The Essential Guide to Creating a Program Management Plan

By Kate Eby | July 8, 2022

Team leaders must create a solid program management plan to successfully manage a program. We’ve gathered advice and tips from experts on how to create an effective plan, including what you need and the steps to take.

Included on this page, you’ll find the key components of a program management plan and steps to take when developing a plan. Experts share tips to help you get started and download a customizable program management plan template.

What Is a Program Management Plan?

A program management plan details how a company expects to manage and execute a program. The plan features a program overview, along with details on the program scope and the strategy to move forward.

A program management plan will have similarities to and variations from a project management plan. Those differences will reflect some of the differences between project management and program management.

What Is the Purpose of a Program Management Plan?

The purpose of a program management plan is to set out the structure and details of successfully executing a program. It will also describe how program leaders can make changes in the plan when needed.

Jeff Givens

“When I think about a program management plan, it's a strategic roadmap that documents everything that you need to be able to do to run a program,” says Jeff Givens, Senior Vice President of Operations at JDA TSG, a business process outsourcing firm. “That's timelines, milestones, responsibilities, deadlines, and future expectations.”

A good program management plan is vital to executing and managing a program effectively. You can learn more about best practices in managing a program in this guide.

How Do You Develop a Program Management Plan?

A program manager leads the work on the program management plan. They gather input from the program sponsor, senior leadership, and program team members.

The program manager will prepare the preliminary draft of the plan and refer to the program charter and any business case and business analysis research the organization did for the program. The program manager will also include information on the program budget, scope, and benefits. Once they complete this work, they will share the draft with sponsors, company leaders, and others for their final input and approval.

Learn more about the responsibilities of a program manager and what it takes to be successful.

What Should Be Included in a Program Management Plan?

Components of a program management plan might vary based on needs. But almost all program management plans share common elements. These include details on goals and deliverables, responsibilities, and program governance.

Program Management Plan Components

A program management plan’s components will offer program details and provide a guide to move it forward. Here are some common components:

  • Program Overview: This introductory section often defines the program vision, business value, and goals. The overview may also include a summary of the program scope and criteria for measuring success.
  • Identification of Key Deliverables: Either in the overview or elsewhere, the plan provides a description of key deliverables that the organization expects the program to accomplish.
  • Identification of Stakeholders: The program plan will identify and name the key stakeholders of the program — the people or groups that have an interest in the program’s success and will play a role in guiding it. 
  • “Who are the program’s stakeholders, and how will communications be managed?” asks Alan Zucker, Founding Principal at Project Management Essentials, LLC. “Similar to project management, program stakeholder engagement is critical to success. Stakeholders are identified (and) their needs are assessed.”
  • Identification of Responsibilities and Accountabilities: The program management plan outlines key tasks and areas of work for moving the program forward, and it designates which team members or groups are responsible and accountable for completing them.

    Givens describes what the plan must set out: “Who is going to be responsible and accountable?” He adds that  program managers and teams will often use what’s called a RACI chart (which stands for responsible, accountable, consulted, or informed) to provide details on how various people or groups will be involved with or kept informed of certain tasks.

    Learn more about the RACI matrix, what it represents, and how it works. Download a free RACI template to decide who is accountable for each aspect of the program.
  • Schedule, Timelines, and Deadlines: The plan will set the schedule and timeline for the program and deadlines for important tasks.

    “Timelines are always going to be there, along with adjustable milestones — what you expect to have done by certain points, and how to measure yourself against those things. Those always need to be created,” explains Givens.

    The plan may provide an overall roadmap and work breakdown structure for the program. It can also explain how your team will manage and change timelines when necessary.
  • Dependencies and Constraints: Many program tasks will be dependent on the completion of others. Some work will also be constrained by other jobs or by other particulars of the program. The program management plan should include the details about those dependencies and constraints.
  • Program Structure: The program management plan will detail how the organization will handle the program and how leaders will work with program leaders. The plan also outlines how program leadership will interact with and oversee project leaders and other team members.

    “This includes the leadership and oversight layer — leadership or executive leadership committees — above the program manager, as well as the structure and relationship between the program manager and the project managers,” clarifies Zucker. “If the program is large enough to have a program management or execution office, the function and structure of that organization will also be described.” Learn more about the structure and work of a program management office.
  • Program Governance: Closely tied to program structure, governance provides more details on the how. The program management plan should set out the authority and responsibilities of various company or program team leaders. Governance may also decide how often leadership groups will meet and how to bring important issues to the appropriate leaders for decisions.
  • Program Execution: The plan will offer basic details on how the program will manage critical parts of the work.

    “Projects manage their execution, and the program needs to define how it will manage and coordinate items that impact the program, such as risk, change, interdependencies, and status reporting,” explains Zucker. “These elements are managed at both the project and program (level). This section describes what needs to be elevated to the program and how the program will address them.”
  • Cost Management: The plan can include a section that covers the program’s budget and expenditures. It may also provide details on the people who are responsible for managing costs and have the authority to approve budget changes.
  • Communications Plan: The plan might also cover how program leaders and the team will perform and manage communications, such as the frequency and types of communications and who will provide it.

    Zucker also points out that the team understands the stakeholders’ information needs, “and a communications strategy is developed to support those needs.”

    Download a range of project communications plan templates. You can modify the templates for program management and customize them to fit your needs.
  • Risk Management: A program management plan will often detail how leaders assess, monitor, and deal with risks.
  • Change Management Plan: There should also be a section that covers how to identify and manage any needed change. The plan will also outline a clear process for ensuring those changes happen efficiently.

    “A change management process will always need to be present,” advises Givens, from JDA TSG. “What happens when the unknown does come? How do you systematically handle that change, rather than just flailing about trying to handle something?”

    Learn more about how to create an effective change management plan.
  • Benefits Realization: Any plan should also detail how to judge whether the program is successful. This section will identify possible benefits and whether those benefits are realized.

    “How are we going to measure, assess, and address the program's success?” asks Zucker. “This section describes the key performance metrics established for the program.”
  • Closeout Procedure: The plan should also include a section that explains what the team must do whenever leaders have decided to close the program. In many ways, the closeout procedure will be similar to a project closeout. It might include an overall evaluation of the program, lessons learned, and how to use those lessons learned in future work.

How Do You Write a Program Management Plan?

Writing a program management plan requires an assessment of the environment and stakeholder needs. You must gather input from those who will execute the program.

Before anything else, you need to understand the context and environment for the program. Has a previous program failed? What have been past issues with the work that the program will move forward? Are there budget issues?

“Every program is unique,” says Zucker. “To develop an effective program management plan, the program manager must understand the culture, operating environment, and constraints.”

Here are the steps for creating a program management plan:

1. Understand Key Stakeholders

You must have a good understanding of who are the key stakeholders for the program and what they hope it will accomplish.

“Meet with key stakeholders to understand their expectations of the program,” Zucker advises. “Remember, key stakeholders might include customers, organizational leaders, and project-level delivery partners.”

2. Get Input from the Doers

It’s vital to get input from people on the program team who will be doing the work and those who have done it in the past. It also means getting input from people who’ve been working on the products or initiatives that the program is hoping to move forward.

“The one thing that I think is the hardest for people to grasp — especially the higher up you are — is asking the people who do the job,” shares Givens. “Ask the people who are going to be doing the front end-work — building the gadget, building a process, the people that this program is all about. Ask them what they think. Ultimately, if you don't have their buy-in, the best program plan will never work because they're the ones who have to initiate and deliver on a day-to-day basis to make sure that it gets done.

“If you're not sure about that, ask the front-line doer what they think. What do they think of the plan? What is it that they do on a daily basis to integrate into the plan? Oftentimes, people get wrapped up in trying to solve for what the CEO wants, without understanding the reality on the ground. When in doubt, ask the doers. Then make a decision and attack.”

3. Create a First Draft and Review

After you’ve made those initial assessments and gathered input, start writing a first draft of the program plan. Be sure to include some of the components listed above. Then share that draft with key stakeholders and others who will be working on the program. Ask them for further input and any suggested changes. Adjust the plan as needed.

4. Agree on Responsibilities

The finished plan must detail responsibilities and accountabilities. Who will be doing which tasks? Who ultimately will be responsible for their completion?

“Create an agreement on the responsibilities and accountabilities for everyone who's involved, so that you can hold them accountable to those elements,” says Givens. “Everything from timelines and milestones and deadlines and expectations is going to bridge off of (that).”

5. Establish and Monitor Checkpoints

You’ll want the program plan to set up a structure for team leaders and members to consistently check its progress. 

“Have consistent checkpoints,” Givens says. “Depending on the program, that checkpoint can be daily, weekly, or even monthly.”

6. Adjust as Needed

A key function of having and monitoring checkpoints is to evaluate and understand when to make adjustments.

“One (goal) is to fail fast,” states Givens. “If something isn't working, you have to change it. If an idea you tried didn't work, it's time to change and fail fast, and move to the next thing that can work — while working off of your accountabilities and responsibilities.”

“Adjust the plan as the program progresses,” says Zucker. “No plan is perfect. We need to assess and adjust the plan continually.”

Program Management Plan Sample

Program Management Plan Sample

Download Program Management Plan with Sample Data — Microsoft Word

Download this completed sample program management plan to help you understand how to start writing one for your own team. Use this template to create your own program management plan by completing the sections on stakeholder analysis, a milestone chart, a risk log, and others that are relevant to your program. You can customize it based on your needs.

You can also find other resources that provide samples of program management plans, including some examples from colleges and universities.

Tips for Creating a Program Management Plan

Beyond offering details on the components of program management plans, experts share tips on how to adjust the plan and get everyone working together.

Here are some expert tips for drafting a program management plan:

  • Be Ready to Adjust the Plan When Needed: Even the best plans are only plans. Reality will bring the need for changes. Your team must be ready to adapt to move the program forward.

    “Whatever you think this project or program is going to be, inevitably it's going to be somewhat different,” explains Givens. “Hold on to what the original vision as the long-term truth. (But) as you notice it starting to go in a different direction, adapt to that change, rather than trying to force it to be something that you thought it was originally. Don't lose the forest to the trees. If you're at a place where a certain element of a plan is not working, that doesn’t mean the program can’t work. It means whatever is happening within the plan itself isn't working.

    Givens says some components might stay constant. including maximum budget and responsibilities of team members. “But everything else needs to be flexible, so that you're able to adapt to what reality is going to be.”
  • Meet Deadlines, but Think Twice About Delivering Too Early: Your team will want to meet deadlines with good work. However, there can be a danger in finishing too early before some deadlines — especially if you’re an external group doing work for a client, Givens says.

    “Some people say underpromise and overdeliver (on deadlines). I think there's danger in that,” he adds. “If you set a deadline of January 1, and you come in on December 1, and say, Hey, we're ready to go, oftentimes, clients will say, Well, we're not ready to go. Then they're going to start second-guessing everything you did. And for a month, you revisit everything.”
  • Understand How to Balance Competing Interests: Many people inside and outside your organization may be involved in the program, including top organizational leaders, top project managers, and other important stakeholders. The program management plan must include a structure that helps program leaders deal with organizational politics and nuances.

    “Program management is not easy,” Zucker says. “It is like herding cats. Leaders and project managers may have competing interests and priorities. Project managers are often strong leaders in their domains. The program management plan needs to balance these competing interests, management styles, and needs.”

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