Should major programmes have a ‘single controlling mind’?

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Every orchestra needs a conductor, every battle a commander. Who plays that role on your programme?

At the heart of today’s major programmes, regardless of type or sector, typically lies a Programme Management Office (PMO).

The PMO sits across the programme, often comprising workstreams or functions that organise the delivery of the projects within the programme. PMO’s can take various forms, from a basic governance role with guidance and assurance provided for project, programme and portfolio management, to a more controlling and responsible role where aspects of planning and delivery are undertaken from within.

Direction is set for the programme by the PMO and / or Programme Executive Leadership team through: delivery strategy, programme execution planning and subsequent tactical adjustment based on performance.

Two questions I have been grappling with are: should major programmes have a ‘single controlling mind’ and could it work?

A single controlling mind doesn’t necessarily mean a single individual, more realistically it is a small group of experts working as an integrated planning team. As with the human mind, a programme organisation has the need to integrate data from various sources and stimuli, process this into information, make decisions to take actions, analyse issues in order to solve problems, react quickly when necessary as well as plan for the long term. And this is just the start...

In my opinion, due to its complex responsibilities a ‘single controlling mind’ can form part of the PMO, or the Programme Executive Leadership team – but the role needs to be formalised, clearly defined, resourced and empowered to make the appropriate decisions.

Some programmes de-centralise this role, with each work stream or function undertaking these planning activities at the local level with the central PMO responsible for integrating inputs.

There is a compelling military analogy here for the use of a ‘single controlling mind’. Military campaign strategy and mission command and control is undertaken centrally by teams with situational awareness from across the battle space – making decisions based on ‘campaign first’ criteria i.e. decisions consider the impact across the overall military strategic plan of inter-related military operations. The troops out in the field are then empowered to work within the boundaries set by the central command team.

The key attribute of the centralised command structure is the authority to instruct. The central team makes decisions for the good of the programme based on having visibility across the portfolio of inter-related projects being delivered. This could include: concentrating scarce shared resources in the right areas of the overall programme at the right time, co-ordinating the logistics and materials supply, and designing / evolving the overall delivery model for the programme.

Key to the ‘single controlling mind’ is that it should:

  • Comprise deep subject matter experts, who have experience of the domain and programme type – lieutenants who have earned their stripes from previous battles; both from a planning and delivery perspective
  • Be dynamic; capable of anticipating and reacting to emerging situations and making decisions at short notice, as well as analysing the long term strategic needs of the programme to put in place the actions required to ensure success.Examples include; identifying consents required for listed structures, identifying long lead scarce resources or establishing supply chain capability gaps that need to be fulfilled to deliver the programme.

But can a major programme of tens of thousands of people, 1000’s of suppliers, and billions of pounds in spend really be planned and managed this way?

My contention is that they can. Every orchestra needs a conductor, every battle a commander. They have the full picture upon which to make decisions and to provide clear direction and instruction.

Using the conductor analogy, they set the direction and boundaries within which the orchestra works, crucially allowing the members of the orchestra thresholds of freedom within which to play and to be creative. Major programmes can also work this way: with the single controlling mind setting boundaries for the work streams and / or functions of the programme to work within.

Food for thought…
As with all programme delivery models and methodologies, you need to assess what is right for you and your circumstances. But for me, situational awareness at programme level and being able to orchestrate and instruct from the centre is a compelling characteristic for being able to make the best decisions for the benefit of the overall programme.

Ask yourselves what is right for you. How is your programme structured, and who orchestrates the master plan? Is this the most effective way to deliver the outputs and customer benefits required?

I look forward to your feedback.


Posted by Neil McCrimmon on 20th Oct 2016

About the Author

Neil is a Consultant with the Nichols Group and a professional project manager with over fifteen years experience of managing challenging projects in complex environments. He has delivered high profile engineering and new technology development projects in the Defence, Renewables, Oil and Gas and Rail industries. His key competencies include: project management; systems engineering and integration, strategic programme planning and technology commercialisation. Neil is a committee member of the APM Programme Management SIG, a full member of the APM (MAPM) and holds qualifications with both the APM and PMI.

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