10 Things Every New Program Manager Should Know

Shot of woman reading notes on a glass wall in an office
Staying on top of the detail. Pixdeluxe/E+/Getty Images

So you’ve just got your first program management job? Or you want to know if making the jump to program management is a career choice that you should make? Congratulations, you’re in the right place!

Program management is a rewarding and well-paid career choice. But it can be a challenging role as well.

Here are 10 things that every new program manager should be aware of before starting the role.

1. Program Management Is Not the Same as Project Management

Project management is generally accepted to be all about planning the work, organizing the tasks and the resources, controlling the process and delivering a specific objective.

Whether that’s opening a new office, launching a new app or building an Olympic stadium, projects have a defined start, middle and end and a clear set of objectives.

Programs are a bit different. You still need to have people organizing the tasks, managing resources, working through processes and so on, but they report into you as the program manager. There is a lot less ticking off tasks as complete on a project plan but a lot more strategic and relationship-building work.

Program management is about keeping the whole transformative change on track to deliver something of value to the organization over time. Without someone acting as a program manager, all you have got is a series of projects delivering at random times and with no unifying theme. The program manager is the person who brings it all together.

2. There Is Uncertainty…Deal With It

Programs are inherently uncertain. While you might know what the big picture is, it’s just a vision statement when you start out.

The exact path of how to get there and what projects are going to be required over the next five years…well, that’s something you have to work out as you go.

You’ll start with detailed planning for what you do know and build up a picture of how to address the rest of it as you get closer. Progressively extend your planning and delivery horizons until you can’t go any further.

Block out time at regular intervals to plan the next steps. You can also use this opportunity to ensure that you are still on track to deliver business value.

3. Watch Out for Burnout

While a project might be over in a year or so, programs can stretch on and on. The nuclear decommissioning work at the UK’s Sellafield site has delivery milestones up to 2025 and beyond, for example.

Program managers need to protect their team against burnout. You can’t work at top speed for that length of time, so ensure your staff members get adequate downtime. This should be both periods of quieter time at work with fewer deliverables and adequate time away from the office for vacations.

Manage sick leave closely, watch your overtime reports and be alert to the fact that the welfare of your team is paramount if you want to slash attrition and keep your talented people for the life of the program.

4. You Need to Manage the Pace

When you are delivering a program that has a distant completion date, you need to manage the pace of the work. It’s hard to keep the momentum up over multiple years, so your role as a program manager is to juggle the priorities and projects so that there are measurable outputs being delivered regularly.

Mix up the quick wins and the steady progress towards the bigger picture goals. This helps the team see that you are moving forward and ensures that there are some shorter-term success stories to share to keep motivation high. Finally, it helps the investors and executive management team see that there is progress being made.

5. Train Your Team for Success

Programs often deliver something novel, unique or transformative for the organization. One of the challenges of working on those kinds of initiative is that you probably don’t have the skills in-house to be able to complete all the tasks and projects required.

That’s OK, and to be expected. Your job as a new program manager is to ensure that you can upskill, retrain and develop the people you do have so that together you can address all the resource requirements.

There might be some areas where you only need a certain resource for a limited period. For example, you aren’t going to train one of your staff in how to be a fork-lift truck driver if that’s a skill you need for just one week, unloading a delivery of something. But if you are transforming the way your company’s online presence is managed, it would probably be valuable to have website development skills in house along with some expertise about social media or search engine optimization. These are the skills that the business will rely on longer term.

Make the decision about which of these you need to have embedded in the team and which should be outsourced. Then ensure your program can deliver the training and recruitment tasks required to be ready to manage the outputs as each project delivers.

6. Governance Is More Complex

If you’ve come from a project management background then governance won’t be a surprise to you. It’s the way in which project and program structures are organized and controlled to ensure that decision making is done in the right way and that the right people are involved. It’s crucial for ensuring the work is being progressed in a way that fits with the overall business case and it helps keep people accountable.

Governance is also the way that the Project Management Office and senior executives can ensure that the program is on track to deliver the benefits – and provides a formal route to closing down projects or an entire program if it can be shown that those benefits will no longer be achieved.

Governance is more complex in a program environment than in a project environment. Project Boards and Steering Groups normally have exec-level membership. This is to be expected as the end result from a program is normally business transformation.

Programs also have an impact on business as usual process and the daily operations of the organization, so the investment is normally significant, with a P&L impact. This also requires a potentially higher level of oversight than a capital project.

Streamline the program governance for your program by ensuring you have the right people in the decision making roles and by having clear responsibilities for the people on the team.

7. Planning Is Much Harder…

Planning a program is harder than planning a project because there are a lot more moving parts, but you could argue that it is more fun too!

Typically the project managers who are involved in the program will put their project plans together. Then the program management team meets and under your direction as the program manager, the plans are integrated.

This is easy to say, but not that easy to do. It requires identifying the dependencies between projects and project tasks. It forces you to look at the resource requirements for the whole program and to juggle activities around to suit the availability of key people. And it’s not a one-off task either.

Once your integrated program plan is put together you can track it in a Gantt chart or other software tool. As your project managers track their projects in real time you’ll have to make adjustments to the program plan, keeping everyone informed of changes and spelling out what this means for their area of the work.

8….But You Don’t Have to Plan Every Line

As a program manager you rely on your project managers to do the detailed planning. It isn’t practical or desirable for you to be tracking a plan with thousands and thousands of tasks.

You need a rolled up, high level view of the projects, with enough detail to show you whether something is going to have a program-level impact.

The easiest way to do this is with dedicated software apps (these 10 proven project and program software tools are a good place to start). Trying to manage your multi-million dollar program on a spreadsheet isn’t going to be easy.

9. You Need to Improve Your Delegating

However good you are at delegating, being in a program management role means you need to get even better at it.

The good news is that you should have a team of project managers, and you might even have a dedicated Program Management Office to support your transformative change.

The bad news is that you might not!

There is a lot of work to do on a program, and setting it up to ensure that all the moving parts move together at the right time is a huge effort. You can’t do it alone and you shouldn’t try. Work out how much time you need to do the program initiation and then ensure you have a team in place to back you up.

If you don’t have anyone in your Program Management Office, ask for someone to be seconded to the program management team. There is plenty for them to do: someone in a project coordination role would be perfectly placed to deliver the coordination required at program level, freeing you up to get involved with the strategic tasks.

10. Don’t Be Afraid of Conflict

There are lots of strands to programs. From projects with difficult stakeholders to seeming unachievable deadlines, every day is going to give you opportunities for conflict. Watch out for the things that disrupt project performance and be prepared to step in when needed to head off a conflict situation before it starts.

Which of these 10 things came as a surprise to you? Share your thoughts on program management on your favorite social media channel!