The terms “programme” and “programme management” are sometimes used in a project related context, but often it is not clear what is meant. In some instances, it seems people use the word programme to describe what is simply a large or long-term project, and in other cases, the words programme and project are used interchangeably. Often it is also assumed that there is a natural progression from project management to programme management. All of this is incorrect. Here we will break down what a programme and programme management really is and help you see if programme management might be something for you.

What is a programme?

Isn’t a programme just a “big project”?! In a word: No. A programme is related to project-based work, but it is an entirely different thing. A programme contains several projects, but is in itself not a project and different skills, practices and processes must be used to manage a programme. Essentially a programme is a management structure that sits around several projects that have a shared purpose, and it enables the coordination of those projects and their outputs.

What is a Programme?

It’s all about realising benefits from change!

What is programme management?

Programme management involves all the activities to coordinate several projects and change management activities to enable BAU to realise benefits from project outputs.

This typically includes:

  • Benefits management (identifying, defining, planning, tracking and realising benefits)
  • Design and management of the future state
  • Change management
  • Planning, sequencing and managing work through tranches
  • Initiation and coordination of projects and their outputs
  • Coordination of risks
  • Stakeholder engagement

When should you use a programme?

A programme can be a preferable structure for delivering a change IF you think that by using the programme structure you can deliver the change better/ more effectively than if the change was delivered through independent projects.

There is no such thing as a hard and fast rule that says things like “if your budget is more than £xx then you have to create a programme” or “if more than X people are involved you have to set up a programme”.

Deciding whether or not a programme is the best way to deliver a change has to be a case by case judgement call and the key factors to consider are:

  • Is there a need to coordinate several projects and their outputs in order to achieve desired outcomes and benefits?
  • Is there a need to manage change in BAU outside of what one independent project can do?
  • Is there a need to drive standardisation of processes and practices across several projects that have a shared purpose or outcome?
  • Could there be value in being able to coordinate and manage risk responses across several projects?

If you have answered “yes” to these statements then programme management might be an appropriate management structure for your work (Source: APM Project Management Qualification Study Guide pp 19-20)

If you think that you can deliver the same change equally successfully without a programme structure, i.e through one big, or several independent projects, then do not use a programme. If it does not add value then it should not be done!

How is a programme structured?

A programme, just like a project, should be structured in a set of phases or stages where work happens, with a set of gateways/ stage gates/ review points in between each stage. The purpose of each gateway is to ensure the programme is right for the organisation and that it remains feasible.

A common programme structure might look something like this:

How is a Programme Structured?

What are the roles and responsibilities in a programme?

A programme typically contains the following roles:

Senior Responsible Owner (SRO): this is the person that is the overall accountable owner of the programme, similar to a Project Sponsor.

Programme Manager: the person who is responsible for the planning and day-to-day management of the programme

Business Change Manager: suitably senior people in BAU that can own the required change efforts in their areas of the business, and who will make sure that the necessary change happens and sticks. They will usually be responsible for realising benefits in their area of business.

Project Managers: you cannot have a programme without projects so individuals that will be responsible for the planning and day-to-day management of projects are key!

What does the programme manager do?

  • Manage the programme day-to-day
  • Plan and design the programme
  • Monitor and Control programme progress against the organisational blueprint
  • Coordinate projects and their outputs and act as an escalation point for project managers (the programme manager is often the sponsor of projects!)
  • Manage programme budget
  • Coordinating resources across the programme
  • Manage risks at the programme level and coordinate risk management across projects
  • Engage stakeholders

(Source “Managing Successful Programmes” (2014) pp 40-41)

What skills does a programme manager need?

A programme manager needs some similar skills to that of a project manager but all seen through a more strategic and coordinating lens.

Key skills and attributes include:

  • Ability to engage and work with a wide range of stakeholders, including very senior stakeholders
  • Strong leadership, management and influencing skills
  • Knowledge and skills to plan, manage and control a programme
  • Good understanding of strategic context and objectives
  • Good understanding of benefits management and realisation
  • Knowledge and ability to manage budget and resources
  • Risk and Issue management
  • Problem-solving
  • Good understanding of project practices and challenges

(Source “Managing Successful Programmes” (2014) p.41)

Further learning

The most common accreditation for programme managers is MSP – Managing Successful Programmes, created by Axelos (who also famously created PRINCE2).

There are numerous courses to help you achieve an MSP, or you might find that reading the textbook is enough to get you where you need to be:

Managing Successful Programmes (Axelos)

Or as an alternative MSP for Dummies (John Wiley and Sons) is an excellent resource to help clarify the theory and practices of MSP.