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Major programmes: Creating a uniform rhythm

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I hate being late. I find it stressful. As such I tend to over-compensate by arriving early for things, and setting off on journeys well in advance of when I need to arrive, factoring in contingency in the event of transport issues. This is especially true of travelling to airports where the prospect of needing to rush through lines of security is horrible to me.

However, on the occasions I am late, there is a trend. It typically coincides with me being the person with the least distance to travel, needing ‘no time at all’ to get there…. My mind draws me into a false sense of comfort of the location being so close that I cannot possibly be late, and letting me do ‘one last thing’ before I set foot out of the door. I tend to think this simple journey is not worth giving much thought to, no need to plan, no triggers for when I must be ready. And then suddenly I'm late!

I have seen this on major programmes too. As milestones get near, people get busy. There is a rush and a buzz across the programme driven by the fact that the work to be completed is perceived as just about feasible to be completed in the time remaining, so it’s time to get to it. Coupled with that, programmes are a mix of long and short-term projects, so teams are working to different rhythms.

Creating a uniform rhythm and sense of urgency on major programmes is a significant challenge. Supply chains are now global. The competitive market makes this essential. No longer can the programme team always be within close geographic proximity so the programme manager can watch over the troops.

Individual project teams are working in multiple time zones, with suppliers working for multiple clients. Your ‘important’ project, maybe be further down the supply chains list than you want to know…!

As individuals we have a single controlling heart rate. It increases in situations of increased urgency, but it remains a uniform rate throughout our body. How do programmes achieve that? How do they align thousands of people at different levels of the supply chain, on individual projects of different timescales to work in harmony?

Isn’t it as simple as; clear communication of meaningful milestones from the central Programme Management team coupled with stage gates to assess the maturity and readiness of the programme to proceed?

A number of my colleagues keep bumping into these challenges time and again on major programmes. 

See below the principles I adopt on programmes, each having projects with different timescales and sense of urgency:

  1. Have one set of key milestones - it’s amazing how often there are multiple sets of dates. These should be selected with care. They are chosen because they are clear health indicators, not just moments in time.
  2. Have stage gates to provide markers of progress and readiness. If you are late / not ready at these points of the programme, it will give you an indicator of whether you will achieve the key milestones. To set realistic stage gate markers, work backwards from the key milestone to determine what needs to have been achieved by when.
  3. Create the right culture. Incentivise project teams and suppliers with clear terms of reference / contracts, but personalise the relationship beyond this. Take an interest. What is in it for them to be part of delivering on your programme? How does this contract work for them, as well as you?
  4. Communicate, communicate, communicate. We’ve all been there when despite one set of dates internal project teams and external suppliers have not been clear or failed to understand the importance of expected delivery dates. It is a mystery to me, and I am sure to you too. So we must remain diligent and continue to communicate clearly and consistent aligned to the programme rhythm.

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on how best to meet these challenges.

Note to self; these principles should be applied to all journeys, including the simple ones. That way the next time I am meeting friends 15 minutes away I am not inexplicably late!

To learn more about the significance of programme management and its applications, why not attend the APM Programme Management SIG Conference: Programmes Demystified in Bristol on 15 March 2018.



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  1. Ian Koenig
    Ian Koenig 18 December 2017, 10:37 PM

    Neil, Which rhythm and the sense of urgency are key. You can express rhythm to team members in terms of tempo; allegro (fast and bright) is good rather than adagio (slow and stately). Another way to convey rhythm to team members is in terms of a cadence. For a sense of urgency, I use tactics from Kotter's book of the same name. There is one good exception to all of this, there should be islands of stability in a programme, a term first used in the CCTA guide to programme management over twenty years ago.