Project vs programme managers: the right skills for the right job

A new, less tangible skills set is needed to ensure effective project management, says Shane Forth.

Since the early 1970s when project management began to emerge as a recognised profession, customers in the engineering and construction industries traditionally set three core objectives as the basis for project success: time, cost and quality. With the added emphasis on safety over the years, these requirements have been the guiding force for good project managers.

Now we are seeing other, less tangible knowledge areas being added to the mix, such as making the business case, project sponsorship, stakeholder management, governance and competency models. These simply didn’t exist in the Association of Project Management’s (APM) 1992 edition of the body of knowledge guide. 

A more strategic mindset

But it is precisely these ‘softer’ skills which are coming to the fore with the emergence of programme management. As my colleague Cameron Tonkin points out in his article on project vs programme management, it is important to make the distinction between the two because they have different methodologies and objectives.  

Managing a cluster of different but related projects calls for a strategic focus on the wider benefits. While I have been involved in project management for most of my 40-year career to date, I am now finding that programme management is becoming an increasing part of my day job.  And what I have realised is that when managers and engineers who have focussed on project management and delivery for many years begin to make the transition to programme management, they have to adopt a new mind set.

That mind set demands more holistic and strategic programme management thinking which is capable of vision, coordination and direction over those responsible for delivery to ensure the realisation of benefits in accordance with the customer’s ultimate objective. 

The big question is: how do we ensure we have the right number of qualified people to oversee this increasingly important part of our business?  There are two routes we are taking. One is through accredited training and the other is career path guidance. 

Broadening the knowledge base

Comprehensive project management involved with delivering high-risk and complex projects is a solid grounding for a good programme manager. However, I have seen even seasoned project managers struggle at times to look up from the demands of project delivery and focus on the bigger picture and desired objectives.

Becoming familiar with a programme management framework such as Managing Successful Programmes (MSP) can be invaluable in making the transition. Accredited MSP training programmes are available at both the foundation and practitioner level. The foundation level provides a useful overview for team members working in programmes, while the practitioner level enables the aspiring programme manager to acquire those less tangible but vitally important competencies critical to successful programme management. 

Building the right career path

We also have to grow our programme managers by choosing those with the right skills and capabilities and helping them mature into the role. I have constructed a diagram (link) to show some possible routes from a number of different functions. 

For example, the route from project management, project controls and work winning (bidding and estimating) is relatively straightforward. Working in other areas such as commercial, business development and intelligence and communications can also offer a good grounding in the understanding of strategic issues and building the business case. As I keep emphasising, what’s important is the right mind set. Appropriate training can fill any knowledge gaps. 

Intelligent programme management is vital to meeting our national infrastructure needs. We have to make sure we have enough of the people with the right skills, capabilities and strategic understanding to steer programmes to effective outcomes. 

Shane Forth is Project Management Office Director at Costain.


Interesting article, where is the full diagram please?
I couldn't agree more, Shane. In the sector, PMOs tend to bring with them their own, hugely valuable, technical and process expertise. That's great, but can lead to skewed delivery. True Programme Management requires a much broader view that relates to all of the allied disciplines. To become the conductor of an orchestra our ears need to be attuned to so many different instruments, even if we cannot play them ourselves. The skillset required to excel in drawing together an array of programme strands now extends beyond the traditional route. PMOs seeking to take on programme management would do well to assess their knowledge and be aware of the need to straddle disciplines, technical approaches and commercial cultures within and organisation and with external stakeholders. Hiring companies also need to be aware that 'growing' your PMOs into programme leads may not be as effective as hiring specialist programme leads who have a talent for 'conducting' - even if they can't play a violin themselves. So, thank you - a nice read. Sandy