8 Tips for Successful Program Management


Keeping track of complex programs with countless subprojects is an almost insurmountable task. Have you experienced this too? If so, you need a robust project management program. This article provides many recommendations to help you achieve successful program management. These include:

  1. Establishing a program management office / program office
  2. Defining the control processes
  3. Communicating how this program differs from others
  4. Defining the work breakdown structure
  5. Defining the interfaces between the projects
  6. Implementing an efficient PM system
  7. Automating the synchronization between the interfaces
  8. Establishing an early-warning system

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

Let’s go!

What is program management?

Definition: A program comprises multiple interdependent projects. All of these projects serve to achieve an overall goal. So, we can define a program as a master project with many subprojects.

General information about program management

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

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

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How program management differs from multi-project management

The term “multi-project management”, in contrast, refers to situations in which multiple projects are being implemented concurrently by a single organizational unit. An example would be several IT projects being handled concurrently, yet independently from one another, by a single entity.

Note: Worldwide, there are differing definitions of the terms “program management” and “multi-project management”. Outside the German-speaking region, the terms “program management” and “project portfolio management” are usually substituted for “multi-project management” (which causes confusion in the German-speaking regions).

How program management differs from project portfolio management

There is yet another difference: Project portfolio management, in German-speaking regions, generally defines the overall strategic direction of the programs and projects.

The difference between project portfolio management, multi-project management, and program management

The difference between project portfolio management, multi-project management, and program management

What does a program manager do?

The program manager / program director is responsible for a program, consisting of several subprojects within the framework of the program. This person is often simultaneously head of the project office and/or program management office (PgrO). The program manager’s responsibilities can include the following, which they handle with the team’s support:

  • Determining the programs needed to achieve the organization’s strategic goals
  • Launching projects for the program
  • Evaluating the proposed projects
  • Approving, deferring, or rejecting project requests
  • Monitoring projects from the client’s perspective
  • Serving as the overall source of information
  • Managing the project marketing
  • Handling quality management

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Any questions so far? Now that we understand the terms, let’s look at the eight key tips for successful program management.

Tip 1: Establish a program management office / program office

Programs must be carefully controlled. Due to their complexity and scope, this requires the support of a centralized responsible entity: the program management office.

The program management office (PgrO) generally has several members. Normally, more than one program manager is needed to handle all the demands.

The program management office’s responsibilities can involve:

  • Defining and communicating the unique characteristics of each program
  • Providing project managers with the training needed for that specific program
  • Providing project managers with the support they need to manage the projects
  • Gathering information on the activities and data needed in preparation for the regular status meetings
  • Ensuring the data quality of the projects
  • Preparing reports for different committees
  • Developing scenarios for problem situations
  • Preparing and conducting status meetings
  • etc.
Involvement of the program management office / program office in the processes

Involvement of the program management office / program office in the processes

How the PgrO differs from the PMO: Don’t confuse the program management office (PgrO) with the Project Management Office (PMO). The PMO serves as a centralized control unit for managing projects throughout the company or in individual departments (such as IT-PMO). It handles activities such as the development of project standards, project monitoring, project support, training / coaching, quality assurance, and possibly even involvement in strategic decisions regarding the portfolio.

Tip 2: Define the control processes

The second step for successful program management is to firstly ensure that individual projects are controlled in your company. If these aren’t, the program won’t function well either.

Before you can control an extensive program, you need to be capable of simultaneously handling a huge amount of information from individual projects. It therefore requires significant effort to prepare for a steering committee meeting. You need more preparation time, and everything needs to be better organized than with ‘normal’ projects.

Define regular intervals for the dates of the steering committee meetings. All information must be accurate, reliable, and comprehensive ‒ and ready on time for the meeting.

The meeting intervals should be relevant to the program’s time frame. This lets you identify any deviations, determine what actions are necessary, and communicate these to the relevant people / entities to ensure the program’s success.

Program Management: Sample steering committee meeting plan, showing the roles involved and meeting preparation times

Sample steering committee meeting plan, showing the roles involved and meeting preparation times

Tip 3: Focus attention on this program’s unique characteristics

Perhaps you already have a project management office (PMO). This office is usually responsible for the project management standards and project manager training (see box above).

To learn more, read How to successfully introduce a project management office.

However, each program is handled a bit differently. This is especially true when external people and entities are involved. It’s generally necessary to define special guidelines for each individual program. Some of these guidelines will probably differ a bit from the PMO standards.

So, make sure that every project manager is familiar with these guidelines and agrees to comply with them for a successful program management.

Tip 4: Define an appropriate work breakdown structure

It’s important to have an appropriate work breakdown structure for each project. This must allow the program to depict the interdependencies between projects with regard to content and time frame. To achieve this, you must define the important milestones for each project. These milestones are later used to monitor the program.

Our suggestion: Remember to create a master project for high-level information such as major milestones, etc. to simplify the monitoring and control.

We also recommend that you create a separate master project for the program. This program plan should contain all the control information. All the interfaces or partial deliveries should converge and be controlled from here.

Doing so gives the steering committee a better overview and simplifies the handling, as the steering committee only needs to open and edit one single project plan.

Program Management: Sample work breakdown for an IT program

Sample work breakdown for an IT program

Evidence from TPG’s PMO Survey 2020 shows that managing cross-project interdependencies is a major challenge and one of the important duties for companies.

Top and high-performing companies are clearly ahead of low performers in this respect.

Program Management – Managing cross-project dependencies is essential

Depicting and managing interdependencies between projects is important – Top-performing companies are more aware of the need to handle this challenge than others (Source: PMO Survey 2020 n=330)

Tip 5: Define the interfaces between the projects

The steering committee uses these to regularly issue milestone targets to the interfaces. These targets are assigned to the corresponding projects (top-down), and the project managers are then responsible for meeting these targets.

Conversely, the current milestone dates have to be collected from the projects on a regular basis (bottom-up).

The discrepancy between planned dates and the actual dates of the interfaces determines the degree of centralized control necessary.

Tip 6: Implement a strong program management tool

A strong multi-project tool / program management tool is needed for a successful program management and to manage complex programs. Many suitable products are currently on the market, and these have become ever more sophisticated over the past few years.

For successful program management, we recommend a solution that gives you both top-down and bottom-up control of your projects as described above. The determining factor is how it lets you define the links between the projects.

Program Management: Bottom-up and top-down control between the program plan and the individual project plans

Bottom-up and top-down control between the program plan and the individual project plans

You want to avoid a scenario in which you open the solution and immediately see all the changes related to linked tasks but can’t view the previous status for comparison, because you then might not be able to see exactly what has changed.

The ideal solution would let you view the schedule and simply click to display the external milestones. This would let you view your program plans and links simultaneously, and you could easily modify your plans.

Tip 7: Set up automatic synchronization of the interfaces

Automatic synchronization saves you much time and effort when project deadlines are postponed. Ideally, you’d be able to simply open the program plan and immediately see the current status of every milestone alongside its planned status.

If you have numerous interfaces:

  • A solution like this can save you much time and effort
  • You now have more time to manage the program, because you are no longer wasting time gathering the latest data, which will soon be out of date again

Using suitable integration middleware software enables you to combine various software tools from different sub-projects. This is useful for large-scale programs involving diverse suppliers in sectors such as the aerospace industry. You can use Primavera while others use Planisware or Microsoft Project Server / Microsoft Project Online.

Program Management – TPG PS Link is a leading integration middleware product, which is also hugely important for automated data exchange in program management

TPG PS Link is a leading integration middleware product, which is also hugely important for automated data exchange in program management

To learn more, read Requirements of the ideal program management tool for IT support, using the electronics industry as an example.

Tip 8: Establish an early warning system

Don’t rely only on the currently reported dates when managing the interface deadlines. Use the Milestone Trend Analysis (MTA) for a successful program management. This will give you an early warning for the most important interfaces and deliveries, alerting you if dates are frequently being rescheduled.

Our suggestion: Use the program plan’s targets as target dates for important project milestones in the MTA. This enables you to easily identify the critical effects of any delays or postponements.

MTA with target dates, successful program management

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

Learn more about Milestone Trend Analysis, its benefits and our free tool here.

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

Conclusion – Successful program management

This article has introduced you to the concept of successful program management and shown how it differs from multi-project management and project portfolio management.

It has also given you 8 tips for successful program management.

  1. Establish your own program management office / program office with specific tasks. This includes aspects such as communicating the program, supporting the project managers, preparing reports, etc.
  2. Control is essential: make sure that program management processes for managing individual projects and handling steering committee meetings are clearly defined and adhered to.
  3. Use your PMO to communicate the program’s unique characteristics.
  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 consistent top-down and bottom-up communication to communicate the targets and current milestone dates.
  6. Implement a strong PM system to support you in this effort. Make sure it allows you to set clear links between the projects.
  7. Become more efficient and up to date by automating the synchronization of individual dates with the program plan.
  8. The ability to react quickly can be crucial. Use the Milestone Trend Analysis to stay up to date about dates that are rescheduled frequently.

Please send us your feedback!

What experiences have you had with successful program management? Is there a critical success factor that you feel we have missed? Have these tips been helpful? Please let us know in the comment area below. We look forward to your feedback!

Johann StrasserAbout the author: Johann Strasser, a certified engineer, has been a managing partner at TPG The Project Group since 2001. After many years as a development engineer in the automotive and energy sectors, Johann Strasser spent a decade as an independent trainer and consultant in the field of project management. During his tenure, he also served as project manager for software projects in the construction industry and provided scheduling and cost management support for large-scale construction projects. At TPG, he applies his expertise in product development and consulting services for international clients. His special focus is on PMO, project portfolios, hybrid project management, and resource management. For many years now, he has shared his knowledge through presentations, seminars, articles, and webinars.

You can read more about Johann Strasser on LinkedIn and XING.

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    • Dear Nina,
      thank you very much! Feel free to take a look at our other articles.

      Have a great day!
      Anna Pauels

  1. Thanks for the article, really great insights on creative project management, especially loved the tip about an early warning system.

  2. Randy Vicuna on

    Thanks for the article thie will help us to improve our ability in management of whatever project in the production

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