What is the role of a Program Manager?

As described in the article for PPM (Project Portfolio Management) multiple projects will often get organised in a natural hierarchy within a portfolio.  Portfolios can consist of multiple projects or can also include programs.  

A program is a way to organise and coordinate a number of interdependent projects and maintain alignment of delivery against a strategic objective.  The Program Manager role is responsible for the coordination of the program and will also be accountable to senior stakeholders to deliver program outcomes.  

A simple way to describe this is the difference between a Project Manager and a Program Manager is through the dancefloor (the project) and the balcony (a holistic perspective of everything) analogy.

Definition: Progam manager
The definition of program manager

Program Managers ideally should be part of an organisation’s senior hierarchy and have direct access to senior stakeholder such as Executives or Directors.  It is not a role that should be outsourced whereas such a practice might be more common with Project Manager roles.  It is ideal to position a Program Manager in this way because a program is a strategic initiative, designed to coordinate a number of projects to deliver strategic outcomes such as portfolio growth or expansion, business transformation or mergers and acquisitions.  Strategic outcomes can also include remediation or compliance projects that require multiple departments, policies and procedures to change.  These outcomes must be owned by the organisational leadership not by a third party or proxy.

Key focus areas for a Program Manager

Projects will focus on deliverables such as a new app, product, policy or process.  However the program will manage multiple deliverables across multiple projects to achieve an aggregate outcome.  A Program Manager will share some common practices with a Project Manager given the concept of start / finish dates and budgets however for the most part the program will have slightly different processes to manage.  

1. Risks / Issues

Projects will raise risks and on occasion they will be material enough to escalate to the Program Manager.  The Program Manager will play a role in managing escalations however the primary focus is assessing risks that could impact the whole program.

  • These risks or issues should be assessed as themes that can be identified across multiple projects or are considered material enough whey the impact might be to only one project in the program yet be significant enough to impact outcomes.

2. Lifecycle management

While most projects will have 5 or more phases in a lifecycle, the Program Manager really only needs to manage three: Program Initiation, Benefits or Value Delivery and Closure.

  • The Program Manager will need visibility of all project phases and benefits realisation and map them to the overarching program structure.

3. Resource and Cost Management

Ideally a program is a reporting layer therefore the Program Manager does not have resources or costs attributed to the Program itself.

  • Instead the Program is an aggregate of all resources and costs that come from the underlying projects.
  • Some programs may have an overhead cost which the Program Manager must personally oversee if there is a decision to centralise costs shared by multiple projects.  Examples of this can be the cost of a PMO or the cost of the Program Manager themselves.  It is ideal to set up a project under the program to track this rather than have costs attributed to the Program itself.
  • Good practice in multi-year programs will be a draw down concept of authorising project spend.  In reporting, the cost data should ‘roll-up’ to a headline Capex / Opex / Cash number that can easily show whether the program is within constraints or not.

4. Milestone Management

  • Programs can in theory have milestones but all they are are markers for key deliverables coming from the projects.
  • It is simpler for a Program Manager to report on a single view of key milestones or deliverables which can be presented in a meaningful way to senior stakeholders.
  • A way to do this is to create reporting levels for milestones - some may be project level only whereas others may be program level or portfolio (Executive) level.

5. Dependency Management:

Possibly one of the most critical processes for a Program Manager, this will mainly focused on inter-dependencies between projects or even with external events such as operational dates.

  • The Program Manager will see dependencies that a Project Manager can’t and will have to develop mitigation strategies to avoid any dependencies from impacting the overall program.
  • As referred to earlier, the balcony overlooking the dancefloor will show a great deal more to consider with dependencies and risks than being on the ‘dancefloor’ with only the project context visible.

6. Benefits Management

  • This process will be where the Program Manager must be most accountable to senior stakeholders i.e. the achievement of the strategic objectives and realisation of value.
  • The Program Manager will need to establish a benefits realisation plan for the program which will be made up of multiple benefits plans for each associated project.

7. Stakeholder Management

  • All projects within a program will have a number of stakeholders and each Project Manager will have processes to manage them.  The Program Manager does not need to duplicate these processes however still will have to spend quite a bit of time managing stakeholders.
  • Aside from the senior business stakeholders to manage, the Program Manager will also need to work across departments such as HR, Audit, Legal, Compliance, Front / Middle / Back Office leadership and even third parties such as vendors or service providers.
  • Often this engagement is about advocating the program and the strategic objective the program seeks to deliver.  It can also be part of the larger communication and change strategy for the program by building awareness.

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Project Management Glossary - Video series of PM terms: Definitions and Examples

The role of the Program manager in Agile

The role of the Program Manager should also be considered in Agile projects however it is important to avoid overlapping responsibilities with Product Managers or Product Owners.  In Scaled Agile for example, the Program Manager and Portfolio Manager role might look the same with only one being necessary depending on the number of initiatives to coordinate.

The Program Manager role in Agile is effectively the same as has already been described with the focus on coordination of multiple teams and initiatives.  However in Agile, instead of programs being formed first (adding projects over time) it would be more common to see stand alone Agile projects scale by adding more project and more teams prior to a program being considered.  

Alignment to common goals and maintaining strategic direction for projects becomes more difficult in a multi-team Agile environment and the formation of a program of work, run by a Program Manager may prove useful to organise and ensure all work can be linked to a strategic commitment.  In some organisations, depending on how scaled Agile is, Programs may be a hybrid of traditional and Agile.  The Program Manager can align the multiple methodologies into a single reporting and governance framework which allows for simple reporting of progress to stakeholders.  This  would need to include common reporting attributes or mapped attributes such as ‘tasks’ ‘releases’ or ‘milestones’.

The Program Manager in Agile is likely to be far more value-driven which would include a value or benefits realisation plan that is far more incremental and short term than a traditional plan might be (where benefits are realised after the program completes).  To support this Program Increments can be used for constant validation of alignment and prioritisation against strategic themes. Integrated Planning is a key concept an Agile Program Manager can adopt as a way to coordinate and collaborate regularly.  This can work well for hybrid programs or even waterfall programs that are more adaptive or ‘rolling wave’.

Program Manager FAQs

What is program manager?

A program manager is someone who is responsible for leading a number of interdependent projects to achieve strategic objectives.  

What does program manager do?

The Program Manager focuses on overall benefits realization and achieving organizational goals rather than managing short deadlines and individual deliverables.