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Programmes and programme management

Programmes and programme management

Understanding programmes

Definition of programmes

Programmes are groups of related projects managed collectively to achieve benefits that would be unattainable if these projects were managed individually. Unlike projects, which focus on delivering specific outputs, programmes are oriented towards realizing outcomes and benefits of strategic importance. Programmes are typically larger in scope than projects, encompassing a set of underlying projects that contribute towards a shared objective.

For example, the 2012 London Olympics was managed as a programme. All the individual projects to design and build the stadiums, the opening ceremony, the infrastructure were all related projects that together were managed as one overall programme.

Understanding programme management

Programme management involves the coordinated management of multiple projects to achieve the overarching programme objectives. Key features of effective programme management include a strong strategic alignment, governance structure, effective stakeholder management, and benefits management.

Programme managers ensure that individual projects are harmonized and aligned towards the larger goal. They often deal with higher levels of complexity and ambiguity compared to project managers and therefore require strong leadership, negotiation, and problem-solving skills.

Some organizations adopt a well-defined programme management framework such as Managing Successful Programmes (MSP®) to help them better manage their programmes and use PRINCE2 to manage the individual projects within each programme.

Importance of programmes in achieving strategic goals

Programmes act as a bridge between organizational strategy and projects. They are essential for translating strategic objectives into tangible projects and ensuring that these projects collectively deliver the desired strategic outcomes.

Programmes facilitate the management of interdependencies, risks, and potential conflicts among the constituent projects, thus increasing the likelihood of achieving strategic objectives. They also manage the realization of benefits, ensuring they are recognized and measured as projects deliver their outputs.

Consequently, effective programme management is integral to driving strategic change and transformation within organizations.

The relationship between projects, programmes, and portfolios.

How programmes contribute to portfolios

Every programme within a portfolio should align with the organization’s strategic goals. The collective performance of the programmes and projects within a portfolio determines the success of the portfolio. By delivering their specific outputs (projects) and outcomes (programmes), they contribute to the achievement of strategic objectives encapsulated within the portfolio.

Differences between projects and programmes

Table showing the differences between projects and programmes.

Projects Programmes
Purpose and objectives Deliver specific, tangible outputs within a set timeframe and budget. Achieve a broader set of strategic outcomes by managing a group of related projects.
Scope and timeframe Have a defined scope and timeframe: they start, deliver their output, and then close. Have a broader scope, comprising multiple related projects, and their timeframe extends until all the desired outcomes are achieved.
Management approach Emphasizes the delivery of a specific output, adhering to the project plan and managing risks and issues. Coordinates multiple related projects to achieve a common outcome and focuses on managing interdependencies and realizing benefits.

Effective programme management

Skills for programme managers

Effective programme management requires a range of skills including:

  • Strategic thinking to align initiatives with business strategy.
  • Planning skills to plan the optimum execution of projects.
  • Leadership to inspire and guide teams.
  • Risk management to anticipate and mitigate programme risks.
  • Communication skills to deliver clear, timely information to all stakeholders.
  • Soft skills such as negotiation, prioritization, time management, the ability to see the bigger picture, attention to detail, as well as many other skills.

Programme management tools and techniques

A variety of tools and techniques aid in managing programmes. These include software for tracking progress and resource utilization, risk management tools for identifying and mitigating potential risks, and communication platforms for efficient information exchange.

Business analytical tools and models such as SWOT analysis, PESTLE analysis, and cost-benefit analysis also support strategic decision-making can also be useful.

Evaluating success and realising benefits

Success in programmes isn’t just about timely and within-budget delivery; it also includes the realization of anticipated benefits. Success evaluation and benefit realization involve regular monitoring and assessment of performance against baseline performance measures.

These should include tangible metrics like cost savings or revenue growth, and intangible metrics such as enhanced customer satisfaction or improved brand reputation. A comprehensive evaluation of success and benefit realization enables organizations to demonstrate the ROI of their initiatives, learn from their experiences, and improve future performance.

Programme management case study

CityX, facing an increasing population and consequent strain on public transport systems, embarked on a Public Transport Enhancement Programme. The goal was to increase capacity, improve reliability, and enhance passenger experience across all public transport systems within five years.

Strategic planning and coordination

The programme manager coordinated with different project teams responsible for various elements of the transport system: buses, trams, subway systems, and passenger information systems. Each project had its unique goals, but all aimed to contribute to the programme’s overall objectives. The manager ensured that the plans of individual projects aligned with the programme timeline and strategic goals.

Stakeholder engagement and communication

The programme manager actively engaged with stakeholders, including city officials, transport operators, passengers, and local communities. Regular town halls and online updates ensured that stakeholders were informed about progress, understood the benefits of the enhancements, and could provide feedback.

Risk management and benefits realization

The programme manager oversaw risk management across all projects, mitigating dependencies and conflicts among the projects. An unexpected strike among transport workers during one project was handled promptly, with minimal disruption to the programme.

Throughout the programme, the manager also focused on benefits realization. As each project was completed, benefits were assessed and compared with the initial objectives. The introduction of new buses, for example, not only increased capacity but also improved passenger satisfaction due to features like free WiFi and USB charging ports.

Completion and review

By the end of five years, CityX’s public transport system had significantly improved. The programme was completed on time and within budget, with the successful delivery of each individual project contributing to the overall enhancement of the transport system. A comprehensive review was conducted at the end of the programme to evaluate the effectiveness of the programme management approach and to gather lessons for future initiatives.

This case study underscores the effectiveness of strategic planning, stakeholder engagement, risk management, and benefits realization in successful programme management.

Final thoughts

Programmes are distinct but interconnected aspects of strategic organizational management. Successful integration and alignment of programmes within broader portfolios gives a competitive advantage to organizations by driving greater benefits realisation and greater returns on investments.

Organizations which invest in programme management by standardising their management approaches will reap the greatest benefits in an increasingly competitive market.

MSP® is a registered trademark of AXELOS Limited, used under permission of AXELOS Limited.

Programmes FAQs



Are program and project managers the same?

No, program and project managers are not the same. A project manager oversees individual projects, focusing on specific deliverables and timelines. A program manager, on the other hand, manages a group of related projects (a program) and coordinates their interdependencies to achieve broader strategic objectives. Their roles and responsibilities differ based on the scope of their oversight.




Can a project belong to more than one program?

No, a project usually belongs to one program only. This is because a program is a group of related projects managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits that could not be achieved from managing them individually. Having a project in multiple programs could lead to conflicts in resource allocation, governance, and strategic alignment.




How do you compare programme and project management?

Programme and project management are compared based on their scope, objectives, and the role of the manager. Project management focuses on specific, shorter-term goals with defined deliverables, and the project manager ensures these goals are met within time and budget constraints.

Programme management, on the other hand, oversees a group of related projects to achieve a larger, strategic objective. A programme manager coordinates inter-project dependencies and resources and aligns the programme’s direction with organizational strategy.




How do you plan for a project or program?

Planning for a project involves defining project goals, deliverables, tasks, deadlines, and budget. It requires identifying risks, stakeholders, necessary resources, and establishing a clear communication plan.

For a program, the planning is broader and more strategic. It includes identifying and prioritizing related projects, managing interdependencies between projects, defining program-level risks and benefits, and aligning the entire program with organizational objectives. It also involves setting up program governance structures and communication channels to coordinate multiple project teams.




What are the benefits of a programme structure?

A programme structure offers 5 main benefits:

  1. Strategic alignment

  2. They ensure that projects with the programme are aligned with the organization’s strategic objectives, prioritizing resources and focus on initiatives that provide the most value.

  3. Resource optimization

  4. They allow for efficient resource allocation and management across multiple projects within the programme, reducing redundancy and maximizing utilization.

  5. Risk management

  6. By managing interdependencies across projects, they mitigate risks that may not be apparent at the project level.

  7. Change management

  8. They provide a framework for managing change within the scope of the programme, ensuring that project outcomes contribute to broader transformation goals.

  9. Visibility and control

  10. They offer a holistic view of programmes, allowing senior management to better monitor progress, performance, and benefits realization.




What is a group of projects called?

A group of related projects that are managed in a coordinated manner to achieve benefits and control that would not be possible if they were managed individually is typically called a program. If the projects are not necessarily interrelated but are grouped together to meet strategic business objectives, this collection is referred to as a portfolio.




What is program vs project life cycle?

A project life cycle refers to the sequential stages a project goes through from initiation to completion, typically comprising initiation, planning, execution, monitoring & controlling, and closing. Each project has a defined start and end and aims to deliver a specific output or outcome with given resources.

On the other hand, a program life cycle oversees a group of related projects. It includes the phases of program formulation (defining and aligning program components with business objectives), organization (structuring the program and allocating resources), deployment (execution and coordination of program components), appraisal (monitoring, controlling, and reporting), and dissolution (winding down the program, including closing of individual projects and capturing lessons learned).

Program life cycle management focuses more on benefits realization and stakeholder management than the project life cycle, reflecting its broader, strategic objectives.




What is programme or project risk?

Programme or project risk refers to potential events or conditions that may have a negative impact on the achievement of a project’s or programme’s objectives. These risks could affect scope, cost, schedule, or quality of the project or programme.

Risks can arise from various sources, including uncertainty in project requirements, technological complexity, resource availability, stakeholder conflicts, or external factors such as regulatory changes or market volatility. Effective risk management is critical in both project and programme management to anticipate, mitigate, and respond to these risks.




What is the difference between program & project management?

The key differences between program & project management can be summarised as:

  • Project management focuses on the management of individual projects aimed at achieving specific objectives within defined constraints such as time, budget, and scope.
  • Program management involves overseeing a group of related projects that collectively contribute to achieving strategic objectives.



What is the difference between program & project manager?

The difference between a program manager and a project manager can be summarised as:

A project manager plans, monitors, and controls a specific project. They manage a project team, coordinate tasks, monitor progress, and ensure that project objectives are achieved within the defined constraints of time, budget, and scope.

A program manager manages a group of related projects known as a program. They align the projects within the program with strategic objectives, manage interdependencies, and deliver the program’s intended benefits. Program managers oversee the coordination of resources, stakeholder management, and ensuring the overall success of the program.




What is the difference between project and programme management?

The difference between project management and programme management can be summarised as:

  • Project management focuses on the planning, execution, and control of individual projects to achieve specific objectives within defined constraints such as time, budget, and scope. Project managers are responsible for overseeing the project team, managing project activities, and ensuring the successful completion of the project.
  • Programme management focuses on managing a group of related projects, known as a programme, to achieve broader strategic objectives. Programme managers have a more holistic view and are responsible for aligning and coordinating the interdependent projects within the programme, managing shared resources, and ensuring the overall success of the programme in delivering intended benefits.

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