8 Tips for Successful Program Management

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+++ Getting Started in Program Management +++ How to Define Work Breakdown Structure, Processes and Interfaces +++

By Johann Strasser                                                                                                                Read article in German

Staying on top of complex programs with countless subprojects is a mammoth task. Do you feel the same way?

This article outlines a number of recommendations, which can help you on your way to successful program management. These include:

1.    Establishing a program office (with more than one program manager)
2.    Defining control processes
3.    Communicating the particularities of the program
4.    Determining the work breakdown structure
5.    Defining the interface between the projects
6.    Obtaining an efficient PM system
7.    Automating the synchronization of the interface
8.    Establishing an early-warning system

But before we get into the details let us take a closer look at the definition of program management. We need to clarify it – to avoid possible misunderstandings.

What Is Program Management?

A program comprises multiple interdependent projects. All of these projects serve to achieve an overall goal. In short, in our definition a program is a master project with many subprojects.

According to the PMI standard, program management includes, among other things:

  • Defining interfaces
  • Aligning schedules
  • Coordinating resources
  • Overall risk management
  • Joint change control

In contrast, we define the term multi-project management. It stands for projects of one organizational unit implemented concurrently.

Interested in multi-project management? Read about 7 Crucial Success Factors.

The project portfolio, on the other hand, is the strategic authority superordinate to the programs and projects.

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Figure 1: Distinguishing project portfolio, program and multi-project management

Note: There is no worldwide uniform definition of program management as a term.

And now let us get to the important points we recommend for successful program management or program planning.

8 Tips for Successful Program Management

1. Establish a Program Office

Programs require intensive control. Due to their complexity and scope, this can only be effected with the support of a centrally responsible body: the program office.

As a rule, the program office is composed of several members. Normally, one program manager alone cannot master the requirements.

The responsibilities of the program office can involve:

  • Defining and disseminating the particularities of the respective program
  • Training the project managers specifically for the respective program
  • Supporting the project managers in administering the projects
  • Calling for all actions and data at the status dates fixed
  • Ensuring the data quality of the projects
  • Editing reports for different committees
  • Developing scenarios in problem cases
  • Preparing and conducting status meetings
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Figure 2: The program office’s involvement in the processes

2. Define the Control Processes

First, ensure that the individual project control in your company runs smoothly. This is essential for the program to function.

There is a prerequisite for controlling an extensive program. You need to be able to process a huge amount of information from the projects simultaneously. This makes the preparation of steering committee meetings complex. You need more preparation time and everything needs to be better organized than with ‘regular’ projects.

You might also like our 7 Measures to Improve Program Management.

Define regular intervals for the dates of the steering committee meetings. All information must converge in the necessary quality. And at the right time.

You should determine sensible intervals corresponding to the total time of the program. This is the only way to identify deviations early. You can quickly derive the necessary decisions at the interfaces for program success.

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Figure 3: Possible intervals for preparing steering committee meetings by roles involved, i.e. program manager

3. Point out the Particularities of the Program

Perhaps you already have a Project Management Office (PMO). The latter is usually responsible for:

  • standards in project management
  • project manager training

Still missing a PMO? Read this article to find out how to set up a Project Management Office and be successful!

However, a program tends to have individual particularities in handling. This applies above all, when external contributors are involved. For this reason, it is necessary to define special rules for the program. They are likely to differ from the PMO standards here and there.

So ensure two things:

  • All project managers must become acquainted with the rules for the program
  • They must all observe them

4. Determine a Suitable Work Breakdown Structure

The appropriate work breakdown structure is important for every project. The work breakdown structure has to enable the program to convey content and time dependencies between the projects. To achieve this, you define the important milestones in each project. Those milestones will later be used to monitor the program.

Do not forget to create a master project for overall control information!

We also recommend you to create a separate master project for the program. This program plan contains all overall control information necessary for effective program management. All interfaces or partial deliveries should converge, and be controlled from, there.

This means the steering committee only needs to open and edit one single project plan. Which simplifies both the overview and the handling.

5. Define the Interface between the Projects

The steering committee issues the targets on this basis at regular intervals. These are targets concerning the milestones at the interfaces. They are allocated to the corresponding projects (top-down). And the project managers have to implement these targets.

In turn, the current dates of the milestones have to be collected from the projects on a regular basis (bottom-up).

The time differences between plan and actual dates at the interfaces entail the need for central control.

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Figure 4: Bottom-up and top-down control between program plan and individual project plans

6. Obtain an Efficient PM System

You will only be able to run complex programs with the aid of efficient software. By now, there are many suitable products on the market. Over the last few years, these have become more and more professional.

Special Download: Benefits of MS Project Server / Project Online to the MS Project Standard

Please click here to download the PDF and learn why you should prefer the server over the client version.

For managing successful programs, we recommend a solution to the scenario described above. This solution facilitates the top-down and bottom-up control of projects. In this specific case, it comes down to how you can set the links between the projects.

Find out about Program Management Solutions that apply to Product Development and R&D.

For instance, it would be far from ideal if:

  • your solution displayed all changes in linked tasks directly upon opening a project
  • you did not have the previous version available for comparison

In such a case, you might not know what changes had been made.

Ideally, you would be able to visualize external milestones in your schedule.

Preferably, your solution would allow you to show the external milestones in your own schedule at the touch of a button. This would allow you to look at your program planning and the links at the same time.

Read now: Interview with the PMO manager of a huge construction project about Achieving Higher Commitment by Closing the Reporting Loop

7. Automate the Synchronization of the Interface

If deadlines in the projects are postponed, automatic synchronization with the program plan will save you time. The best case would be: You open the program plan and directly see the actual state of every milestone next to the plan value.

If you have many interfaces, a solution of this kind can save you a lot of time. As a program manager, you would be able to spend more time controlling the program. There would be an end to collecting current data which will be out of date again in no time

8. Establish an Early-Warning System

Do not realize the interface schedule control only via the actual reported dates. Use the Milestone Trend Analysis (MTA). This will give you an early warning for the most important interfaces and deliveries. You will be informed, if dates are rescheduled frequently.

Our tip: Use the targets from the program plan as target dates for the important milestones from the projects in the MTA. This allows you to identify the critical effects of postponement.

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Figure 5: An MTA with target dates shows you when postponements will truly become critical

Just download your free MTA for Microsoft Project at www.free-mta.com.

Are you wondering how to apply these tips? Look at our practical example from the electronics industry.

Conclusion – Successful Program Management

This article has introduced you to the notion of program management. You have also learned how it contrasts with other terms such as multi-project management and project portfolio management.

In addition, you now have 8 tips up your sleeve to help you manage programs successfully.

  1. Establish your own program office with specific tasks. These include communicating the program, supporting the project managers, editing reports etc.
  2. Control is the essential thing. Make sure that program management processes concerning individual project control and steering committee meetings are defined and adhered to.
  3. Make use of your PMO to communicate the particularities of the program.
  4. Determine the appropriate work breakdown structure for each project. And remember to create a separate master project for the program.
  5. Ensure that there is a consistent top-down and bottom-up communication to pass on targets and current milestone dates.
  6. Obtain an efficient PM system to support you in this. Make sure it allows you to set links between the projects, one of the keys to successful program management.
  7. Become more efficient and up to date – by automating the synchronization of individual dates with the program plan.
  8. A timely reaction can be crucial. Use the Milestone Trend Analysis to stay up to date about dates that are rescheduled frequently.

Do you have any questions regarding our tips for program management success? Or is there a critical success factor you feel we have missed? Please let us know in the comment area below. We are looking forward to your feedback!

Final tip: Subscribe to the TPG Blog Newsletter now and never miss another blog post.

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