The size and scale of programs makes them complex and difficult to manage. As with any undertaking, the prospects for success diminish and uncertainty increases significantly with the magnitude of the work. Where small projects are almost always successful and carry low risk, long-duration programs with large staffs of contributors have a high probability of falling short of their goals, and many fail.
Program management techniques strive to simplify the work by breaking it down into more manageable pieces. By converting large undertakings into collections of smaller projects, we move the work into a context where things are more easily understood and project management methods can be effective. That’s the good news.
Unfortunately, decomposing a major effort into a coherent set of projects that can be independently planned and managed is easier said than done. The act of converting a large program into a collection of smaller projects does not make the complexity go away. Overall program complexity affects the deliverables, the workflow, and organizing the people who will do the work. Creating a program plan that will serve as an effective foundation for execution can succeed only if it is done carefully and with an understanding that what remains, even using the best program management methods, will still be challenging. Simplicity is a worthy goal, but there are limits.
Projects are undertakings that are of finite duration and seek to deliver a specific result using limited assigned resources. Typical organizations have many projects underway in parallel, with a wide variety of goals. Some of these projects are autonomous, with little connection to other work, while others are chartered as a part of something larger, encompassing several or even many projects.
Program is a term that means different things in different contexts, but the Project Management Institute (PMI) defines a program as “a group of related projects, subprograms, and program activities that are managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits not available from managing them individually.” Subprograms may be part of larger programs, also containing multiple projects. Programs require a leader and generally a program staff, sometimes referred to as a program (or project) management office (PMO). Program activities often involve effort in the “white space” outside specific defined projects and subprograms, effort provided by support, marketing, legal, manufacturing, or other operational functions. Programs are generally larger than projects, but there may be some overlap in scale between large projects and small programs.
Programs are made up of related efforts, most of which will be projects staffed by a project leader and a team of contributors. Some clusters of projects may be complex enough to justify treatment as a program within a program, and the presence of these subprograms will result in a multiple-level program hierarchy.
Ultimately programs are about getting results, generally results with substantial expected benefits and value. Program management requires a deep understanding of the synergies and strategies that underlie the objectives. Programs often carry long-term objectives that require a persistent, high-level focus on the main strategic priorities. These must be balanced with shorter-term tactical goals, but not so much that the things that are truly important can be undermined by what seems urgent at the moment. Program leaders must understand the overall organizational strategies and strive to remain aligned with them. The conflicting needs of dealing with detail-level complexity and high-level longer-term objectives are what make program management challenging.
Successful programs generally require a lot of staff, money, time, and resources, so they tend to arise from the higher levels of an organization where there is sufficient authority to get them going.
Programs are difficult to manage for quite a few reasons, most of them related to the scale and complexity of what is expected. Their size means that in most cases there are many diverse stakeholders. The deliverables (and there are almost always at least several) are generally complicated systems of interrelated components. Programs are also usually lengthy, far longer in duration than can be planned with much precision. The staffing for a large program involves more people than can be effectively coordinated as a single team, and the funding required is often both substantial and must cover future periods well beyond what is presently committed. The techniques of program management can help in each of these areas, but control of the work is never straightforward.