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Keys to Program Management Success

After stagnating during the recession, executives are anxious to find ways to take advantage of the recovery to drive bottom line results and surpass the competition.  However, there are typically no obvious or easy answers.  Thus, it boils down to which companies develop the best strategies and plans, and, more importantly, implements them successfully.  This is where program management becomes vital.

In my experience, when there are no simple solutions, it requires a more complex set of initiatives to drive substantial results.  Without effective program management, there is no chance to achieve aggressive plans.  So, what are the keys to success? 1) Focus on connections.  2) Rigorous attention to timing.  3) Become a metrics fanatic.

1.      Focus on connections – Will a good project manager automatically be an effective program manager?  No!  When managing to an end result based on multiple projects, connections become critical – connections between projects, tasks, people, etc.

As a program manager, you must focus attention away from achieving specific tasks and individual project critical milestones and towards the connection points.  For example, when I worked with a client to upgrade and launch a core product line, I had to assume that the R&D folks were developing the product according to their specifications, the Engineering folks were upgrading and installing equipment according to their plans, and the rest of the projects were progressing appropriately.  Instead, what was critical and required significant attention were those critical path items and people which crossed over between projects.  Ensuring a smooth integration among the projects was critical to success.

2.      Rigorous attention to timing – Once you’re focused on the connection points, the next key is rigorous attention to timing – and specifically the timing associated with the critical path connection points.  When multiple projects are running concurrently, it cannot be left to chance that the timing will match up.

In order to ensure the timing works, it is imperative to be vigilant with follow-up on the timing of the connection points.  Are there potential roadblocks in the way?  How can they be resolved?  Does a project team need additional resources or to reallocate resources to critical connection point tasks?  Do the project teams understand the importance and priority of these tasks?  Ask questions, and then follow-up, follow-up, and follow-up.

3.       Become a metrics fanatic – As much as I’m annoyed by people who lose all sense of relevance and get caught up in scorecards to the detriment of true progress and results, I admit that metrics play a vital role – even more so with program management than with project management.  As you are focused on multiple projects and connection points simultaneously and accounting for changes in the environment, roadblocks etc., there is nothing more important than developing a scorecard.

Follow typical best practices in developing metrics.  Keep them simple.  Don’t over-measure irrelevant activities.  Make them visible – a simple red, yellow, green light system for key connection points and critical path items can do the trick.  Do not be too accommodating in order to not upset the apple cart.  One of the keys to success is not just to measure progress but to be upfront as issues arise.  Encourage folks to confront bad news early.  In my experience, almost any issue can be resolved if addressed early.  Hoping it will go away typically only makes it worse.

Last but not least, don’t just measure and publish.  Communication is vital.  Bring the appropriate project teams and people together.  Brainstorm with your teams as to what is critical to measure, how to effectively measure it and how to confront issues.

In today’s business environment, programs are required to deliver the correct series of results which will add up and achieve a significant bottom line impact for an organization.  In my experience, 80% of the intended benefits will not be achieved.  Instead, take charge of the future and become part of the 20% who achieve success through effective program management.

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