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Author: Mike Beard

A Day in the Life of a Program Manager

Feature_March2The Mission and Driver

The life of a program manager involved with large, complex programs interfacing with numerous stakeholders is not easy. Normally the program manager’s problems may be traced back to improper planning or someone else having done the planning for them.

Every day is different but some fundamental aspects of the position are the same. The key to program management is integration. The primary job of a program manager is to ensure that all elements of the program are Integrated. Communication, which some say is the program manager’s primary job, is only a by-product of proactive integration. Projects have singular or flat integration approaches. Programs have multi-dimensional integration approaches – one becomes two, two becomes four and so on for every project in the program in all different directions.

Integration requires that the program manager must be moving to keep ahead of problems (foretell the future) that negatively impact the product, an integrated system. A program manager’s job is not behind a desk in the daytime, they are on the floor moving amongst the team, listening to what is taking place and stopping negative thoughts/events before a problem is generated. Touch key stakeholders daily through any means of communications, preferably face-to-face. The more negative events a program manager stops from being realized the less real problems there are to address.

In order to foster integration a program manager must rely on very good planning established in the early stages of the methodology.

“What gets planned gets measured; What gets measured gets done”

A program manager drives integration through a collaborative approach and steadfast utilization of the program management methodology. A good program manager utilizes the Methodology as a daily checklist. Pilots use checklist to fly passengers from point A to point B. Pilots who have failed to use their checklist have been known to have accidents. The methodology below is a simple checklist for asking questions and making sure that all elements are approached on a daily basis. Use the sample or add to it. Add too much and it becomes your ball and chain, take too much away and you may crash. Review the associated metrics for any subject or knowledge area.

The Day

A program manager needs to know just about everything. Most people anticipate you know it ALL and want you to provide the right solution as well.

In the early morning before others arrive, scan your emails for potential roadblocks. Inform the team you check email at only certain times of the day: in the morning before 7:00 AM; 1:00-1:30 PM; after normal working hours 5:00-6:00 PM. If action is required by the program manager then ask that they place the word “ACTION REQUESTED” in the subject line of the email to get your attention. Delegate what is required with minimal direction so individuals and the team may solve problems. Anything that does not sync and becomes a problem is on the team member. As the program manager you need to make sure you are copied on everyone’s emails and all correspondence to everyone so you may head off disaster before it overtakes you. As the PM you are the Master Integrator and probably the only one taking this view.

Whatever you absorb, write down in short cryptic notes in one of those hardcover composition notebooks (so you cannot tear out pages) for quick reference at a future date. Document critical elements of conversations that may be turned into a Record of Discussion. Always document any conversation with a government stakeholder. When your notebook is full, save it with the others as part of your “Pearl Harbor” file.

Look forward several weeks or months for the “Gotchas” and mentally start planning how to change the potential “Gotchas” into “Atta-boys”.


  • The program Schedule for status, variances, tasks not updated, and potential integration impacts
  • Risks for triggers timing, status of corrective action plans, potential integration impacts with corrective actions plans based on yesterday’s events
  • Changes for schedule implementations

Hold the morning stand up meeting STANDING UP for no more than 20-30 minutes. Action items are not worked or resolved during the meeting, they are worked outside the meeting. Let everyone know your schedule for the day and who your backup is for making decisions when you are in important meetings. The meeting starts with going around the room asking each attendee:

  • What are the barriers to success for today
  • Who needs help from who in the room
  • What is behind schedule
  • Any new risks
  • Any old risks impacted by new changes
  • If the PM is needed to mediate a problem put your names on the white board and you have five minutes after the meeting to present your case with solutions

Mediate the barriers to success in twenty minutes or less. Let the people and team attempt to solve the problem, if not they may grow too dependent on you. Have them form special teams to dissect and solve problems.

As the program manager you are the Leader. You need to teach and guide your team members, a normal function of leadership. Draw solutions out of the team. You may need to guide people even in their own core competency. Teach people:

  • How to decompose the Scope to the appropriate depth
  • How to build a WBS that Integrates the program
  • How to develop a master plan (document) that informs the team how they will be measured
  • How to develop Estimates with contingencies
  • How to perform cost analysis and calculate Earned Value
  • How to build a smart, simple Schedule that help you manage a program
  • How to use decision analysis to break a difference of opinion or a tie without involving personalities
  • How to build and lead a Team
  • Honesty and Integrity

“Everything is connected to everything else.” Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

Now it is time for a walk about – Face-to-Face Communications – the best way to find out something and pick up on any strange body language. Take notes for whatever you see and hear, (remember your PM notebook) they are invaluable for all the hours you will put in during the day. Touch everything and talk to everyone. Find out what is being accomplished, ask how people are doing, ask people what is keeping them from being successful this week, and what they need help with to ensure they do not run into problems. You are not getting between a functional manager and their associate when you take this approach you are looking to help with anything and everything within your responsibility, accountability, and authority.

If anyone has a concern make sure you act on it. Weigh the concern before acting. Ask several questions to clarify to validate if your need to jump in to jumpstart a solution. The very first time you do not act on their concern you immediately lose their respect and it is ten times harder to regain it. This is not solving the concern for the person it is just making sure that the right people get together at the right time and come to the right solution for the enterprise. Trust is a day-to-day gift based on how you act.

Check in at the ranch every so often to make sure there are no emergencies that somebody missed informing you about.

Attend a Meeting? Go back to the office and prep for the meeting – 15-20 minutes if necessary. Take the time to catch up. Bring a SME to the meeting with you for any in-depth technical support. Prep the SME on when to respond to questions; only on your cue and after you have clarified someone else’s question. Be prepared by taking hard copy reference material to support your position as well. A picture is worth a thousand words and is difficult to negotiate against.

Secretaries are hard to come by but try your hardest to get one. A good secretary is worth the cost. A secretary is a gate-keeper, someone who helps you prepare for meetings, and sets up all the meetings you may need to chair.

Eat lunch every day away from the desk like everyone else, you deserve it and need the break.

Catch up with your email after lunch. Absorb these and the others you scanned during the morning. Print out the ones requiring your action. Have an analyst pull the Actions into the action item log. Set aside any potential risk items for discussion during the weekly status meeting.

Take care of things that need your Signature and sign them.

How is your Methodology Checklist doing? What have you not checked off yet? Don’t let anything go undone. Each item missed just means double the work tomorrow.

Has anything in the Scope of the program changed? Think ahead on anything you see and hear to visualize the future and what impact the topic may have relative to scope changes. Be realistic. Anything that changes the scope changes the WBS. The WBS must be updated to reflect changes since it is tied to the code of accounts and the schedule – a very critical element in maintaining control of program scope.

Are Requirements still aligned with stakeholder expectations? You need to check in on this one every so often and make sure you ask this question of everyone who wants to add the next great “Bell” or “Whistle”. Keep the balance. A good part of a program manager’s job is not letting “stuff” get into the scope of the program – you are the gatekeeper.

As a program manager you almost have to take the negative side of everything that transpires to ensure that you have overturned any Risks to the program. Risk kills. You have to temper this with what is practical based on the environment. Risk is a daily function of a program manager’s life. Any risk identified needs visibility to ensure it does not happen on your watch. Build the Visibility Wall plastered with risks assessments and have the team review and comments on the daily. Once a week at the daily STAND UP meeting go through all the risk items with the team to get their perspective and get them thinking the same way.

It is time to check in on program Costs. Take time to look through the data. If you don’t look through the data cost have a tendency to creep past your baselines. This makes it appear that you are not Managing costs, your Estimates were not realistic, or you have lost control. Go through cost data with the analyst and the CFO to ensure you are not missing anything. It doesn’t hurt to get confirmation from Subject Matter Experts.

One point to remember, you are managing and leading. That means you are not the subject matter expert in everything or in any one discipline except Program Management. Stick to your core competency and make others accountable for theirs.

The job of a program manager is to control Change and ensure that only the right changes are implemented on the program. Change happens and just about everyone wants something changed to fit their needs. Any change request needs to be validated against the scope, WBS, and requirements. A defined and approved scope of work, WBS, and requirements are critical to the program manager’s ability to control and manage change.

The program manager must be delegated a threshold dollar amount to accommodate the right amount of change traffic for the program without having to request additional budget from the sponsor. The dollar cap for each change as well as the maximum program amount must be placed in the program charter and signed off by the sponsor. The budget provided to a program manager for future changes is managed outside the budget allocated to normal schedule work.

Risk comes with any change. When change is warranted, ensure that risks are assessed relative to the change. When the risks out weigh the change it is a sure sign that the change may not be justifiable.

People are the backbone of every program. People do the work, not the software or tools. Most people are looking for Resource Management or leadership as well as someone they may turn to for help on ANY situation. The program manager is a leader that takes care of the people. Teach people to fish so you don’t have to fish for them.

Resource Estimating is difficult. If you plan on achieving seven hours of productive work from a person in an eight hour day, guess again. Based on actual data taken by Entrepreneur Magazine and US government time and motion studies the average productive work done for a person in an eight-hour day amounts to approximately four hours. Be careful how resources effort is allocated against the real work that needs to be produced.

Use the good old PERT formula for adding a risk factor for tasks as well as schedule. PERT is Performance Evaluation and Review Technique whose formula is (O+4ML+P)/6. Where ‘O’ is Optimistic, ‘ML’ is Most Likely, and P is Pessimistic.

Without an integrated enterprise project management system, a program manager must be aware of what work is getting done in comparison to what effort was allocated to the task. This is no different than watching your personal checkbook to make sure you have adequate money to pay the bills. Watch this like a hawk. Time spent on action items and other misdirected tasks are time subtracted from doing the actual task work defined in the schedule. A program manager can never recoup lost time.

Just as in resources, the Schedule needs to be managed using the same approach.

A program manager must be aware of what work is getting done in comparison to what is scheduled. A one-day slip may have a considerable negative impact on not one but the multitude of critical paths that may be on the schedule. Watch the schedule on a daily basis and keep things moving. Time spent on action items and other misdirected tasks are time subtracted from doing the scheduled work. A program manager can only recoup from a slipped schedule if the slip is captured and fixed early.

Program managers should be well versed in the development and maintenance of a standard scheduling tool such as Microsoft Project. They should have the experience to teach others about the tools as well as review a schedule for completeness, simplicity, and validation of current status.

Make sure your tool is set up to see and manage negative slack. If you are using Microsoft Project this is easily accomplished.

Task and Schedule Estimating is not as difficult as resource estimating, if you have previously done the same exact tasks. As in resource estimating, don’t be too optimistic. Be careful how tasks are aligned along with the correct predecessors and successors. There must be at least one critical path in your schedule, if not you are heading for trouble. Most schedules for programs lasting more than six months have several critical paths. Use the good old PERT formula for adding a risk factor to your schedule.

The Program Management Plan is a formal, approved document that defines how the program is executed, managed, monitored, and controlled and is composed of subsidiary management plans. This is the program manager’s bible. Keep a program management plan binder with the critical information to manage the program. Take the binder to meetings and wherever possible. Refer to the binder content often when asked any questions to make it the standard reference for how you manage your program.

There are no meetings without Meeting Agendas. Meeting agendas have a specific time period and are structured with specific outcomes aligned to the agenda item. Meetings are one subject unless someone has a compelling purpose to make it two. A program manager always controls the meeting and runs the meeting by the agenda. You cannot allow team members to do their action items in a meeting taking up the valuable time of those not part of the conversation. Ten minutes wasted for five people not part of the conversation is fifty minutes from your cost, schedule, and performance.

Form focus teams for the people that do not appear to be talking to each other except at meetings. These people spoil it for everyone else. If necessary separate the focus team from the meetings, have them work out their actions/issues privately, and only when they are done let them rejoin the meeting.

Actions go into the action item list. Meetings are not for working action items. Meetings are to look ahead and to ensure everyone is on the same page. If you are doing your job of daily “walk-abouts” you will know what is not getting done so why waste the time talking about it again at a meeting.

Every meeting has Meeting Minutes to document in “bulleted” format what transpired and who has the action to do what by what date. The shorter and more direct your meeting the shorter your minutes resulting in reduced waste. Meeting minutes save lives.

A typical government oriented Monthly Status Report takes a long time to develop for major programs. Over a one-month period a program manager is bound to forget about fifty percent of the important elements that were accomplished in the beginning of the month. A simplified approach to monthly program reporting is having all departments involved in the program report status on a weekly basis all in the same format. Each week an analyst can combine all the reports. When done over a four-week period the monthly status report is compiled with the only action to review and have it approved by your matrix counterparts.

Based on the above, the PMO developed a standard template for managers to complete and email to the PMO on a weekly basis. The weekly report is developed based on activity from a Monday to Sunday week and is due to the PMO on the Tuesday following the week end.

The report template is included in the PMO Tool Kit along with an explanation of the fields and the required information. Please note information relative to a specific jurisdiction for future reference and the monthly status call with CLIENT.

Be aggressive with managing Deliverables and their due dates. With the fast pace of the PMO a one-day slip in planning the development of a deliverable can result in a missed delivery date and loss of credibility. Make sure you have some help with compiling deliverables as a program manager’s time is best spent guiding the team to success.

The deliverable Weekly/Monthly Status Reports provides a structured approach to the required CLIENT Monthly Status Report deliverable under SOW C.5.23.4.

Plan Stage Gate reviews early. As defined in the methodology, Stage Gates are decision points to review the current work and make a determination to proceed with work to the next gate, stop and fix what is not being done, or shelve the work. The term “gate” implies that the project or program must go through this step in order to continue. Gate reviews are normally done near or at the close of a phase in a methodology. Stage gate reviews do not have to be long but they must be structured and contain predefined objective criteria. If a program is showing signs of trouble in the early stages plan frequent stage gate reviews to keep everyone tuned into the critical nature of your program. Make sure there is an action plan defined at the end of the review with clear responsibility, accountability, and authority to fix what is required.

Contracts, Subcontracts and Administrative Service Agreements (ASA) are other critical elements of a program that need a program manager’s attention on a daily basis, even just to check in. Call the subcontractors once a week after checking with Operations and Contracts. If there are signs of poor performance the program manager needs to confront the issue and help get it solved with all key stakeholders.

Every day at the PMO standup meeting ask for a good Lessons Learned for the day. Make it a part of the life of a PMO. Lessons Learned is the learning gained from the process of performing the project. Separate good lessons learned from the bad. The good are those things that were done well and worked as well as new things that were attempted and worked. The bad lessons learned are the actions, risks, changes – the things that slipped through the cracks and required fixing. Do lessons learned early and often to capture things before people start to move off the program.

The program manager needs to ensure that Operations is linked closely with the PMO. The program manager and operations need to ensure that the matrix relationship works for the benefit of the program and of the enterprise. Operations is where the money is made or lost. The PMO is where the enterprise proves it deserves the money from the customer.

This Day in the Life has only touched the surface of what is required on a daily basis of a program manager in a PMO. Programs fail or succeed based on the program manager.

There are more things in the life of a program manager specific to each company and the environment that may be added to your day.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

As Published in Projects@Work Magazine on June 10, 2010

Mike Beard, PMP ITIL CLP CSM is the author of a new book Successful Project Portfolio Management: 28 Critical Elements. He has more than 30 years in tactical, management and leadership positions in Fortune 100 corporations. His career has spanned diverse fields and has included 15 years of Operations Management in Southeast Asian countries. Mike is the founder and Managing Partner of Value Based Project Management, a management consulting firm that builds corporate sustainability through sound program portfolio management principles. Mike’s practical approach to consulting solutions has resulted in over $15 million dollars of cost savings for large corporations and Small to Mid-sized Enterprises in the past ten years. Mike is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP), Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL), Certified Lean Practitioner (CLP), and Certified Scrum Master (CSM). He is a Past President of the Association of Professional Consultants in Southern California and has served on the Board of Directors of PMI chapters in Southern California.