“When does a project become a programme and when does a programme become BAU?”

“When does a project become a programme and when does a programme become BAU?”

“When does a project become a programme and when does a programme become business as usual?” - does this question have substance or is it just an esoteric exercise?

A quick search of the internet will reveal a rich and ongoing discussion of the subject.

While there is a general acceptance of what projects and portfolios of projects are, there is a middle ground where organizations have set a vision for the future to be delivered through a group of related projects. It’s important to manage these in a co-ordinated way to maximize delivery performance.

But why is it important to differentiate between the concepts?

The management of programmes and projects differ in many ways, not least:

It is important to achieve good co-ordination. I recall stories of IT roll outs where hardware was installed but not used because the users had not been trained with the new hardware and software or of helicopter replacements where the new equipment could not be fully-used as the training proviso lagged behind the equipment procurement. Projects and project managers are focused on delivering within the scope, time, cost, quality envelope whereas programmes and programmes managers are more focused on the benefits that can be achieved through the changes being implemented.

  1. Timescales
    The definition of projects and programmes uses “temporary” for both - but programmes may span several years whereas projects have shorter durations of months or even weeks.
     
  2. Focus or intent
    Programmes focus on overall business transformation or a particular business strategic intent in which related projects co-exist. They are driven by a “vision” of a better/different future. They are usually cross-cutting and multi-disciplinary endeavours focused on a desired outcome and associated benefits. This requires the programme to deliver a coherent capability, therefore the various project outputs can be co-ordinated. Projects are focused on an agreed set of deliverables or outputs.

    It is important to achieve good co-ordination. I recall stories of IT roll outs where hardware was installed but not used because the users had not been trained with the new hardware and software or of helicopter replacements where the new equipment could not be fully-used as the training proviso lagged behind the equipment procurement. Projects and project managers are focused on delivering within the scope, time, cost, quality envelope whereas programmes and programmes managers are more focused on the benefits that can be achieved through the changes being implemented.
     
  3. Governance structures
    Projects tend to have simpler governance arrangements. In PRINCE2® terms this is the project board. Programmes - because of their cross cutting nature - have more complex governance arrangements.
     
  4. Different skill sets
    Programmes are about envisioning and communicating a better future, therefore the leadership skills required of the programme manager and the senior responsible owner (SRO) will be different to those of the project manager who is focused on delivering the outputs required by the programme.

Getting a programme right from the start

Having decided that we have a programme rather than a project we need to make sure that we are ready to start the programme, The UK’s Major Project Authority has produced guidance to help organizations ensure that the programme is correctly structured. It does this by addressing five basics:

  1. Business case - showing aims and objectives
  2. Timeline
  3. Team capabilities and capacity
  4. Finance showing costs estimates and affordability
  5. High level risks

This ensures that the programme has a sound basis to start from, that it is adequately financed and resourced. That work can start when the programme has been authorised rather than try to establish a programme team after the event, so delaying progress. Applying sound techniques and practices such as those in Managing Successful Programmes (MSP®) can enhance the chances of success. Attempting this without a programme management framework could be called “heroic”; others might call it “folly”.

Bringing projects together based on strategic intent

Projects can exist as separate, unrelated initiatives but within the programme umbrella the component projects should all relate to the same strategic intent, which is the glue that effectively holds them together. Think of programme management as the mortar that holds the brick in a wall, supporting the structure by co-ordinating the various projects and the work that is necessary to derive business benefits.

Balancing the overhead of programme management with the benefits of co-ordination

A well-managed programme will involve co-ordinating all activities. Successful programme management also means delegating effectively to the project management level. And if the programme management cost is found to exceed the benefits that co-ordination brings then consider running the projects via the organization’s portfolio authorization and monitoring processes.

Overcoming double and triple accounting of benefits

When the programme is constructed there is a risk that several projects may be claiming the same benefit; this can lead to the programme over-estimating what it is capable of delivering. When compiling the benefits realization plan it is important that the business change manager (BCM) is involved to ensure the benefits are realistic and that mechanisms are in place to be able to monitor the projected benefits. This means that some benefits may reside at the programme level rather than the individual projects; individual projects will make a contribution but only the programme level reaps the totality of benefit.

Falling at the final hurdle

A crucial element of any programme is the transition phase when new capabilities are incorporated into business as usual. Here there is a balance to be struck as too much engagement too early with the affected business units will be a distraction for them and is likely to reduce productivity. Too little engagement with the business may mean a less than optimal solution. This is why the business change manager role is so important; it is the conduit between business as usual and the programme and is there to ensure the BAU interests are represented in the programme.

BCMs are also vitally important to ensure a smooth transition to stable operations and for realizing the benefits from the programme.

Crucial to achieving successful outcomes is communication before starting the programme so individuals understands why the changes are necessary. While newsletters and digital communications are useful, most people seem to value face-to-face discussions. When people can see what you are trying to achieve – and especially when they agree with the changes – then they are more likely to accept some pain while they move to new ways of working. Local champions (BCMs) can be used especially where there are multiple geographic locations involved. This gives users a local point of contact; a colleague they could see and ask questions. Regular updates are required to keep users on board and engaged with the programme.

When the new systems go live they need supporting with training and having a person physically on site that users can talk to if they experience any problems, which also seems to be something people value. In the absence of training rooms you can use “training buses” instead. I’ve seen it work! Finally, don’t leave it there: follow up after the roll-out and see how things went, not only on the day but in the days and weeks afterwards, again ideally face to face or via the local champions.

We were perhaps fortunate in the changes we were introducing were addressing pain points that we had all experienced.

This short article has only scratched the surface of what makes a programme and how it differs from projects and business as usual. Nevertheless, it’s an area that anyone involved in managing projects and programmes needs to reflect on, especially when tackling the problems organizations face in implementing their business strategy and introducing change.

By Mike Acaster, PPM Portfolio Manager - AXELOS

As originally seen in Project magazine published by the Association for Project Management in January 2015.
 

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