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Libby Marks

Demystifying Program Management: A Beginner's Guide

New to program management? Our plain English guide will get you up to speed quickly.

Program management is simply the process of delivering a group of interconnected projects. 

The aim of program management is to increase efficiency and reduce risk associated with delivering those projects separately.

It’s pretty similar to managing different phases in a single project, just at a larger scale. 

Here’s what you need to know about the program management process – from how it differs from project management, to what to include in a program management plan, plus much more.

In this guide to program management, you’ll find:

What is meant by program management?

In project-based businesses, a program is a set of interconnected projects – projects that are grouped together because they form part of a wider strategic initiative. Strategic program management refers to the process of coordinating and managing those projects together – to enable efficient and timely delivery. 

The professionals who are responsible for ensuring the successful delivery of programs are called program managers.

Examples of program management 

  • Construction – A program to develop a business park comprises projects to build commercial units, install utilities, build roads etc. 
  • IT services – A program to implement an enterprise-wide software system, comprising various projects such as software development, integration, training, and deployment.
  • Design agency – A program to overhaul a client's brand identity, encompassing projects like logo redesign, website revamp, and marketing collateral refresh

In these examples, different teams may work on each project but they all need completing together – and in sequence – to successfully deliver the overarching outcome. 

Benefits of program management

Programs are complex initiatives. They have a lot of interdependencies – and often span multiple teams – which makes them difficult to manage. 

However, the benefits of managing them as a program outweighs the corresponding challenges. 

  • Reduced risk – through centralized oversight and mitigation 
  • Improved resource efficiency – creating cost and time savings 
  • Increased operational efficiency – through centralized management
  • Cross-project coordination – minimizing delays, clashes and bottlenecks
  • Enhanced stakeholder communication – reducing risk of misunderstandings or conflict
  • Better benefit realization – higher likelihood of achieving program-wide objectives

While program management is proven to be beneficial, organizations aren’t always good at it.

Research from the Project Management Institute found only 10% of respondents thought their organization had ‘very high’ program management maturity. 32% said ‘somewhat or very low’. So there’s room for improvement.

Key factors in program management success

From integrating interdependent projects and optimizing resource allocation – to engaging stakeholders and mitigating risks – there are a lot of factors in program management success. If you can get these right, you’ll realize the benefits listed above.

Integration and dependency management

Integrating multiple projects means seeing the bigger picture and making decisions based on program needs, not project needs. 

In the construction example above, it makes sense to install the utilities – gas lines, water pipes, and electric cables – before the roads are built. If the roads go in first, they may need to be dug up to install the utilities, which will waste time and money. 

Program management ensures that interdependent projects are completed in a logical order to maximize efficiency and prevent avoidable delivery delays. 

Resource optimization

Program management allows for efficient resource allocation – with centralized resource management across the entire program of projects. 

With their overview of the program, program managers can identify opportunities to deploy resources in the most effective way. This is essential for maintaining program viability and progress, as well as minimizing costs and maximizing value.

For example, in the brand identity revamp example, instead of each project having a dedicated graphic designer, design talent can be dynamically allocated to different projects as required. This minimizes idle time and maximizes resource utilization. 

➡️ Further reading: project resource management. 

Risk management

Program management provides a framework for risk management across multiple projects. This is important because – if the projects were managed separately – risks at the intersection of different projects could get missed. 

Program managers identify, assess, and mitigate risks at the program level, considering both individual project risks and wider program-level risks. This means that nothing ‘slips between the cracks’.

Governance and decision-making

Program management establishes clear governance structures and decision-making processes for the various projects under its umbrella. For example, determining

  • Roles, responsibilities, and reporting structure for the program.
  • Program policies and procedures – such as quality assurance and risk management.
  • A decision-making framework – defining processes and escalation paths.
  • Staff deployment processes – how to optimize human resources across the program lifecycle.

This centralized approach to governance ensures consistency and transparency in decision-making processes – and ensures project demands do not override what the wider program needs. 

Stakeholder management

Stakeholder management starts by identifying key stakeholders – known as stakeholder mapping – and assessing their interests. Then developing strategies to keep them engaged and in the loop. 

Stakeholder resistance or disengagement can be a risk to program delivery – for example, if disengaged stakeholders fail to communicate critical program requirements or constraints. 

Program managers ensure that stakeholder needs are understood and addressed, building trust and open communication that benefits program outcomes. They also manage expectations so that stakeholders understand what the program will – and will not – be able to deliver.

Program performance measurement

With so many moving parts, programs need careful monitoring and management. Measuring program performance is essential for checking the program is progressing to plan – and course correct if not. It’s also an important part of stakeholder management – demonstrating progress and value to people invested in the program. 

Supported by appropriate software and analytical tools, program managers track key metrics and KPIs like

  • Schedule adherence/variance
  • Budget adherence/variance
  • Resource utilization rate
  • Stakeholder satisfaction
  • Quality performance
  • Risk exposure
  • And more

Program management vs project management: what’s the difference?

Program management isn’t the same as project management – even if you’re managing multiple projects at the same time

  • Project management is concerned with the execution of individual projects to achieve their separate goals 
  • Program management is concerned with orchestrating multiple projects to achieve a collective goal 

Program managers coordinate the interdependencies among projects and ensure that the collective outcomes deliver maximum value to the organization. Project managers don’t have that added layer of oversight and complexity. 

Program management vs portfolio management: what’s the difference?

Program management and portfolio management are easily confused. Both are strategic approaches to managing a suite of projects. But the difference comes down – again – to interconnectedness.

  • Portfolio management is about managing all of the projects in an organization – it is concerned with pursuing and prioritizing projects that align with your organization’s overarching strategy
  • Program management is about managing a set of related projects only – not all of the projects in your business

Project vs program vs portfolio management: side-by-side comparison

Project management, program management, and portfolio management differ in scope, duration, objectives, risk management, and much more. Check out the table below for the key differences.

The program management lifecycle

The program management lifecycle refers to the distinct phases of a program – from initiation to closure. Each stage has specific objectives, deliverables, and deadlines. This structure makes it easier to manage the program overall, by breaking it down into more manageable phases. 

Phase 1 – Initiation 

The initiation phase is the starting line for your program. This is where you lay the foundations for everything to come. The purpose of this stage is to

  • Understand the strategic objectives of the program and program goals
  • Establish the overarching vision, purpose, scope, and deliverables
  • Identify the stakeholders and their stake in the program

It’s essential you understand the program objectives and goals. These are the North Star of the program and will help you prioritize activities, resolve conflicts, and deliver what’s needed. They’ll also help you monitor and manage your progress throughout the program lifecycle.

Stakeholder analysis involves identifying and understanding the interests, expectations, and concerns of all stakeholders involved in or affected by the program. These may include.

Internal stakeholders

  • Leadership team 
  • Program sponsors
  • Project teams
  • Program beneficiaries

External stakeholders

  • Customers
  • Suppliers
  • Regulatory bodies
  • The public

Effective stakeholder engagement entails establishing open lines of communication, building relationships, and actively involving stakeholders in decision-making processes. 

Research from the Project Management Institute consistently finds that projects and programs are more likely to succeed if they have an executive sponsor – so try to get one on board at this point. 

Phase 2 – Planning

Planning is a critical phase in program lifecycle management. This is where you develop a comprehensive program plan that will guide all future activities – ensuring clarity on everything from deliverables and scope, to risk and resource management. 

Your program plan will include a roadmap that provides a bird’s eye view of key projects, phases, milestones, and deadlines. This helps keep stakeholders informed throughout the program. 

You’ll also create a detailed schedule for the program and projects within it. To do this, you’ll need to

  • Break the program down into separate components or projects
  • Identify any project interdependencies
  • Establish realistic timelines and budgets for the work 

During program planning, you’ll need to put a lot of thought into how the program will be managed and staffed, what the risks are, how you’ll make decisions, manage change, resolve conflicts, etc. 

This information will then go in your program plan document – for reference by anyone involved in the program, so you’re all on the same page.

Phase 3 – Execution 

You’ve planned to perfection. It’s time to put those plans into action with the execution phase. 

The execution phase is where the program plan is put into action. It involves coordinating project activities, managing resources, and addressing issues and risks as they arise. 

Program managers oversee the execution of the program plan, ensuring that each project – and the program overall – is executed according to schedule, budget, and quality standards.

During this phase, you monitor progress against your program plan. You’ll conduct regular performance management, quality assurance, and risk management activities. As well as identifying and addressing any deviations from your schedule. 

You’ll also keep in close contact with your stakeholders, to keep them informed, engaged, and on-side.

Phase 4 – Closure 

You did it! You’ve successfully delivered the program. It’s time to pass the baton to the people who’ll carry it forward. 

At closure stage in program lifecycle management, you work with key stakeholders to hand over everything they need, now that the program has finished. 

Good program management also involves conducting a thorough review of the program – what went well, what could be improved, lessons learned, etc – to inform how you tackle future programs of work. 

Tools and technologies for program management

If program management sounds like a lot of work, you’re right. Fortunately, there’s a range of tech available to accelerate and simplify the process. Here’s a rundown of some useful software for program management.

Project management software

Project management software helps users plan, execute, monitor, and manage their projects. It typically includes project planning, task and resource scheduling, budget tracking, collaboration tools, and reporting capabilities. Gantt charts help visualize project components and their dependencies. Project management software is primarily designed to manage individual projects. But many modern platforms offer features and functionalities that support program management as well

Project Portfolio Management (PPM) platforms

While not designed exclusively for program management, PPM platforms can be used for the purpose. PM3 – for example – describes itself as being for project, program, and portfolio management. They typically include program/project planning tools, resource management, financial tracking, risk management, and more. 

Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems

ERP systems – like Oracle NetSuite and Microsoft Dynamics 365 – are all-in-one enterprise platforms that combine everything from accounting to marketing and human resources. They typically include modules for project and program management. These systems integrate project and program data with other business processes such as finance, HR, and supply chain management – to streamline and sync data across different business units.

Resource management software

Resource management software – like Runn and Saviom – accelerates the identification, allocation, and optimization of human resources across programs. They let program managers search, filter, and schedule resources according to availability, skills, utilization rate, and more. They also include a suite of tools for project planning and management, capacity planning, scenario planning, budget and schedule management, and more.

Risk management systems

Risk management software – like Resolver and Decision Focus  – helps identify, assess, and mitigate program risk. Typically it includes features for risk assessment, prioritization, and tracking. Scenario analysis tools let program managers proactively assess risk associated with different situations. And built-in analytics and reporting slash the time it takes to report analyses to stakeholders.

Data analysis software

Data analytics and reporting tools – like Procore for construction firms – let program managers analyze program performance, easily visualize data, and create reports and dashboards to share with stakeholders. This helps managers monitor and manage program performance, and make quick, confident, data-informed decisions. 

Ace program management with Runn

Runn is a resource management platform that makes it faster and easier to run successful projects, programs, and portfolios.

Professional service firms deliver exceptional customer outcomes with Runn’s powerful tools for 

  • Project planning and management
  • Resource scheduling and optimization
  • Capacity and scenario planning
  • Budget and schedule management
  • Analytics and reporting 

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