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Are you looking to take the step up to programme management? We can help

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What are the main challenges for project managers who are looking to step up and engage in a career in programme management? Clearly there are many aspects to this question which depend on the business and environment that project professionals are operating in. I lead some research within teams specialising in high value enhancement and renewal projects on the railway. This involved a project manager interviewing several programme managers on their experiences of programme management versus project management practice. The programme managers questioned had varying levels of experience, with one having been recently promoted to role.

We asked several questions during the interviews and analysed the responses as a personal development plan for project managers aspiring for a future career in programme management. In this blog we share some of the questions and results which can help you take the steps to succeed in a programme management role:

What are the key differences between programme management and project management in the organisation?

  • Programme managers have a higher number of projects under their responsibility and therefore larger teams to lead. Hence the programme manager is not as involved in the detail of projects as it’s more about the ‘big picture’ view.
  • Accountability is also for the programme of works versus individual projects. In effect the net is cast wider for programme manager accountability versus project manager. When asked, programme managers reported challenges of retaining an understanding of key risks of their projects in a proactive manner rather than becoming an escalation point when issues have already arisen. Programme managers tend to deal with wider business risks across their programmes.
  • Programme managers place a greater emphasis on stakeholder engagement as they may be dealing with multiple stakeholders with different interests and needs.
  • Ensuring that project teams are adequately resourced and spending a greater proportion of time on people management, were identified as key activities.
  • Programme managers are also legally accountable for safety aspects of their programme. In the context of railway construction projects accountabilities for Construction, Design & Management Regulations (2015), play an important part where programme managers hold accountabilities for the safe design of their projects.

What are the key challenges they faced at programme versus project level and how can these be tackled?

  • Because people management is a larger portion of the programme role, investing time with their project teams and listening to their concerns, is key in order to understand what support they might need. This helps to gain sufficient awareness of the key items within a larger volume of projects the programme manager is responsible for. Whenever there is potential of cost, programme delays, safety, or reputational damage, the programme manager needs to know at the earliest opportunity, so that the necessary interventions can occur.
  • Managing by exception but retaining enough knowledge of their projects is a common challenge. Trust in your people is key so building up a good rapport with your team is essential whilst still holding teams to account for project deliverables.
  • Because of the higher number of stakeholders involved, priorities for stakeholder engagement and management need to be made and using stakeholder engagement tools is beneficial. In some cases programme managers initiated senior stakeholder meetings to introduce more formality into their relationships, keeping them on board.
  • Respondents noted that they had become more involved in conflicts across their programmes, requiring enhanced interpersonal skills such as negotiation and conflict resolution. Decisions needed to be taken for the greater good of the programme even if detrimental to an individual project.
  • Programme managers new to their post noted a higher profile, requiring adjustment and learning to communicate effectively at senior levels of the organisation. Respondents were given increased exposure in senior meetings, for example when deputising for their line manager. Equally taking on assignments including extra-curricular activities, was more common at programme level, adding to individual profile.
  • There is also emphasis on involvement in higher level assurance activities and guiding project teams around risk management. This involves ensuring that effective project reviews and regular risk reviews are being held, and outputs recorded.

So, if a project manager is stepping up to the programme manager role what are the key skills or traits requiring further development?

  • It’s essential that programme managers are adaptable, in terms of the willingness to take on increased responsibility, learn new skills and potential increased travel. The need for working outside of normal business hours, resulting from owning a wider portfolio of projects, was noted.
  • Continuous professional development was cited as extremely valuable to support progression within the project profession. This involves a level of self-evaluation, as well as feedback on performance from colleagues which supports the setting of self-development plans. Formal leadership and interpersonal skills training programmes should also be considered. You can find further information and guidance on CPD here.
  • Other key competence areas included the need to develop experience and application of company processes that support the project organisation. These include human resources procedures such as, recruitment processes and improving knowledge of finance and commercial awareness. Also mentioned was the need to embrace diversity and inclusion within the workplace and work ethically.

All involved in this piece of research found the process worthwhile. For the programme managers interviewed it was an opportunity to reflect on their practice and identify any gaps in their current skills base. For the project manager it gives further insight into the programme managers role and a level of focus to various areas for self-development for pursual of a future career in programme management. Thanks to Daire Godkin for conducting the research.

Moving from project manager to programme manager isn’t an easy task; there are various challenges and changes you’ll face, but it’s a rewarding career which you can succeed in as long as you understand what you’re in for.

If you want to learn more, you  can read about programme management in chapter one and two of the APM Body of Knowledge 7th edition. Or why not get in touch with us at the Programme Management SIG.

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  1. James Taylor
    James Taylor 18 June 2021, 07:32 PM

    Great blog, Nigel. Really informative for aspiring programme managers. JT