Project managers are the ones who change the world – for the better. They transform the way companies plan and execute projects. They are innovators, strong communicators, data-driven facilitators, and problem solvers. They lead and inspire others.
Behind every successful outcome or strategic initiative is one or more project managers making this happen. This is a special breed of individual, someone with a powerful mix of strategy and implementation competences – often technical – combined with hard and soft skills.
In this article, we describe nuts and bolts of project and program management so you understand what it is, why it is important, how it works, and where you can apply it in your team, department, or company.
What is project management?
In simple terms, project management is a systematic approach for managing a defined body of work to achieve specific objectives.
|Technical Definition: Project management is the application of processes, methods, skills, knowledge, and experience to achieve specific objectives according to the acceptance criteria. Without exception, project management has a set of deliverables bound to a finite timescale and budget.|
Two key factors distinguish project management from “management.” The first is a final deliverable. The second is a clear timetable.
By comparison, management is an ongoing process. Project management professionals have a wide range of skills – often technical – combined with people management acumen and good business awareness.
What is a project?
A project is defined in terms of outputs, outcomes or benefits. Success of a project is determined by whether or not it achieves the objectives within the specified timeframe and budget. The building blocks of every project are time, cost, and quality where:
- Time refers to the scheduling of work.
- Cost refers to the application of an approved budget.
- Quality describes deliverables and processes taken to ensure expectations are met.
When do we use project management?
As pointed out earlier, projects are separate from business-as-usual activities. They occur when an organization wants to deliver a solution to set requirements within an agreed budget and timeframe.
Projects require one or more people to come together temporarily to focus on specific objectives. The scale, significance, and complexity of the work are factors impacting a project’s objectives:
Objectives may be expressed in terms of:
- Outputs – launch of a new product or marketing campaign
- Outcomes – consolidation of offices to a central locations
- Benefits – cost reduction measures like faster application development cycles
- Strategic objectives – time bound initiatives to increase share price or change public perception
Why do we use project management?
Taking project management a step further, projects that require a system approach are those that:
- Produce something new or altered, tangible or intangible
- Have a finite timespan: a definite start and end
- Are likely to be complex in terms of work or groups involved
- Require the management of change
- Require the management of risks
Investment in effective project management will have a number of benefits, such as:
- Providing a greater likelihood of achieving the desired result
- Ensuring efficient and best value use of resources
- Satisfying the differing needs of the project’s stakeholders
We provide three examples to show how project management – and program management, too – is applied to specific, clearly defined bodies of work.
Who uses project management?
In basic terms, it is anyone and everyone who manages projects. “Project manager” may or may not be in the title. More formally, projects crop up in all industries and business:
- Product Development and Manufacturing
- Finance and Law
- Transportation and Logistics
Required steps For effective project management
How is program management different from project management?
Program management is sometimes confused with project management. Project management is the process of leading a project performed by a team to achieve certain goals. These goals can include building a new product, program management involves managing a program with multiple, related projects.
Since programs are linked to strategic initiatives, they are often long-running and possibly permanent. Programs continue through organizational change, contribute to multiple goals, and contain many projects that deliver specific components of the larger strategic initiative.
Breaking down program management vs. project management
- A set of tasks with a clear deliverable and a deadline for completion
- Relates to creating, updating, or reviewing a particular document, process, outcome, or another single unit of work
- A predefined scope that is limited to a specific output
- Improves quality, efficiency, cost management, or customer satisfaction in a specific and predetermined way
- Unknown or fluid deadlines due to the large scope and impact of the work that must be done continuously over a long period of time
- Multiple deliverables with inter-related dependencies that may continue to evolve based on changing business needs
- A series of deliverables completed together to increase efficiency, accuracy, reliability, or other business needs
- The work enables the company to achieve a long-term business goal or initiative that will run in perpetuity
- Success delivers long-term benefits or unlocks new capabilities for the organization
What does a program manager do?
Program managers help to drive organizational change through agile transformations. They align program management practices and processes with agile values such as collaboration, team autonomy and empowerment, delivering value to customers, and adapting to change in the moment.
Because of the breadth of their responsibilities, program managers play a key enabling role in companies. The role is flexible by design to meet the different challenges that teams encounter while going to production.
On any given day a program manager may do any of the following tasks:
Evaluate the state of the project portfolio
A program manager reviews and evaluates a portfolio of interconnected projects by connecting with teams to mitigate execution risk and improve implementation performance. These connections can be coffee chats or team meetings. The program manager’s goal is to stay connected and engaged to work toward shared goals. This includes connecting with project teams to ensure the project managers are supported and unblocked.
Risk management is a key element of portfolio management. Risks include a project timeline slipping, changing requirements, or the discovery of additional stakeholders. A program manager should be aware of anything that could impact the progress or outcome of the program and related projects. Ideally, a program manager can take corrective actions to reduce or manage risks in the portfolio.
Run the program
Program managers are responsible for running the program, which includes:
- Managing budgets and resources in cooperation with project managers
- Defining the operating parameters and controls
- Maintaining the core elements of the program that set the foundation from team charters and other establishing documents
Engage with stakeholders
A program manager connects with stakeholders to get a sense of the wider context that surrounds goals. These conversations provide critical insights into the overall landscape. By partnering with stakeholders, a program manager can help guide project teams.
Refine the operating model
The operating model shapes how teams progress toward their goals. This can include establishing communication channels and reporting methods, identifying goals, establishing priorities across the entire program. During the course of a program, a program manager optimizes the operating model to increase the likelihood of success and reduce the impact of risks.
Decision-making takes many forms, from running a meeting, to compiling background information on what decisions are needed, or doing a comparative analysis of multiple options. Specific program managers may lean into different areas, depending on their strengths. The program manager reviews outcomes to identify opportunities for improvement in systems, processes, or results.
The focus and scope of each program manager shape the specifics of how they engage with these practices.
What soft skills are critical for project and program managers?
These roles require you to work collaboratively with others and lead them through good and hard times. We share the soft skills necessary for success.
Knowing how to bring people together is an important skill of a technical project manager. You need to know how to inspire and work with groups of people, as well as to navigate conflict. There may be disagreements between team members that are your responsibility to help mitigate.
Communication skills are imperative. By good communication we mean being able to address the concerns of stakeholders and investors, give clear direction to a team, and inspire team members. You must clearly communicate expectations and create frameworks that help team members fulfill their roles. Some technical project managers may opt for accountability via various time tracking platforms so that team members improve time management.
Effective time management
Effective time management is an important skill to master because there are many things to track. In addition to time tracking platforms, other effective methods are to-do lists to keep tasks organized, automating recurring tasks, and creating templates that decrease the time spent on regularly repeating projects.
Inevitably you will encounter various challenges during the course of a project. Being able to stay calm and collected and think of ways to overcome obstacles is a necessary trait.
There will be times when technical project managers run into situations where they need to assess risk management. While this can be challenging, risk management is a helpful tool in problem solving.
A key responsibility is to create and improve processes. Oftentimes, product management involves various dependencies, which is when one task has to wait for another task to reach a certain level of development. These types of situations often result in a bottleneck in product development. When technical project managers minimize the effects of these, they help the process move more smoothly and efficiently.
You may decide to introduce new technologies to streamline projects and improve team collaboration. The role needs to know how to ease team members into new ways of working and gain buy-in.
In order to lead a team of people and enable them to execute projects on a deadline, you need to have strong organizational skills. It is important to be able to use various organizational tools to track metrics, create and communicate task lists to team members, and handle task management. Transparency helps build trust and confidence in the team.
Technical requirements of project and program management
Both project and program management roles can be technical. The demand for technical competence is determined by the need to communicate with both technical and non-technical stakeholders.
For example, a technical project manager must possess high-level technological knowledge and expertise because they are instrumental in managing IT or IT-related projects. Typically they are the lead technical subject matter expert in a particular area. Their industry expertise is leveraged to improve various aspects of planning and resource management.
They should be proficient in technical and business project management tools, including GANTT charts and scheduling software, agile methodology tools, and project management and communication software.
What tools do the roles often use?
Asana is a project management platform to help you plan, organize, and manage your team’s work from start to finish. It also serves as a collaboration tool. Asana gives you a complete view of work so teams tackle the right tasks at the right time.
Slack aims to create opportunities for interaction between individuals, groups, colleagues or customers. It is a workplace communication tool that helps project managers bring teams, files, and tools together for deeper collaboration.
Trello is built on the Japanese “kanban” management principle, which involves consistent monitoring of all production phases. It is a great tool for standard projects and is convenient for both command directives and individual assignments.
Wrike is a digital work management tool that lets users track and coordinate projects. It helps drive faster decisions and accelerate projects with automation, real-time visibility, customizable dashboards and reports.
Another popular tool, Smartsheet goes beyond traditional spreadsheet functionality and focuses on collaborative aspects of project management.
More technical project and program managers will reuse:
Clockwise is a time orchestration platform that helps you make time for what matters. The Team Analytics feature provides leaders insight into team members’ workloads by seeing how much focus time they have in their schedule. This allows technical project managers to know where they can step in and help someone versus who has the capacity to accept additional tasks.
A well-made spreadsheet is hard to beat when it comes to staying organized and communicating metrics to stakeholders. Proficiency in Microsoft project execution via Excel can help technical project managers keep track of data and statistics that will help them gain the trust of those they collaborate with.
Flow has fewer project management features, which can benefit those who want software that keeps things simple and streamlined. The platform is easy to use and doesn’t have a steep learning curve. While good for teams resistant to changing their workflows, greater customization will require something more robust like Asana, Jira, or Wrike.
Jira is an agile project management tool that allows teams to collaborate effectively while keeping an eye on the broader progress of projects. You can view projects in a variety of frameworks. Kanban boards and Scrum are some of the most popular.
The versatility of this online software makes for a steep learning curve. For those willing to invest the time, the flexibility of this project management software can make it a valuable resource for teams.
Challenges facing project and program management
The program may diverge from the planned scope for one reason or another. The technical program manager has to carefully manage the technical program before it goes out of hand.
To overcome that, the technical program manager should discuss the responsibilities with various stakeholders and note them down. A RACI Chart – defining who is Responsibility, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed for what – is a great tool to drive clarity.
Managing the expectations of multiple stakeholders
Every stakeholder will likely have different expectations. The variance is due to their contribution toward the program, the effect of the program, and general experiences. Acknowledging this and being clear on objectives and outcomes is critical to avoid confusion.
Issues with the budget
Project and program managers have to set clear budget boundaries with their team members before starting the program or individual projects. Asking sponsors frequently for more budget will undermine the trust and confidence they have in the team.
The project or program manager must possess the required skills. They should know how to get the work done without any conflicts. Make sure to allocate the responsibilities according to the skills and experiences of the team member and other stakeholders.
When should I use an agency for these services?
The importance of a good project or program manager is seldom realized until after the project kick-off. Often it’s too late to save a failing project. When a project manager is weak, budgets become challenged, deadlines are missed, and quality is compromised.
When you have an experienced project manager involved, the project’s paradigm shifts. Their job starts well before the implementation begins. This proactive planning period ensures budgets, goals, and risk factors are adequately accounted for. Issues and problems are communicated before they arise.
Some companies believe hiring a third-party project manager only adds an additional expense to a project. This is false. In many cases, the cost can be recouped by completing a project under budget and ahead of schedule, while mitigating risks and actively communicating with all parties involved. A big concern for the client is a loss of revenues from project delays, which can impact customer service.
Having a third-party project or program manager offers an advantage of an unbiased platform for open communication, and it helps unite, guide, and prepare all parties involved. This provides a more realistic timeline, proactive problem-solving, and better overall project coordination. It is important for you to have the opportunity to choose a third-party project manager on RFPs. This gives you the ability to understand their qualifications and helps ensure the success of your next project.