The risks of promoting Project Managers to Programme Managers

The risks of promoting Project Managers to Programme Managers

The transition from project to programme management means being able to adapt and to draw upon a set of different skills as programme management is more than just being able to manage multiple projects.

Where a Project Manager can deliver against a set of pre-defined goals and timescales, a Programme Manager needs the ability to look beyond a project’s controlled parameters and take a strategic view across the whole organization.

In simple terms it is difficult to deliver multiple projects of a programme using project management techniques alone. Programme Managers need to possess a wide set of “soft skills”: they have to be less focused on individual project delivery and be more of a business manager who has real leadership and communication skills. It involves having the ability to build solid working relationships upwards, downwards and sideways and being able to manage the political backdrop which is present in any organization.

In fact, the Programme Manager has to be the “glue” between the organization’s strategy and its ability to execute it via a number of projects. In recent years there has also been the shift towards a portfolio management approach where programmes have tended to become multi-layered, which has an impact on the approach taken by Programme Managers.

For this reason, experience has shown that senior Project Managers may not always be able to make that transition to Programme Manager. While some might see the move as requiring the ability to manage a number of projects, both organizations and individuals underestimate how big a step it can be.

It is often the case that becoming a Programme Manager is used as a promotion tool and to retain talent. What organizations of all sizes fail to recognize is the gulf in skills needed and, without the right support and knowledge, it is a move that is likely to fail. The impact will affect the ability of the organization to deliver on its programmes as well as have a knock-on effect on an individual’s career.

Best practice in organizations is increasing, but there needs to be greater recognition about what is needed from a Programme Manager. They have to ensure that the required skills and competencies align with those of the candidates. Not doing this could mean programme failure as the person they have entrusted with its delivery doesn’t have the ability, or all the skills, to fulfil the role.

If a programme fails, the impact on a business can be huge, especially if the programme is aimed at fundamental, company-wide change. It is, frankly, obscene to trust an unqualified manager with programme delivery without considering the best practice available on the market to ensure success. And this helps with future planning: having the right skills means you can plan who will be responsible for future programmes.

The transition from project to Programme Manager does take time, particularly within the same organization. Former Project Managers have to redefine their peer relationships and establish a recognition of their new position and responsibilities which affects the dynamics of those relationships.

This move into programme management can be eased by considering a number of key issues:

  • Understand what knowledge and skills are needed for the new role 
  • Develop the softer skills as well as the hard skills needed to deliver results
  • A worthy investment may be a mentor to support the Project Manager moving up. Having that guidance and advice in the early days of transition will help create more understanding before being handed total responsibility
  • Address any skills gap and assess what management areas require help and development
  • Use experience gained working in projects to ask the right questions and ensure that the right information is gleaned.

The most successful transitions have involved those who appreciate that management is not about every last detail but requires the ability to take a “helicopter view” of the projects and focus on the overall outcome. They have to resist their natural tendencies to get involved in every project and focus instead on the overall business objectives.

For many, AXELOS’ Managing Successful Programmes (MSP®) has been a valuable tool in supporting the responsibilities which come with running programmes. It helps in defining how to structure a programme, understand what is actually happening within a programme and how to make decisions about different issues and interdependencies which affect a number of projects. Above all it gives the ability to create the roadmap to a successful completion.

Not every Project Manager should make the step to Programme Manager. But those who do should realize the need to move from project “control freak” to focusing on overall business needs.

See our Managing Successful Programmes and PRINCE2® sections for more information about programme and project management.

Have you worked on both project and programmes and found that they require different skills from managers and teams? Have you worked, or worked with colleagues, that have successfully made the transition? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments box below.

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4 Feb 2016 Neil Walker
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Lindsay, an excellent post.

I’m now in my third decade of project management and have been a programme manager for more 10 years of my PPM career. So having experienced both roles, I wholeheartedly agree with what you say.

I do think that programme management is more well-defined today than it was a decade ago. Helped both by the Managing Successful Programmes (MSP) credential (not only in UK, EU, but worldwide) and the efforts of the Project Management Institute (PMI) and Association for Project Management (APM) to promote the profession. (I’m a committee member on the APM’s Programme Management SIG (Specific Interest Group), and this SIG provides a forum for effective learning and development, that promotes the science, discipline, tools and techniques of programme management)

Still many organisations and leaders are unclear on what programme managers do. There is an expectation that a senior project manager can step up from managing large projects to running a programme with multiple projects/work-streams. (This doesn’t always work and over the last six years I’ve been called in to recover/turnaround a number of such programmes, taking over from several project manager predecessors who’ve neglected to deliver the programme)

Programme management is not just complex project management. It’s on a different level (strategic not tactical, outcomes not outputs, etc). Programmes are the technique by which strategy is delivered, programme management provides a directing interface between the leadership responsible for determining strategy and those responsible for managing the delivery of the constituent projects and related activities. It’s focussed on delivering outcomes (not outputs, that’s for projects) that realise lasting benefits from its array of projects (as these projects should be interrelated, then their individual deliverables are compounded – think Aristotle’s famous quote “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”)

Because of the challenges that programme management addresses, the programme manager needs to be a multidimensional, transformational leader. Able to buy into and sell the organisation’s vision, discover the best way forwards, and ultimately lead the charge. For this to work that person needs to be outcome-focussed and people-oriented, firmly believing that success comes through deep and sustained commitment and collaboration from those people.

Good project managers may not necessarily become an effective programme managers (I’ve coached/mentored a few that really struggled to evolve). The competences and capabilities for programme management are rather different from those necessary for project management. But some project managers are agile enough to make the grade, and in the end make excellent programme managers.

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