The ultimate guide to program management

Julia Martins bijdrager fotoJulia Martins22 december 20207 min. leestijd
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Managing multiple projects can feel like you’re juggling several balls that are just about to fall to the ground. In order to keep the balls in the air, you need to see the big picture across the various interdependent initiatives, while also managing the work of each individual project. Project management can help you increase alignment and clarity across your team to reduce the stress of managing multiple projects, but if the projects you’re managing are interconnected, there’s a better way: program management.

When done properly, program management can help you prioritize and manage similar initiatives. In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about program management so you can start implementing it today.

What is program management?

Program management is the simultaneous management of multiple related projects. As a program manager, you will help develop a resource management plan across the program and guide the interconnected projects within the program to success. Program managers also align project objectives with larger business goals.

Probeer programmabeheer met Asana

If this sounds familiar—surprise!—you might already be implementing program management processes, instead of project management. But if you’re not quite sure where program management fits in to your current process, here’s how it stacks up to other, similar methodologies:

Program management vs. project management

A project is a collection of tasks that accomplish a specific goal. Project management is the process of planning, managing, and executing your team’s work. Project management software helps teams do that by increasing clarity and improving team collaboration.

A program, on the other hand, is a group of projects that accomplish strategic business goals. For example, all of the new features your company is launching in a quarter would be considered a program, despite the fact that each feature would likely have its own project. Program management is the process of managing longer-term, interdependent initiatives in alignment with your company goals. The program will include a variety of connected projects, which may each have a project manager. Learn more about a program manager vs. project manager.

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Program management vs. project portfolio management

Program management and project portfolio management are very similar—the difference lies in the types of projects that are being managed. In program management, the projects within the program are connected and often interdependent. For example, a program might be a collection of all of the marketing campaigns to promote new features that are going to be launched throughout the year, or even a grant management plan for nonprofit organizations. All of these features are connected, so they would fall under program management, instead of project portfolio management. On the other hand, a portfolio might be all of the marketing initiatives within a quarter or a year, whether they’re connected or not. Project portfolio management software is the tool teams use to track those projects and share insight with stakeholders.

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Program management vs. product management

Product management is the development of new products within a company. A product manager is a team leader responsible for guiding the success of a product—from sourcing user input all the way to a successful product launch.

Alternatively, a program could encompass any type of initiative—including a new product. You could create a program to manage your product development process for the upcoming year. The individual product development projects would have their own product manager, but the entire program would be overseen by a program manager.

Read: Product manager vs. project manager: What’s the difference?

Program management vs. work management

Program management, like the five phases of project management and project portfolio management, are subsets of work management. Work management is a systemic approach to orchestrating an organization’s workflows—whether that’s a project, an ongoing process, or routine tasks—to provide the clarity teams need in order to hit their goals. Work management focuses on coordinating people, work, and teams across all levels of an organization to ensure that everyone has access to the information they need. With work management software, you can coordinate plans, projects, and processes across your entire organization.

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Program management roles and responsibilities

There are a variety of roles—and acronyms—within the program management process. If you’re developing a new program management process for your organization, you might not need to use every one of these roles and responsibilities, but it’s important to know what they are and what each role brings to the program.

The program manager

A program manager is in charge of a group of related projects. One of a program manager’s key responsibilities is to make sure the program’s initiatives align with their company’s objectives. The program manager should frequently check in on the progress of the projects within their program to confirm they’re still aligned with strategic and business goals.

A successful program manager will also:

  • Gain executive buy-in for the program

  • Manage expectations above and below them

  • Bring cohesive decision-making to the program

  • Build a resource management plan across the program

  • Mitigate risks and act on opportunities by creating a risk register

FAQ: Do I need certification to become a program manager?

There are a variety of program manager certifications available out there, the most prominent of which is the Project Management Institute (PMI) program manager certification. That being said, program management certifications aren’t a requirement in order for you to be considered a program manager.

Those who do decide to get certified as program managers do so in order to demonstrate that they’re serious and invested in program management as a career path. A program manager certification can also increase your salary potential or hiring changes for program manager related roles.

Sponsor or Sponsoring Group

The Sponsor is the most senior member of the program organization. It’s the Sponsor’s responsibility to approve and authorize key elements of the program, like funding, deliverables, and any relevant business cases if necessary. The Sponsor should also support the program and help gain executive buy-in. Finally, the Sponsor will appoint the Senior Responsible Owner (SRO).

Senior Responsible Owner (SRO)

The SRO is appointed by the Sponsor. It’s the Senior Responsible Owner’s job to make decisions on behalf of the Sponsoring Group—the SRO is ultimately responsible for making sure the program meets its program objectives. Though the Sponsor approves the major financials like program budget, it’s the SRO’s responsibility to source the money from various team budgets or their company’s financial team.

Additionally, the Senior Responsible Owner will work closely with the program manager to ensure the program is strategically aligned with business objectives. Though the program manager is in charge of bringing the program to life, it’s the SRO’s responsibility to maintain strategic alignment between the program and the organization’s senior stakeholders.

Business Change Manager (BCM)

The BCM is primarily responsible for developing and executing the benefit realization plan, which is the process of ensuring the program is adding measurable value to the organization. The program manager will work with the SRO to define and achieve the program’s outputs—but it’s the BCM’s responsibility to make sure those outputs are utilized.

4 benefits of program management

If you’re already managing multiple projects you might be wondering, is there really that much of a difference between what I’m already doing and program management? The answer is: there can be! Though not every team needs it, there are four main benefits to program management.

1. Connect projects with strategic business goals

Program management and its related roles and responsibilities can help your team connect related projects to strategic business goals. In addition to coordinating multiple projects within the program, the program manager also has a big picture, holistic perspective on the projects within the program. As the program manager, you can tie each project’s objective to the program’s objective, then ensure the program’s objectives are closely aligned with your company goals and OKRs.

2. View project interdependencies

Because the program manager is in charge of several related projects, it can be easier for them to visualize project interdependencies and triage any issues that occur. If you manage a variety of different projects, there may be dependencies between them, but those dependencies can be hard to visualize if you’re looking at each project individually. As a program manager, you’ll not only have your eyes on the prize—in this case, your company’s strategic business goals—you’ll also have your ears to the ground. Program management is the best way to coordinate work across related projects in real-time.

3. Simplify resource allocation

In addition to visualizing and managing project interdependencies, the program manager can also help simplify and streamline resource allocation. Because they have insight into all of the projects within the program and how those projects interconnect, they can best see which project needs which resources—whether the required resource is an employee’s time, an increase in budget, or a new tool or software.

Because the work is funded on the program level, the program manager and the SRO can work together to best identify which projects need which resources. If one project team is hitting their goals ahead of schedule, the program manager can redistribute project resources in order to make sure every project within the program hits its goals.

4. Align on risks and opportunities

In a program, as you can imagine, both the risks and the opportunities are magnified because of the number of projects. But because the program manager has the big picture view of all of the projects within a program, they can more accurately prevent risks and jump on opportunities.

For example, one element of project risk management is resource allocation, and making sure every project team is balanced and well staffed. On a program level, you can allocate and redistribute resources as needed, in order to reduce the risk that a project is understaffed, over budget, or off track.

On the other hand, because the program manager is keyed into how the program will impact and contribute to strategic business goals, they can identify new opportunities like extending a project’s end date or modifying the project plan to hit an additional deliverable.

How Discovery Digital Studios maintains a high-level view of complex processes with Asana

Discovery Inc. is the media giant behind big-name entertainment networks like TLC, Animal Planet, and Food Network. Their Digital Studios content teams create thousands of videos every month for social media platforms and consumer apps.

Content Operations Director Mike Singer and his team used to track content production using spreadsheets and email threads. Mike needed a shared platform that could provide a high-level view of all content in development at once, while also capturing last-minute details of the production process for each video along with its status. In short, he needed a program management tool like Asana. Asana’s customizable workflows would allow them to define complex content processes, give stakeholders a simple picture of the entire team’s output, and keep individual contributors and external teams connected and informed.

We had half a dozen workflows that were tracked separately. It was great to conjoin them in Asana, see how they interlock, and notice dependencies that you couldn’t see in a spreadsheet.

Discovery’s content teams also use Portfolios to get a bird’s-eye view of a specific group of active productions. For example, they may create a new portfolio to track a program of cooking class projects for the Food Network Kitchen app, and oversee the status and go-live dates of connected content campaign projects.

The teams also use integrations to connect Asana to the rest of their tools. With the Asana for Outlook integration, they can turn email action items into an Asana task right from their inboxes. They can also add any email to a task as a comment, reducing inbox clutter while saving important information. The Asana for Slack integration lets them see project updates, add comments, and create new tasks without leaving the Slack platform. And thanks to the Zapier + Asana integration, the team has saved time by automating more of their processes.

This visibility lets the team accurately predict how long work will take. It also helps them notice delays in a project, diagnose the sticking points, and get back on track. The whole team works more efficiently because everything is centralized, streamlined, and visible.

Frustration over not knowing where information was just disappeared. It was a cultural shift into stress relief. You could see that things were flowing more easily.

To learn more about how the Discovery Digital Studios team uses Asana, read the full case study.

Connect projects to strategy with program management

Program management is a more holistic approach to managing multiple projects and aligning those projects to strategic goals. If managing multiple projects is starting to feel like an unwieldy juggling act, try program management to get a bigger picture view of how the projects are connected.

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