Programme v project management: making sense of the difference

In today’s developing profession of project management and increasing stakeholder expectations of project delivery, having an effective and consistent way of managing infrastructure projects is critical, says Cameron Tonkin.

Project management has evolved considerably to support successful delivery of projects on time and within budget over the past few decades. However, there is still much more to do. For example, the January 2016 National Audit Office report Delivering Major Projects in Government, highlights that one third of the 149 projects (with a combined value of £411bn) due to be delivered in the next five years are rated as being in doubt or unachievable if action is not taken to improve delivery.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that some interdependent projects are better managed together in a more coordinated way. 

We are thus seeing the growing presence of programme management, or managing a group of projects holistically, not only to deliver greater efficiencies, but to ensure that these projects produce the intended benefits for stakeholders.

First, let’s look briefly at project management. Although people have been managing projects for many years, it’s only in the relatively recent past that project management has become a distinctive, formalised profession. Even 12 years ago, when I completed a Master’s degree in project management, there were few institutions offering this type of course compared to today.

Project management has become more sophisticated and recognised as a career choice which is much needed along with industry recognised qualifications. I believe that project management is becoming more characterised by leadership, vision and the right mind set, rather than any technical tool kit. Good stakeholder skills, comfortable at being accountable and never losing sight of the deliverable benefits are key for project and programme managers.

Despite this, the challenge remains at how best to deliver the complex infrastructure to meet national needs. Are these all standalone projects or interconnected activities that will gain from improved coordination of resources, design-interface and optimisation of benefits? This is where programme management and the programme management office (PMO) provide valuable benefits. 

The growing demand for these skills reflects the realisation that a group of projects managed together strategically can deliver more than the sum of the parts. Programme management is designed to take a larger and more comprehensive view of the intended deliverables and benefits of component projects. Additionally, management of resources, risk and stakeholder engagement are key functions and advantages to having a programme manager and supporting PMO operation.

Projects by their very nature are focused on providing outputs on deliverables against time, cost, scope and risk. Programme management puts far more emphasis on the desired outcomes, whether for the organisation, the customer or the stakeholder - or all three - along with saving money by reducing duplication of costs and improving efficiencies in resource optimisation. 

However, there can be misinterpretations of a programme. These following are just a few:

1.Programme management is not managing a schedule

2.Project managers make good programme managers: not always, as project managers mostly focus on core deliverables such as time, cost and quality. Programme managers focus on organisational priorities and stakeholder benefits. These may need to change based on internal or external organisational factors such as cancellation of projects or re-prioritisation of deliverables to meet changing needs

3.Programmes are simply ‘large projects’ – not so. A programme is a cluster of common projects linked together by their dependencies and risks

4.Project success = programme success: not always: There are cases of project benefits failing to materialise after completion. This is where the function of a programme and PMO operation can play a critical role, operating beyond the term of component projects.

For example, we might build a railway line as one project. But if we were also building bridges, stations, underpasses and diverting highways, it makes sense in any number of ways to bring each project together under one central programme function so we can better coordinate resources such as bulk materials and manage deliverables to ultimately reduce costs and difficulty, while maintaining certainty of deliverable benefits.

We are getting smarter about programme management all the time. In many respects its purpose is to provide a steady state for projects as they and their individual deliverable phases come and go. But we face challenges. Firstly, as with any evolving discipline, we need to ensure that everyone involved is clear about why a programme exists, their roles and responsibilities and the value they will or will not bring, so leading to a clear decision on whether to continue with a PMO investment. Secondly, we have to make sure we have sufficient skills and capabilities through the right training and career paths. 

My colleague, Shane Forth, addresses this area in his article on this hub, Project vs programme managers: the right skills for the right job.

Cameron Tonkin is Business Unit Director at Costain.