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What is a Program in Project Management?

The definition of a program

What is a program in project management terms? Here’s a definition.

A program is a set of related projects and activities, managed in a coordinated fashion and under a structure that allows for the delivery of outcomes and benefits.

In other words, it’s a bunch of projects being managed together.

What’s the point of a program in project management?

The purpose of a program is to tie together related work.

If you work on a program, either as a project manager, or in a program office role (or as the program manager) you’ll know that the goal is that your work contributes to the organization’s strategic aims.

Program and project management makes it easier to manage resources and expenses because you can juggle priorities and manage multiple projects.

As long as you know where you want to get to overall, you can broadly make sure that you achieve that with the resources and budget that you have.

Project vs Program Management

Project management delivers a single output. Program management delivers a business goal.

Programs can be transformative, although large projects can be too.

I have done both. As a program manager, I ran a collection of related projects with the goal of delivering improvements across the business on a large scale.

As a project manager, I ran complex projects with plenty of workstreams, but there was only one objective and one output.

For example:

Program: Digitize all our processes — this is a large scale goal that would involve many teams and many projects to achieve.

Project: Migrate the accounting software to a new tool — this might be a complex project that affects many staff, with serious implications for process re-engineering and training, but it’s just one initiative.

Program Structure

First, let’s look at how programs fit into the project/program/portfolio way of looking at work.

Programs are collections of projects and BAU work that together will deliver an overall goal. Programs can be part of a portfolio or standalone. They can include a couple of projects or lots.

The picture below explains the program structure, with regards to how it fits into the rest of the project management jargon.

portfolio definition

Different Types of Program

Did you know that there are three types of program? Yes, there are! They are:

  • Visionary programs
  • Emerging programs
  • Mandatory programs.

They are all valuable, but each has particular quirks which change how the team works and how they are managed. Let’s look at each of those in turn.

1. Visionary Programs

“I have a vision…”

A vision-led program is where the senior leaders have a specific idea of what they want the organization to look like when the work is complete.

These tend to be transformative programs, delivering organizational or cultural change such as a restructure or fundamentally changing the operating principles of the business (going paperless, for example).

In this type of program you’ve got senior leadership support – and while it may sound obvious to say that, oftentimes you don’t have the sponsorship required in project management, so it’s a good thing that it is present here. It’s very much a top-down approach.

How these programs start

Management will have come up with an idea of the future state of the business in a strategy session, and the program is the practical way of getting there.

There will be a number of projects required to achieve those goals, so you could find yourself working on one of the projects delivering a component part, or in the program office itself managing the overall delivery.

There’s a strong commitment to the vision and what it will do for the company, and you’ll find that everyone gets behind it (or at least, most people) because they see that they have no choice: the company is changing anyway.

This makes the change relatively easy to handle but does mean the program team have to spend more time looking for people who are going to adversely affect the program but aren’t prepared to say so out loud for fear of appearing not to be committed to the upcoming changes.

While it helps in many ways to have such overt senior support, it does push resistance to change underground!

Read more about the role of change management on projects and programs.

2. Emerging Programs

This is perhaps the hardest type of program to get involved with: programs that don’t start as programs but that grow into one by default.

It happens because the business kicks off a number of projects that are loosely connected. Over time, people realize that they are struggling to secure similar resources and that there is an overlap with some outputs or deliverables.

There may even be concern that benefits are double-counted. As a result, a program framework emerges so that everything can be brought together under a single leadership structure, with better coordination and communication.

One of the challenges with this type of program is finding ways to align the projects. It starts with having decent project scheduling software because then at least you can see what each individual project is doing and when.

Then you can start to pull together resource schedules, dependencies and costs to create a common structure. It is possible to do this, but it takes work and oversight, and it isn’t easy!

Issues with emerging programs

The trouble with trying to overlay program management approaches on to a collection of related projects is that you will be trying to standardize working practices and reporting lines across a number of projects where those approaches are already in play.

You’re trying to change the way people work, and to a certain extent, the freedom of operation that they used to have. That can create resistance from the project leadership teams, so the focus for the program manager here should be on bringing people together to see the benefit of working as a program team.

If you can highlight the benefits (access to shared resources, less rework etc) then hopefully you can build a strong program team from the bottom up. Otherwise, this guide to how to recover a troubled program might help!

One way to do this is to use an organization chart to define roles within the program. Get a free org chart template here.

3. Mandatory Programs

Finally, you’ve got mandatory programs of work. There is nearly always something that falls into this category happening at any given time because we’re managing programs in a changing world.

For example, new legislation might generate four or five different things that the business needs to be aware of.

These could be separate projects, but because the legal resources and budget are held centrally it’s easier to manage those projects as a program to monitor the overall position for the company’s compliance.

An example of a mandatory program would be GDPR. Businesses needed to implement changes across HR, records management, IT, Marketing and Customer Services – and probably more.

The outcomes of projects in mandatory programs are likely to be new policies, updating terms and conditions, implementing process changes to comply with regulation and similar.

You are unlikely to be launching new products – these projects are all about keeping the company compliant with trading rules and ensuring you all stay in a job. That makes them interesting, and also as the organization has to do them, generates a fair amount of buy in that makes it easier to get things done.

Quick Answers

What’s the difference between a project and a program?

A program is created to manage a number of related projects, each contributing to the overall business objective, where it’s efficient to manage them together to get the desired outcome. A project is a single initiative where a team works to deliver a particular output.

What’s the difference between a program and a project manager?

A program manager oversees the successful delivery of a whole program. They have to balance the resources, budget and time to achieve the goal and ensure each project manager has what they need to complete their part of the program. A project manager leads a single project, with narrower responsibilities and scope of action.

Book Recommendations for Program Management

Pin for later reading:

What is a programme in project management

About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin is a Fellow of the Association for Project Management in the UK and the award-winning blogger behind A Girl's Guide To Project Management. She's passionate about demystifying project management and making tools and techniques work in the real world. She's also the author of several books including the PMI bestseller, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers.

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