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.
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 program management office (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.”
What Is Strategic Program Management?
Because program management is inherently strategic, there is no official distinction between it and so-called strategic program 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.
Streamline Your Program Management Efforts with Real-Time Work Management in Smartsheet
Empower your people to go above and beyond with a flexible platform designed to match the needs of your team — and adapt as those needs change.
The Smartsheet platform makes it easy to plan, capture, manage, and report on work from anywhere, helping your team be more effective and get more done. Report on key metrics and get real-time visibility into work as it happens with roll-up reports, dashboards, and automated workflows built to keep your team connected and informed.
When teams have clarity into the work getting done, there’s no telling how much more they can accomplish in the same amount of time. Try Smartsheet for free, today.