Program Management – Just complex Project Management?

Jose Solera, BS, MBA, PMPAfter leading a number of projects, you are asked to lead a major effort with multiple teams working somewhat independently but contributing to the same goal, a big budget, the company future depends on your results … you get the picture. Is this just a large, complex project or are a program, and what are the differences?

PMI defines a program as “a group of related projects managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits and control not available from managing them individually. Programs may include elements of related work (e.g., ongoing operations) outside the scope of discrete projects in the program.” (PMI, The Standard for Program Management, 2006, p. 4).

My first experience in managing programs was in 1997, when I kicked off Intel’s effort to address the Year 2000 challenge. In leading the Y2K effort, I found myself facing the propect of having to lead hundreds if not thousands of projects. Having led a few projects previously, I knew what it took to be successful at project management (results!) How to apply this knowledge to this large endeavor? And, in more general terms, what are the lessons to be learned that can be applied to other programs?

Like any good project manager, the first thing I did is try to understand the nature of the challenge and how I could break it into more manageable pieces. Starting with internal systems (Intel’s products, suppliers, and customers would follow later on) I started identifying what systems we had and who was responsible for them. In other words, make a list, assign owners, and hold them accountable. But, do I have a large Gantt chart to which I would roll up what ended being over 800 projects? Having used various PM tools, I dreaded even thinking about how I would roll up all these efforts.

But then the culture of results came to my rescue. What did the customer (CEO) want? He didn’t want any problems due to the roll over. Did he care about Gantt charts? No. Could I then manage the effort by setting a target on the number of ready systems by a certain date and hold the owners accountable? Sure, that is what he cared for. So, after identifying group owners and systems, I communicated to them that while my responsibility was to make sure that they were aware of the issue and working on its resolution, once i did that they were responsible for successfully completing the effort. We set targets for % complete of systems that would get us to a readiness state in time and managed to those targets. The program was a success and we followed the same model for products, suppliers, and customers.

I did have to have a one-page Gantt ready for those situations when I was asked if I had a Gantt chart. Sometimes it was easy to show something that summarized the effort, even if it was not very useful in managing it, than trying to convince the questioner that it was not necessary.

Managing multiple projects is one of the differences between Program and Project Management. Program Management is more than managing a complex project. Ensuring that the benefits that should come to the organization through the multiple projects do happen is another difference. As noted in the definition, a program may have non-project activities under its management and it may even have additional programs.

 As mentioned above, a good source of information on how to manage programs is PMI’s The Standard for Program Management published in 2006. It is available for download for PMI members at their web site, or in print form from PMI’s bookstore. An updated version of the standard, a team in which I’m involved, is planned for 2008.

Another good source is the UK Office of Government Commerce’s Managing Successful Programmes. Information about this source is available at I understand that this reference is also undergoing an update.

Other sources on Program Management are available but check and make sure that they do mean Program Management. Sometimes they mean Portfolio Management (the management of a group of projects that may not have any relationship to each other besides being undertaken within the same organization) or just large, complex projects. Program Management is not as mature a discipline as Project Management, but the focus is there to improve the situation.


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