Project size has seen an upward trend in recent years, initiating a need for more complex solutions, and more often the bigger the project, the more impactful its failure could prove, requiring more effective management techniques. Programmes and programme management are increasingly used as the preferred delivery model for initiatives across many industries and sectors, not least healthcare and life sciences.
There remains, however, something of a misunderstanding in terms of the difference between a programme environment and a project environment. There isn’t, in my view, any need to draw a clear line between these two things, as they are closely interrelated with plenty of overlap. But there are categorical differences, and it’s useful to have a bit of clarity around that.
Modern project management emerged as a distinct, systematic discipline in the 1950s. Projects were mostly smaller than they are today, but even very large projects were mostly about the delivery of discrete outputs, in many ways quite disconnected from what was happening around them – particularly when compared to the ways in which projects are nowadays so much more woven into a web of connected activities and initiatives.
How programme management is changing
The world today is more complex and more interconnected than in the past so it is perhaps inevitable that it will also be more uncertain and more difficult to understand – and this seems unmistakably to be the case. We can perceive this in almost every aspect of our daily lives, whether personal, public or professional, with rapid change often driven by the development and adoption of new technologies. Everything seems to be connected to everything else. Sub-prime mortgages in some areas of the US brought the global financial system to its knees.
More recently, Covid seems to have permanently transformed so many aspects of our lives, from supply chains to business culture. Even the UK’s decision to leave the EU – an attempt to disconnect from our neighbours – is feeding into the NHS staffing crisis. We are so interconnected, it’s proving to be almost impossible to disconnect without profound repercussions.
This brave new world has brave new challenges, and therefore needs brave new solutions. A business environment in which rapid change and interconnectedness are the norm is going to require constantly evolving solutions that respond to constantly evolving problems. Organisations need assurance that both their direction and their initiatives are going to deliver on their long-term goals.
That’s fundamentally what programme management is about. As a discipline, it is a response to an environment in which organisations need to transform themselves in order to survive, an environment in which the key initiatives and projects in an organisation need to pull in the same direction in order to be effective and an environment in which delivery teams are set up to deliver on projects that are more complex, more interconnected, more risky and with longer timelines if they are to succeed.
Programme management vs project management
Programme management, then, is the art of using a structured and systematic approach to manage the delivery of complex and interconnected initiatives, while being fully aligned with the organisation’s longer-term objectives. That sounds awfully like a definition, but it isn’t intended as such, it is intended as a perspective. Having said that, it probably does sit quite well with the definitions of programme management offered by various institutes and organisations.
By way of an example, where a project might be the delivery of a covid vaccination centre in a shopping mall, the programme perspective might be about a more regional plan for delivery of vaccination centres, testing centres and how these connect into the national laboratory network – and would need to consider issues such as supply side capacity and workforce strategy. The programme perspective would also need to take into account the longer-term benefits of the plan, such as a reduction in covid infections and a return to normal daily life for the community.
That is not to say that project management should be viewed as a more straightforward set of activities. Far from it. Project management skills are at the core of any programme of works, and programme management can’t work without it. The project aspect of any programme will always be critical to it – and there needs to be a clear line of sight between the intended business benefits and projects within the programme.
In terms of how best to think about categories of programme, there is perhaps an easy way to look at it: programmes tend to consist of either a collection of related projects (a PMO), or a single but very large megaproject. This broad categorisation can help us to understand the nature of a programme in relation to the nature of a project.
Both are about temporary organisations and therefore significantly different to business-as-usual activities. But I would posit that the programme perspective has more in common with the business-as-usual activities than the project perspective, in that the programme perspective is less of a technical role and more about leading and driving forward a series of processes over the longer term.
Why projects fail
While there are conversations to be had around the whys and wherefores of failure at both project and programme level, the reasons for failure and the impact of failure are different. Programmes and megaprojects are not getting any smaller. They are very much on an upward trend of scope and ambition – and of course cost. The bigger and more complex they are, the more significant the impact when things don’t go according to plan.
Bent Flyvbjerg, until recently Professor of Major Programme Management at Saïd Business School, has coined the term ‘The Iron Law of Megaprojects’: the majority, perhaps the vast majority, of megaprojects are typified by a combination of cost overruns, delays and benefit shortfalls. His research suggests that the key reason for the lack of successful megaprojects is the lack of proper front-end management: with poor planning, characterised by optimism bias and ‘strategic misrepresentation’, not building the right team and not integrating the valuable learning that occurs during the course of a programme being some of the most significant issues.
Not wanting to end on a negative note, there are certainly grounds for optimism too. The programme management environment and capabilities are increasingly well understood and very much in demand. A lot of the research, experience and thinking around programmes is being incorporated into policy and guidance at a national level – the IPA’s Project Routemap perhaps the best example of this.
Practitioners are leveraging their experience from local and international programmes of work to join the conversations around how best to build a team and progress an organisation’s ambitions. And programme teams and project teams are recognising the value that each environment brings to the table for the successful delivery of projects. (Or should that be programmes…?)
Yasser Khan, is Director of Programme Management at Lexica.