Fundamentals of Program Management

We often hear terms like ‘Project Management’ or ‘Program Management’ or ‘PMO’ (which is the acronym for “Project (or Program) Management Office”) in the IT industry. This article aims to bring out the similarities (and differences) between Project & Program Management. As always, we will try to make it as simple and short as possible.

Let’s start with effective Project Management – what is it?

A ‘Project’ is nothing but an activity or  a set of activities performed by an individual or a group of individuals (a team) to achieve a certain objective. Remember, a Project always has a definite time-frame as in, a specific start date & a specific end-date. Resources are clearly spelt out along with the level of their alignment to the project. For example, there could be two resources, A & B who are aligned to a project for only 50% of their time and their remaining 50% will be utilized elsewhere. Or, resources A & B can be aligned to a project for 100% of their time or resource A can be aligned to a project for only 20% and resource B can be aligned to the same project for 80%. Availability of resources for a project depends on how critical the project is to your organization.

Project milestones are closely monitored, as failure to achieve one milestone can negatively impact achieving the next milestone too. In such situations, it is incumbent upon the Project Manager to closely monitor project milestones and call out risks before such risks become a liability to the company. Missed project milestones can not only lead to additional costs but can also trigger excessive customer frustration and in many cases, loss of business to the organization.

Now, let’s take a look at Program Management. Take a look at the image below:

Elements of Program Management- Program Management Vs Project Management

Program Management Vs Project Management

When compared to a project, as defined above, effective Program Management is more of an ‘ongoing activity’. Programs are often, made up of one or multiple projects, which are run to achieve a long-term outcome. The results of Program Management are long-lasting and continue for a long time even after the completion of the ‘program’.

Let’s consider some examples to make this simpler –

1. Great Service, Inc (GSI) has a very irate customer – because GSI has almost always defaulted on meeting critical SLA’s agreed with their customer. While GSI was contractually obliged to provide at least 90% of FCFs (First Call Fixes) in less than 45 minutes, to all Critical issues reported by the customer, GSI only managed to provide less than 20% of FCFs to customer in close to 02 hours of issues being reported by the customer’s end-users.

2. Great Service, Inc (GSI) has a great team of highly talented professionals. Only, since they are not native English speaking people, these individuals have a very strong ‘local’ accent and often, in their zeal to help the customer, they end up speaking too loudly and too fast for the customer to understand. They find themselves unable to articulate properly why a particular problem has occurred and how best it can be avoided in the future. This often results in escalation from the customer that their users are not able to understand what the GSI’s Help-desk agents are saying are saying. There are even some customers who put GSI on notice that they will either have to find better English speaking support agents, else they (the customer) will be forced to look elsewhere for better service.

3. Great Service, Inc (GSI) has another major weak point – documentation. GSI does not have a properly documented knowledge-base. Many of the issues that their customers run into are often fixed by ‘experts’ who do not document how exactly that issue was fixed. Problem is, there was no problem as long as these ‘experts’ worked for GSI. But when they left, they took their expertise (knowledge) with them.

GSI, almost reluctantly, decided to hire the services of a Program Manager to look into these issues and get them back to good standing with their customers.

The Program Manager sits with the customer and:

  • Asks the customer to tell him exactly what is causing them concern and how it’s impacting their business.
  • Listens with rapt attention as the customer speaks and list down all those points that the customer is not happy about.
  • Identifies the specific issues that are impacting the customer.
  • Comes up with a plan to mitigate these specific concerns and gets it approved first, by the internal management.
  • Shares the plan with the customer and gets their approval for the same.
  • Once completed, confirms with the customer that their concerns have now been fully  addressed to their satisfaction.
  • Get’s back to BAU (business as usual).
  • Continues to monitor the account closely for any signs of deviation of service levels.

Let’s say, the customer had complained of issues mentioned in the three examples above. The Program Manager would first study the SLAs agreed upon with the customer and determine how & why exactly GSI was missing the SLAs. Come up with a plan with the Help Desk team on how to meet the FCF’s within the stipulated timeframe more effectively.  He will also have to determine if it is a ‘will’ issue or a ‘skill’ issue or worse, both and implement corrective measures. All this time, the Program Manager will also have to keep the respective stakeholders in GSI well informed about the progress being made. If something is not working out, he will have to call it out to the management well in advance, before things go from bad to worse.

On the second concern above, the Program manager will again work closely with the Help Desk team as well as the Training team and make sure that adequate soft-skill training is provided to the Help Desk agents and their ‘accent’ effectively neutralized. This will be an important parameter that will need to be monitored closely and individual feedback need to be provided to those who are not able to scale-up fast enough. The Program manager can also suggest to the management any other corrective measures necessary, which can even include hiring Help-Desk Agents with better skills. In the event of those Help Desk agents who are absolutely not able to scale up, they will have to be moved to non-customer-facing roles.

On the third concern, the Program Manager will have to work with the documentation team to get all the relevant documents/articles created/updated in the knowledge base. These articles should be properly optimized with the correct keywords and should be reviewed for ease of understanding by both internal teams as well as the customer’s end users. Often, it will be easier for the Help Desk agents to follow an article to resolve the customers problems and after that, email them the link to the relevant kb article that was followed so that the customer’s end-users can follow it the next time the same issue comes up. This will save precious time for both the customer as well as GSI Help Desk agents.

Having now worked out a plan to mitigate the three major concerns raised by the customer, the Program manager will now focus on the progress of each of these three projects.  He/she will call out any risks to any of these projects to the management so that due attention is given to them. The customer is also kept updated regularly about the progress of these projects and relevant milestones are called out, when achieved.

Customers, generally, have a great deal of patience, even in the most difficult of situations. However, it is important that we keep them properly updated. As a successful Program Manager, it is important that you think ahead of the customer, while, at the same time, realizing the constraints of your internal teams. It is only in a situation where there is lack of flow of information to the customer that we often end up in escalation situations. But this is not rocket science and can be easily avoided.

In rare cases, it is actually good to allow certain situations to be escalated by the customer so that due attention is paid to the customer’s problems by the management and other teams. But this should be only be the last option.

As you can now see, Program Management is a combination of multiple projects with specific objectives, which, when combined, help to achieve a larger outcome, which will last for a long time, long after the projects themselves have been completed.