The Essentials of Program Management

Smartsheet Contributor Kate Eby

October 28, 2016 (updated June 30, 2022)

Strong program management helps organizations move toward their long-term goals. To help you improve your program management efforts, we’ve compiled outlined the essential components and expert tips.

Included on this page, you’ll find details on the stages of program management, important components and plans that can help manage programs, and the benefits of program management.

What Is Program Management?

Program management refers to how you manage a group of related projects to ensure efficiency and effective resource allocation. The ultimate goal of program management is to ensure that all projects work together to achieve a shared organizational goal.

Some organizations might use a program management office (PgMO) to help coordinate organizational programs. (Note: Many organizations use the acronym PMO, though that can cause confusion with the standard acronym for a project management office. For the purpose of clarity in this article, we’ll use PgMO.) But, many organizations do not have a designated PgMO — in these cases, project managers may work directly for program managers to help move forward a program, or within specific departments of an organization and report to that department leader. But, the organization also assigns these project managers to work with program managers on programs that need their expertise.

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Program Management vs. Project Management

Project management oversees work on a single project with a specific objective and end date, whereas program management guides work on a set of related projects. In general, a program is more focused on an organization’s larger, more strategic goals.

Unlike a project, a program may not have an identified end date. Alternatively, a program’s end date may be years into the future.

Program managers will generally oversee and guide the work of project managers. A program manager will also focus more on long-term company revenue, and interact more with top company leadership. You can learn more about the roles and responsibilities of a program manager.

“CEOs will tell you, talented high-level program managers are in high demand. They would kill to get a strong person into that role in their company,” says Dr. James T. Brown, former associate director of logistics systems for NASA at the Kennedy Space Center and author of The Handbook of Program Management: How to Facilitate Project Success with Optimal Program Management. “And, program management really is more art than science. I don’t care how much process you have in a role; if the program manager’s artistry — [their] individual take on how things should run — isn’t there, they won’t succeed.”

Experts also say that a program manager needs to keep their head out of (most of) the weeds of the projects. “Program managers should not micromanage and should leave project management to the project managers,” says tech recruiter Janis Strathearn in her popular LinkedIn blog post on the subject. “Project managers need clear direction and circumstances [from their program managers]. This allows them to be successful in fulfilling the immediate tasks, timelines, and goals of the project.”

Dan Friedmann, a program, project, and product manager who has written extensively about program and project management, thinks of program managers as “meta-project managers.” In this model, a single program could have as many as 10 related projects aggregated within it. “The program manager juggles resources and schedules for all of their projects, and has the responsibility to move money, people, or time from one project to another if needed,” he says.

Program Management vs. Portfolio Management

Portfolio management (often called project portfolio management or PPM) involves even more big-picture thinking than program management. While program management guides multiple projects to fit with a company’s goals, PPM focuses on accepting and prioritizing the right projects.

PPM analyzes whether projects and programs are aligned and delivering real value to the organization. In PPM, you also analyze proposed projects and programs and reject those that won’t deliver enough value to the organization.

You can learn more about project portfolio management, including an explanation of its phases and its strategic benefits to an organization.

Program Management vs. PgMO

Many organizations — especially larger ones — have a PgMO that helps guide projects and programs, and provides them with important resources. That said, you can still elevate your program management endeavors without a PgMO.

When organizations don’t have a PgMO, program managers must work harder to make sure they are using best practices to guide their program and the projects that may be a part of it. You can learn more about what a program management office does and how to set one up for your organization. 

An even more strategic entity within some organizations is an enterprise program management office (EPMO). This office focuses on aligning all projects, programs, and portfolio management with an organization’s long-term strategic objectives. You can learn more about what an EPMO does, and about other essentials of enterprise program management.

Program Management vs. Product Management

Product management focuses on developing a new product for a company. Whereas program management focuses on guiding a program (and may include a product development team), product development is often its own initiative.

In general, a product manager in charge of product management will have a much more limited focus than a program manager who is responsible for program management.

Program Management vs. Work Management

Program management involves managing multiple projects that are a part of a larger program. In work management, employees analyze and coordinate workflows to improve how they get work done and increase efficiency.

Organizations often use work management software to help coordinate and manage their work processes.

Program Management Stages

Experts consider program management to have three primary stages or phases: program definition, program benefits delivery, and program closure. You can learn more about these three phases and the related sub-phases in our guide to the program management lifecycle.

Important Program Management Components

Experts recommend that program managers consider building and using several components or plans that can help them manage a program. These components and plans can help guide the program, and ensure it is moving in the right direction.

Here are several important components:

  • Program Management Plan: A program management plan is the comprehensive playbook for the entire program. In the plan, list the goals and components of the program and all of the projects that are part of it, as well as the team members responsible for each project. Then, outline the program timelines and deliverables. The more comprehensive a program management plan is, the more useful it is to those working on projects and the program as a whole. The program management plan will be a living, breathing document; the program manager and others will update it as needed. You can look over and download a program management plan template, or a number of other useful templates in program management.
  • Program Management Office Charter: Not every organization will have a PgMO. But, if yours does, it’s vital to have a PgMO charter that establishes the scope, goals, and budget of the PgMO. This document can also foster team member discussion and collaboration. Most importantly, it sets out the key pillars of the program so that you can check future projects against them to make sure they are aligned and effective.
  • Program Governance Plan: In this simple document, identify who is responsible for the program’s governance and management. You should also spell out in broad terms the plan for managing and reviewing the program.
  • Program Communications Plan: This plan can encompass internal communications (information technology needs, content or graphics assignments, etc.), as well as external messaging. Those messages could be simply for clients or stakeholders, but they might also include press releases, media communications, newsletters, and marketing campaigns. A program manager should identify and plan for any needed communications streams, internally and externally.
  • Program Stakeholder Analysis: Use this document to keep track of all of your stakeholders, as well as what they need to know and when. This document is typically a checklist that lists all potential stakeholders, including internal stakeholders, such as top organization management, information technology managers, clients services, and other team members. You should also include external stakeholders, such as clients, vendors, contractors, and industry media. In general, your program manager will use a program stakeholder analysis; your organization likely will not share it externally. But, it is a good planning tool for ensuring that stakeholders receive the type and frequency of communications they need.
  • Issue Tracker: This should be a shared file or set of files where anyone involved in a piece of the program can log an issue, share a roadblock, make an update, ask a question, or refine a task. If your company already has a task or issue tracker, you might be able to adapt it for this use. But, it can also be helpful to create a specific issue tracker for the program. Project teams can then know they have one tracker for all pieces of the program.

Program Management Process

A program management process is the system that program leaders use to create and manage a program. As mentioned, a program generally moves through three phases: definition, benefits delivery, and closure.

Examples of Program Management

Many organizations use program management to prioritize the most important work. Strong program management is especially important in organizations with complicated products or systems.

In the below sections, you’ll find examples of program management in different departments.

Program Management in Software or Technology

A software company might work on a group of updates to a popular mapping platform. These updates might include more locations, more refined abilities to locate and map remote areas, and directions that include ways to plan complex trips.

Various project managers would oversee work on each of the new updates or components. Each project manager would have a group of team members to help him or her with the project.

A program manager would be responsible for overseeing the progress and success of each project.

Program Management in Large Technological or Science Systems

Program management is also important in large and complicated technological and scientific systems. NASA’s moon landings in the 1960s are famous examples of an organization using vital program management practices to ensure success.

Friedmann describes working on the Hubble Space Telescope for NASA, writing code for one of the onboard computers managing the telescope’s payload package.

“That,” he says, “was just one of many projects going on at the same time, being managed not only by our project managers individually, but by a program manager. That program manager wasn’t hands-on on our projects, but spent his time coordinating and planning across all the projects.”

Using Program Management to Set Goals and Measure Success

Strong program management helps project managers set clear goals for project work, set clear goals for the program as a whole, and establish and monitor metrics on program progress.

You can learn more about using metrics and key performance indicators in program management in our guide. 

Good program management also ensures the following:

  • The program manager is accessible to project managers and all team members but does not micromanage anybody.
  • Projects are completed on time and on budget, and project managers and team members identify efficiencies in moving projects forward.
  • Projects that aren’t going well or progressing are downsized or killed if needed.
  • All projects and the overall program are aligned with the organization’s strategic goals

Brown says that “a strong program manager is a good mentor and developer of his team, is continually reviewing and revising processes for maximum impact, and, most importantly, is spending time thinking about all of this strategically.”

Program Management Benefits

Strong program management benefits an organization in many ways. It helps to align projects and other work to larger strategic goals, and ensures that you tackle the most important work effectively.

Here are details on some important benefits of program management:

  • Aligns Organizational Projects and Other Work With Long-term Strategic Goals: Leaders and team members involved in projects and other random work can end up only focusing on their project and work in a way that doesn’t serve the organization. All an organization’s projects should be consistently aligned with each other, as well as with organizational goals. Good program management makes sure that happens.
  • Allows the Organization to See Interdependencies: Too often, team members work on separate projects or other work only realize very late in a process how progress on their project depends on other work — that may or may not fit with their project’s schedule. Program management allows an easy view of those interdependencies, which means that people understand and can plan for those interdependencies at project outset.
  • Allows for the Most Effective Allocation of Workers and Other Resources: Good program management allows the organization to easily see which projects need which people and which resources at which times. That means the organization doesn’t waste resources but uses them most effectively and efficiently.
  • Helps Complex Initiatives Succeed: Many organizations try to move forward complex but important work that may include a number of different teams doing different work on different projects. That work — from creating new software to constructing a new building — often would not be successful without good program management.

    With good program management, “What happens is you’ll deliver a much larger value,” says Yad Senapathy, founder and CEO of the Project Management Training Institute.  “This delivery of business benefits is really what we’re shooting for when we think about the program. Now that we understand the program as a collection of related projects — that have to be coordinated in a fashion to deliver benefits much larger than if we were to manage those individual projects separately — program management becomes a lot easier to understand.”

What Is Strategic Program Management?

Because program management is inherently strategic, there is no official distinction between it and so-called strategic project management.

The Future of Program Management

Companies will continue to need strong program managers as they manage a wide range of projects and programs. Future program managers will need even more visionary skills, to help move work forward aligned with an organization's long-term goals.

Also, as companies increasingly use Agile methodologies to manage projects, they will need managers who understand how to use Agile principles in program management.

But, program management doesn’t have to be complicated, Brown says. Good program management is simply “organized common sense tailored to an organization's context.” Programs of all sizes will need visionary leaders at the helm.

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