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Author: Allan Thomson

Allan is the Global PPM Product Ambassador responsible for representing AXELOS externally with regards to PPM products. He is a result driven PRINCE2 qualified Project Manager with over 25 years’ project, programme management and PMO experience. Particularly adept at implementation of PRINCE2 into organisations, Microsoft Dynamics solutions, risk management, business implementation, new product development, business improvement, software implementation and change management. Allan is an experienced Project Leader who through collaboration techniques integrates and leads teams to achieve business objectives. Have gained experience in agile delivery methods and their inclusion into PMO reporting.

Best Practice Program Design

When managing major organizational change and improvement, programmes remain the most effective framework for achieving success.

The level of complexity and risk involved in shifting an enterprise into a new phase of development and operation – and the associated investment – means the process has to be managed properly and improvement measured.

However, programmes remain very challenging, not least because the world we live in has altered almost beyond recognition: the Covid-19 pandemic is a huge factor as enterprises try to catch up. But the demands of society are also changing, with people wanting things better and faster.

Change now happens continually and organizations need enterprise agility – the capability to pivot in response to their environment. And, in a typical programme timeframe of three to five years, a lot can happen.

This is why the design phase of a programme is so critical to get right and where a best practice approach provides the necessary level of focus and rigour.


Best practice programme design – setting up for success

Traditionally, programme design has been neglected. I’ve seen programmes where the organization has a pressing desire to just “do something”, so people run off and start doing things without taking time to formulate and agree the programme vision and future state for the business.

If you don’t design your programme properly it’s likely to fail and potentially waste a lot of money in the process. Therefore, there simply shouldn’t be any debate – design is compulsory.

This will set up your programme up for success by installing the building blocks for delivering the benefits, managing associated risks, and creating what an organization will look like in the future.

Managing Successful Programmes (MSP 5th edition) highlights four aspects of programme design:

  • Vision
  • Benefits
  • Target operating model (the new, future state of the organization)
  • Risk identification and prioritization

As each of these programme elements are happening simultaneously, they must be integrated. If not, the nightmare scenario is a target operating model that doesn’t align with the vision, affecting the adoption of the change and reducing the expected benefits.

Think of it like a jigsaw puzzle: the image on the box is the future state or vision you’re building; the individual pieces are contained inside the box and, when put together, they deliver on the original promise (in programme terms, the target operating model).

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Understanding and creating the programme vision

The vision reflects the future state of the organization; something that everyone needs to endorse to gain engagement and commitment for the change.

It should be encapsulated in a concise and easily understood vision statement (i.e. jargon-free), outlining why the status quo is not an option. This provides senior management with a driving force for the programme.

Whoever facilitates the vision statement (for example, via a workshop) must ensure it involves the stakeholders affected by the programme and not just the sponsoring group.

And the vision statement can be visual as much as written. For example, we once used a Chinese transformation puzzle as a visual that populated all communications with the programme team; reminding us constantly of what was critical for its future.


A bright future: the target operating model

What constitutes the move from an organization’s current state to its desired, future state is contained in the target operating model.

The sponsoring group decides what it wants the organization to look like in the future, enabling engagement with the wider enterprise, accessing resources, and guiding the programme team towards delivering the target operating model.

This can cover a range of elements such as technology, knowledge and learning, processes, culture, organization, infrastructure, information, and data.


Defining and designing programme benefits

Another aspect of programme design – the benefits – drive programmes, as their delivery supports the organization’s strategic objectives.

There are two main categories for benefits:

  • Efficiency – obtaining business results with fewer resources and reducing costs
  • Effectiveness – creating better results and improved adaptability.

Creating a “benefits map” establishes the connection between benefits and strategic objectives. Benefits are realized at various points during and after the programme’s lifecycle, with the detailed timing included in the benefits realization plan.

At this point, programme design must also address potential disbenefits. For example, if a programme involves merging two call centers the benefits could include streamlined processes and benefits of scale. However, disbenefits might involve customer call duration increasing for a period of time while the change is embedded.


Being ready for risk

Compared to projects, the scale of potential risk in programmes is far greater.

So, it’s necessary – at programme design stage – to introduce a risk management mindset and approach. Without it, your programme may not deliver the necessary benefits.

Starting up a programme is highly important and therefore you need to identify and prioritize risks from the earliest opportunity. For example, a significant risk might be the capacity and capability of the organization to undertake the programme at all. To mitigate that risk might involve recruiting more suitably qualified people.

Managing programme risk effectively requires a plan for how to mitigate the risk and then checking and acting on what you’ve identified.


Creating confidence through programme design

 What should programme managers and their stakeholders expect from focusing on programme design?

It gives them a structure that creates confidence to deliver what the stakeholders require. And, for the stakeholders, they should expect to see the benefits they signed off on day one.

Also, effective programme design feeds into projects: it helps to assess which projects are business-critical, ensures they are created, scheduled properly, and will produce the outputs that lead ultimately to outcomes and benefits.

Ultimately, programme design will ensure that the future state of the organization is clear. This means understanding the gap that will be filled to achieve the future target operating model as well as how to manage the associated benefits and risks.

Effective project leadership: ideal project board duties and behaviours

How does the leadership of a project – essentially, the project executive, sponsor, senior user and supplier who comprise the project board – operate effectively?

Their roles are admittedly demanding, combining responsibility for business as usual operations with operational improvement and developing new products/services.

To understand how project board members need to face these challenges, there are a number of key questions to be considered:

  • What should projects expect from the project board?
  • What should the project board expect from project managers?
  • How does the project leadership delegate and still retain control?
  • What kind of decisions are the project leaders expected to make?
  • What is the composition of an effective project board?

Creating a controlled environment for a project

By establishing an environment which is clear about how a project will be run – including defined roles and responsibilities – this will help ensure the project leadership does not micromanage the project manager.

Creating this controlled environment means that everyone should understand the project management method or framework adopted by the project or organisation as a whole.

As a result, this allows project managers to make decisions by providing a mechanism for this to happen. It also determines the tolerance levels exercised by the project board – in other words “managing by exception”, one of the principles of the PRINCE2 framework.

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Understanding your method and applying it to project leadership

The project framework or method should be clear about the role of senior management and the project board. Above all, that should incorporate the specific duties and preferred behaviours of senior leadership throughout a project. They include:

  • Accepting that you, the project executive and board member, are ultimately accountable for project success – supporting, directing and steering the project to completion
  • Assigning a project manager but not, thereafter, relinquishing responsibility and effectively “disappearing” for the duration of the project
  • Organizing and endorsing an integrated, cross-functional approach typical of many project team structures
  • Ensuring there is ongoing user involvement and commitment to the proposed change
  • Employing the continuous business justification concept (or adding value in Agile approaches) to ensure the business case remains valid and therefore the project is viable, deliverable and desirable. If so, senior management will be responsible for authorising each subsequent stage of the project
  • Ensuring there aren’t too many projects running in parallel to maximise success
  • Providing unified direction, communication and being an effective leader for the project manager in a collaborative and facilitative way; this is essential in Agile project scenarios where transparency and collaboration keeps the project on schedule and de-risked
  • Ensuring project managers and teams are empowered to make decisions – absence of this is a principal reason for project failure
  • Escalation: to make sure decisions are made at the right level and avoid “decision latency” – another reason for project failure.
  • Having regular project board meetings scheduled, but also reviewing their necessity when there are no key decisions to make, such as moving to a next stage or altering project scope
  • Diagnosing and avoiding problems – where are the weak spots in the plans? What are the risk management and mitigation plans?
  • Taking responsibility for delivering benefits to the organisation.

Ultimately, the project board cannot – and should not – blame the project manager if these things are lacking during a project.

Improving interaction between project boards and project managers 

Hosting project board awareness sessions is one, effective way of improving the overall performance of project boards, interaction with project managers and overall project leadership.

In facilitating these sessions, it helps project boards to fully understand the project management method principles adopted by the project/organisation and ensure they too know how to adhere to the principles.

It’s also an opportunity to discuss the ideal behaviour of senior management in the project, such as accountability, offering unified direction, knowing how to cope with delegation, effective communication and allocation of resources.

Equally, it’s useful to project boards to recognize the importance of building relationships with their project managers. For example, knowing what keeps the project manager awake at night helps project leadership identify when and where to take action to ensure success for the project and organisation.

Awareness of leadership skills at project board level is vital

Having a greater awareness among project board members about the factors that contribute to either project success or failure will help them make the connection to the abilities and skills they need for effective project leadership.

And that might also include gathering facts on the ground in their own organisation about which principles and practices are needed to improve their project board performance.

Developing and being able to deploy a wide variety of project leadership skills is essential throughout the lifecycle of a project and, not least, at the points where project boards are required to make significant decisions. This demands serious understanding and preparation as, at the point of decision, they need all the knowledge and evidence to commit the organisation’s budget and resources with confidence.