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What is a Programme in Project Management? 3 Types of Programme

programmes in project management

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

A programme 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.

And in the UK, we really do spell programme like that!

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

Programmes are handy ways of tying together related work. Programme and project management makes it easier to manage resources and expenses because you can juggle priorities between several strands of work. 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.

Programme Structure

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

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

This picture explains the programme structure, with regards to how it fits into the rest of the project management jargon.

portfolio definition

Different Types of Programme

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

  • Visionary programmes
  • Emerging programmes
  • Mandatory programmes.

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.

Visionary Programmes

“I have a vision…”

A vision-led programme is where the senior leaders have a specific idea of what they want the organisation to look like when the work is complete. These tend to be transformative programmes, delivering organisational or cultural change such as a restructure or fundamentally changing the operating principles of the business (going paperless, for example).

In this type of programme 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. Management will have come up with an idea of the future state of the business in a strategy session, and the programme 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 programme 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 programme team have to spend more time looking for people who are going to adversely affect the programme 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 programmes.

Emerging Programmes

This is perhaps the hardest type of programme to get involved with: programmes that don’t start as programmes 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 realise 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 programme 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 programme 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!

The trouble with trying to overlay programme management approaches on to a collection of related projects is that you will be trying to standardise 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 programme manager here should be on bringing people together to see the benefit of working as a programme team. If you can highlight the benefits (access to shared resources, less rework etc) then hopefully you can build a strong programme team from the bottom up.

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

Mandatory Programmes

Finally, you’ve got mandatory programmes of work. There is nearly always something that falls into this category happening at any given time. 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 programme to monitor the overall position for the company’s compliance.

An example of a mandatory programme 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 programmes 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 organisation has to do them, generates a fair amount of buy in that makes it easier to get things done.

Book Recommendations for Programme Management

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What is a programme in project management

About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin FAPM is a professional project manager and 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.
Elizabeth lives in the UK with her family. She uses her organisation and project management skills at home, and also to help other bloggers at Totally Organised Blogging.

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