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As a program manager, a question that I commonly face is: “We are starting a large program, and our team has a really smart project manager whom we would like to place in a program management role. Do you have templates you can give him/her to help get started?”

This question worries me, because this treats program management as a larger project, or something that can be achieved by a competent project manager with the right templates. I think this understates the difference in project and program management; the central difference being that fundamentally, they operate in different places in the knowledge funnel – a program manager primarily uses Heuristics while a project manager uses Algorithms.

I’ll summarize the ideas in a knowledge funnel below (a search for Roger Martin or the Design of Business will provide more details, including some of Martin’s slides on the topic, which I highly recommend):

The knowledge funnel has three stages, each with increasing knowledge of the problem to be solved. In the first stage, the problem is a mystery. The process of solving a mystery starts with questions, and we eventually develop certain ways of working called heuristics that allow us to tackle the mystery. As we develop more experience and expertise, we refine these ways of working into algorithms. Now, while each successive stage enables us to move faster and solve a problem with lower skills, it is however important to recognize that each stage ends up focusing on a smaller problem; we go from a larger mystery of delivering business value using IT to using an algorithm to deliver a specific project output (perhaps a tool customized to specifications).

From an IT vendor perspective (especially from an Indian IT vendor perspective), delivery of large and complex programs is still not at a stage where project managers have algorithms to deal with delivery of value. A classic algorithm that project managers use is the PDCA (Plan – Do – Check – Act). This works well to deliver defined activities (especially those that can be captured in .mspp files). However, negotiating the definition of success, navigating politics and an outcome (as opposed to output) orientation are activities that cannot be tracked linearly.

Making the change from a project to a program manager involves providing experiences that allow a manager to understand the heuristics and to practice adopting them. Providing templates cannot achieve these experiential skills.

In my next post, I will talk about some of the heuristics I use in my program management work. Meanwhile, feel free to share your thoughts on it.

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