very senior project managers, and there can be pretty small programmes with relatively junior programme managers. It is more about the content and requirements of the work.


What happens?

If you assume a programme is just another form of project, you tend to manage it just like a project. And this raises two issues.

  • Firstly, if this was true the programme manager would be a superfluous role, overseeing project managers who should be perfectly capable of managing their projects. But inefficiency is the lesser problem.
  • Secondly, as it means the tasks programme managers need to do don’t get done. What am I talking about? Well here it gets hard, because many of them are things that project managers do – but programme managers need to do both more of, and often do in a different way. It’s undeniable that project managers may do any of the things I am about to mention to some degree. But rather than being small parts of a project managers role, they are core to a programme managers role.

This is a non-exhaustive list, but I am thinking of things like:

  • Creating the environment in which the individual projects can thrive and deliver.
  • Checking and facilitating consistency across the programme – the same goals, the same assumptions, the same time lines and so on.
  • Making sure that dependencies between projects are understood and aligned.
  • Preparing for and dealing with business change and creating the foundations for benefits delivery.
  • Managing all those complex stakeholder relationships.

Programme managers spend more time looking outside the scope of the programme. There are many things they need to influence, in the right way, that aren’t part of delivery. But the ability to spend all that time looking outside the programme is predicated on the fact that there are strong project managers worrying about all the things going on inside the programme.

Why does this matter?

This matters. When a programme manager acts like a senior project manager it causes four problems:

  • Inefficiency: the first problem is probably the least important, but worth spelling out. If the programme manager insists on doing the work of the project managers it inefficient. You have two (or more) people doing the same thing. If, as a programme manager, you need to do the project managers work – you’ve got the wrong project managers.
  • Confusion: the second problem is that this causes confusion. Who is responsible for what? This isn’t a minor issue, projects thrive on clarity. Once multiple people start managing the same activity, especially if they are managing it at the same level of detail, chaos will soon ensue.
  • Disempowerment and demotivation: if the programme manager tries to get too much into the details of the project managers’ work this is disempowering and demotivational for the project managers. Projects thrive on enthusiasm and drive, not layers of micro management. Of course, a programme manager has to go into details some time, but this should be on exceptions, not every item the project manager is doing.
  • Critical tasks get left out: programme managers don’t just want an easy life – they have a whole lot of work they need to be doing themselves beyond normal project management tasks. If programme mangers spend too much time delving into the project managers domains, they will simply start to drop the ball on the things they really need to be doing.

Next time you meet a good project manager about to take on their first real programme management role, make sure they understand it’s not just more of the same.

Read 431 times Last modified on Sunday, 08 April 2018 15:24
Richard Newton

Richard Newton wears many hats. Included amongst these are his work as a consultant, author, blogger, change leader, company director, and program manager. His most well known project management book is The Project Manager: Mastering the Art of Delivery. He is also the author of the best-selling Dream It, Do It, Live It which applies project management principles to achieving personal dreams.

His articles and blogs can be followed at www.changinghats.com. Information about his company can be found at www.enixus.co.uk. His books are available at bookshops and online sellers worldwide.

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