10 Things Every New Program Manager Should Know

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Program management is a rewarding and well-paid career choice, but it can be a challenging role as well. If you’ve just got your first program management job or want to know if you should make the jump to a program management career, it's important to understand what the career entails. Consider these 10 things every new program manager should be aware of before starting the role.

Program Management is Not the Same as Project Management

Project management is about planning work, organizing tasks and resources, controlling processes, and delivering a specific objective. Whether opening a new office, launching a new app, or building an Olympic stadium, projects have a defined start, middle, and end with a clear set of objectives.

Program management is different and generally much broader. A program manager might oversee multiple projects at one time, each of which might have its own project team and project manager. Those projects together might all be part of a larger program designed to deliver something of value to the organization over time.

Expect There to be Uncertainty

Programs are inherently uncertain. While you might know what the big picture is, it’s just a vision statement when you start out. The exact path of how to get there and what projects are going to be required over an extended period of time is something you have to work out as you go.

You’ll start with detailed planning for what you do know and build up a picture of how to address the rest of it as you get closer. Progressively extend your planning and delivery horizons until you can’t go any further.

Block out time at regular intervals to plan the next steps. You also can use this opportunity to ensure that you are still on track to deliver business value.

Watch Out for Burnout

While a project might be over in a year or so, programs can stretch on—seemingly indefinitely.

Program managers need to protect their teams against burnout. You can’t work at top speed endlessly, so ensure your staff members get adequate downtime. This should include periods of quieter time at work with fewer deliverables and adequate time away from the office for vacations.

Manage sick leave closely, watch your overtime reports, and be alert to the fact that the welfare of your team is paramount if you want to slash attrition and keep your talented people for the life of the program.

You Need to Manage the Pace

When you are delivering a program that has a distant completion date, you need to manage the pace of the work. It’s difficult to maintain momentum over multiple years, so your role as a program manager is to juggle the priorities and projects so there are measurable outputs being delivered regularly.

Mix up the quick wins and the steady progress toward the bigger picture goals. This helps the team see you are moving forward and ensures that there are some shorter-term success stories to share to keep motivation high. Finally, it helps investors and executive managers see that there is progress being made.

Train your Team for Success

Programs often deliver something novel, unique, or transformative for an organization. One of the challenges of working on those kinds of initiatives is that you probably don’t have the skills in-house to be able to complete all the tasks and projects required.

That’s OK and to be expected. Your job as a new program manager is to ensure you can upskill, retrain, and develop the people you do have so that together you can address all the resource requirements.

There might be some areas where you only need a certain resource for a limited period. For example, you aren’t going to train one of your staff how to drive a forklift if that’s a skill you need for just one week. However, if you are transforming the way your company’s online presence is managed, it probably would be valuable to have website development skills in-house along with some expertise about social media or search engine optimization. These are skills the business will rely on in the long term.

Make decisions about which of these you need to have embedded in the team and which should be outsourced, then ensure your program can deliver the training and recruitment tasks required to be ready to manage the outputs as each project delivers.

Governance is More Complex

If you’ve come from a project management background, then governance won’t be a surprise to you. It’s the way in which project and program structures are organized and controlled to ensure that decision making is done in the right way and that the right people are involved. It’s crucial for ensuring the work is being progressed in a way that fits with the overall business case, and it helps keep people accountable.

Governance also is the way that the project management office and senior executives can ensure that a program is on track to deliver benefits. It also provides a formal route to closing down projects or an entire program if it can be shown that those benefits no longer will be achieved.

Governance is more complex in a program environment than in a project environment. Project boards and steering groups normally have an exec-level membership. This is to be expected as the end result from a program is normally business transformation.

Planning is More Difficult ...

Project managers who are involved in a program typically will put their project plans together, then a program management team—under your direction as program manager—meets and the plans are integrated.

This is easier said than done. It requires identifying the dependencies between projects and project tasks. It forces you to look at the resource requirements for the whole program and to juggle activities to suit the availability of key people.

Once your integrated program plan is established you can track it in a Gantt chart or other software tool. As your project managers track their projects in real time, you’ll have to make adjustments to the program plan, keeping everyone informed of changes and spelling out what this means for their areas of work.

... But You Don’t Have to Plan Every Line

As a program manager, you rely on your project managers to do the detailed planning. It isn’t practical or desirable for you to be tracking a program with thousands of tasks.

You need a rolled-up, high-level view of the projects with enough detail to show you whether something is going to have a program-level impact.

The easiest way to do this is with dedicated software apps. Trying to manage your multimillion dollar program on a basic spreadsheet would be too challenging.

You Need to Delegate

However good you are at delegating, being in a program management role means you need to get even better at it.

The good news is that you should have a team of project managers, and you might even have a dedicated program management office to support your transformative change.

There is a lot of work to do on a program, and setting it up to ensure that all the moving parts move together at the right time is a huge effort. You can’t do it alone and you shouldn’t try. Work out how much time you need to do the program initiation and then ensure you have a team in place to back you up.

If you don’t have anyone in your program management office, ask for someone to be seconded to the program management team. There is plenty for them to do. For example, someone in a project coordination role would be perfectly placed to deliver the coordination required at the program level, freeing you up to get involved with strategic tasks.

Don’t be Afraid of Conflict

There are lots of strands to programs. From projects with difficult stakeholders to seemingly unachievable deadlines, every day is going to give you opportunities for conflict. Watch out for the things that disrupt project performance and be prepared to step in when needed to head off a conflict situation before it starts.