Program Management Distinctions, Written by Tom Flynn, P.E., PMP

Program Management Distinctions – In many organizations, the term project and program may be used interchangeably or the distinction of project or program may be blurred and many times the program is used without understanding the inherent implications.

So what’s the big deal…project…program…it’s all work that has to be done, right? Well certainly work is plentiful and does need be accomplished yet, the lack of the project – program distinction causes specific maladies within organizations that jeopardize project, program and portfolio efforts.

In smaller organizations this distinction is important yet, not as critical for larger organizations, with large investments in resources, technology and key strategic objectives that must be capitalized on.

Program Management is a fairly complex competency with roots in project management best practice yet with many distinct best practices of its own.  It is imperative that both projects and programs are defined well and the discussion below is centered in proper program structuring.

Program Identification

“Program: A group of related projects managed in a coordinated way in order to obtain benefits and controls that we could not expect from managing them individually.” PMI®

The program definition above seems pretty cut and dry yet, the definition is really describing the state of the program after it has been identified and initiated.  Which doesn’t help many organizations that aren’t experienced with program management?

In many organizations, most of which we would call “best-in-class”, the project management office (PMO), as part of their portfolio management process, would be the entity to disseminate a program from a project. From organization to organization, the criteria may be a bit varied yet; the elements below are fairly universal for identifying a program effort. Now, at the time we identify the program, we actually know the least about it, so the elements below need to be applied at “first glance” or with minimal planning investment in order to start out right as early as possible. Experience shows us that it is a lot easier to back a program down to a large project format than it is to move a project up to a program format once it has been initiated.

It could be a program when the proposed effort:

  • Is directly linked to an element of the strategic plan and/or is the strategic plan element itself.
  • Will require multiple and diverse functional groups…with, large and complex undertakings (projects) for each.
  • Will require multiple projects that will need to be lead by resources with Project Manager credentials, competencies and experience vs being lead by Technical SMEs (a project vs a project scope element).
  • Will require senior (executive) leadership to orchestrate and align the leaders of the functional groups, develop the program steering committee, and take the lead on key decision and policy making.
  • Requires a complex and highly integrated solution (technical or business) and appears to be multi-year in horizon.
  • Will require a more complex governance structure than we currently use on our successful projects.
  • May not have a clear and applicable end date (many large programs don’t)

Program Structure

Figure 1 below is an example of a proper program (and project) structure for a large, complex, and multi-year program. For smaller programs, the program director and program manager roles could be combined. Not all organizations have a project management office (PMO) to support program and project managers. Also, technical leads are listed under the project manager yet, these may be any subject matter expert that has accountability for a specific and major portion of the project.

As the graphic depicts, there is quite a bit of alignment, integration, and clarity required to develop and manage a successful program.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Example of a Program – Project Structure for Large & Complex Program

Program Governance

Keeping with the theme of avoiding the maladies of project-program confusion, I will elaborate a bit on developing the programs governance structure and will discuss the other elements of the program execution plan in the next post.

Program governance provides a structure for formal program reviews during the program phases. Opportunities to evaluate the program and its expected benefits support the organization’s strategic plan and key change management requirements. We have used the term “governance” to describe a wide range of execution requirements. The items listed below will be further elaborated on the formal Program Execution Strategy (plan).

Figure 2: Program and Project Execution Plans

Figure 2: Program and Project Execution Plans


Elements of Program Governance Development include:

  • “Charter” the program (Charter, Business Case, i.e.approval requirements).
  • Assemble the Program Steering Team/Change Control Board (if not already in place).
  • Outline metrics development process for Executive Reporting.
  • Assemble Program Core Team.
  • Oultine the Stakeholder Management Process (tools 5/12 and 16).
  • Outline the Benefits Realization Management process (tool 21).
  • *Outline Preliminary Program Execution Requirements (completed in next phase with the project core team and project managers). These include:
    • Program and project planning cycles and planning practices.
    • Project core team development.
    • Project scope development, estimating, scheduling, and alignment with program monitoring & reporting requirements.
    • Risk assessment process and its link to portfolio and program risk assessment.
    • Clear program and project roles and responsibilities (and documentation).
    • Document standards and information management practices for projects.

*For most large and/or complex programs, a preliminary execution planning round is required to simplify and outline the management strategies that will require more detailing in the program execution plan.

As Figure 2 shows, the Program Governance plan will guide eight execution plan elements, which ensures Program/Project alignment. By exercising governance over these project execution elements, the program manager has developed a sound basis for accurate scope development and ongoing project/program management.