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Program Management – the Missing Link Between PPM and PM

Organizations that have achieved consistency with their project management practices or have mastered “doing projects right” might launch Project Portfolio Management (PPM) initiatives to attempt to “do the right projects” by improving the alignment of their enterprise portfolio with the organization’s vision and purpose. 

Governance committees get formed and effort is expended in defining and implementing processes for project selection, evaluation and prioritization as well as ongoing portfolio monitoring and balancing.  However, momentum and enthusiasm wanes once the governance bodies experience the level of complexity and effort involved in trying to evaluate and prioritize hundreds (if not thousands) of projects.  Soon, evaluation and prioritization practices are branded as “academic” and the organization reverts to its previous subjective politically or emotionally-driven approaches.

I highlighted this issue in my earlier article, Applying Consumer Marketing to Project Prioritization, as being a barrier to achieving PPM success, but did not position the valuable role that Program Management plays in helping to resolve it.

Vaughan Merlyn wrote in his article Portfolio Management: So Much More than a Collection of Projects! that Program Management can build the bridge between high-level purpose and project proliferation. 

However, to achieve this benefit, programs need to be recognized as being something more than just a set of interdependent projects.  Projects deliver outputs but programs must be able to generate meaningful business outcomes

The benefits of this approach seem logical – a governance committee should be more capable of selecting and prioritizing a small, manageable set of programs as program evaluation criteria will likely focus on true business value.  The same cannot be said for projects – while some might produce outputs that will generate real value to an organization or its customers, many only produce deliverables that are inputs to be consumed by other projects or internal processes. 

For Program Management to be successful, the role of the Program Manager needs to mature beyond the traditional project coordination and integration activities to include identification, evaluation, selection and prioritization of projects.

Program Managers must possess an understanding of the business processes and specific key organization performance indicators related to their program domain and should use these as the core driver in their decision making. 

One of the reasons that project managers struggle when they are promoted to Program Management roles is that while they were used to focusing on winning battles, Program Managers need to focus on winning a war, which means knowing which battles to fight and which to avoid.

Using the analogy of financial portfolio management, an investor can be profitable by directly trading in individual securities, but as one’s investment portfolio grows, the ability to remain well informed of research and fundamentals that guide decision-making becomes progressively harder.  This challenge has been the raison d’être for mutual funds, and the same rationale could be applied to Program Management. 

PPM can succeed without Program Management, but as the enterprise portfolio grows, the bridging benefits Program Management provides will more than justify its costs.

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