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Programme vs project management: making sense of the difference

Author: Cameron Tonkin, Business Unit Director

In today’s continuing development of the project management profession and increasing stakeholder expectations on delivering project benefits, having a recognised, effective and consistent way to manage the complex infrastructure projects designed to meet national needs is critical. In the last few decades project management has continued to evolve to define the processes, tools and technologies to support projects being delivered successfully, safely, meeting cost, quality and time demands. However there is still much more to do, for example, the National Audit Office report ‘Delivering major projects in government’ January 2016, highlights that of 149 projects with a combined value of £411b a third of these due to be delivered in the next five years are rated as being in doubt or unachievable if action is not taken to improve delivery.

149 projects with a combined value of £411b a third of these due to be delivered in the next five years are rated as being in doubt or unachievable if action is not taken to improve delivery

The National Audit Office Report - Delivering Major Projects in Government

To meet the national needs with this volume of individual projects highlights the increasingly obvious need that some interdependent projects are better managed together in a more coordinated way.

We are thus seeing the growing presence of programme management, or managing a group of projects holistically not only to deliver greater efficiencies but to ensure that these projects produce the intended benefits for stakeholders.

First, let’s look briefly at project management. Although people have been managing projects for many years, it’s only in the relatively recent past that project management has become a distinctive, formalised profession. Even 12 years ago, when I did a Master’s degree in project management, there were few institutions offering this type of course compared to today.

Project management has become more sophisticated and recognised as a career choice which is much needed along with industry recognised qualifications. I believe that project management is becoming more characterised by leadership, vision, right mind set and less so on the technical tool kit. Good stakeholder skills, comfortable at being accountable and never losing sight of the deliverable benefits is key for project and programme managers.

Despite this, the challenge remains at how best to deliver the complex national infrastructure to meet the UK national needs. Are these all standalone projects or interconnected activities that will gain from improved coordination on matters such as resource, design-interface and benefits optimisation for stakeholders? This is where programme management and the programme management office (PMO) provide valuable cost saving and benefit solution.

The growing demand for programme management reflects the realisation that in some instances a group of projects managed together strategically can deliver more than the sum of the parts. Programme management is designed to take a larger and more comprehensive view of the intended deliverables by component projects and their benefits. In addition, management of resources for greater efficiencies, risk and stakeholder management are key functions and advantages to having a programme manager and supporting PMO operation.

Projects by their very nature are focused on providing outputs on deliverables against time, cost, scope, and risk. Programme management puts far more emphasis on the desired outcomes, whether for the organisation, the customer or the stakeholder ― or all three ―along with saving money by reducing duplication of costs and improving efficiencies in resource optimisation.

However, there can be misinterpretations of a programme and following is a few:

  1. Programme management is not managing a schedule
  2. Project managers make good programme managers. Not always, as project managers mostly focus on core deliverables such as time, cost and quality. Programme managers focus on organisational priorities and stakeholder benefits. These may need to change based on internal or external organisational factors such as cancelling projects or re-prioritising deliverables to meet changing needs
  3. Programmes are simply ‘large projects’ – not so. A programme is a cluster of common projects linked together by their dependencies and risks
  4. Project success = programme success: not always, there are cases of successful project delivery but the benefits failed to materialise after the project completed. This is where the function of a programme plays a critical role. Project benefits are often only realised after a project has completed, which means a programme and its PMO operations run beyond the term of component projects.

For example, we might build a railway line as one project. But if we were also building bridges, stations, underpasses and diverting highways, it makes sense in any number of ways to bring each project together under one central programme function so we can better coordinate resources such as procurement of bulk materials and manage deliverables ultimately reducing costs and hassle while maintaining certainty of deliverable benefits.

We are getting smarter about programme management all the time. In many respects its purpose is to provide a steady state for projects as they and their individual deliverable phases come and go. But we do face a few challenges. First, as with any evolving discipline, we need to ensure that everyone involved is clear about why a programme exists, their roles and responsibilities and the value it will bring or perhaps not bring leading to a decision not to continue with a PMO investment. Secondly, we have to make sure we have sufficient skills and capabilities through the right training and career paths.

My colleague, Shane Forth, addresses this area in his recent article - Project vs programme managers: the right skills for the right job.


This article is part of a programme management series and first appeared in www.infrastructure-intelligence.com

If you would like to discuss this article with Cameron please email [email protected]


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