Five principles of program management

Program management takes project management to a new level -- by taking into consideration how the project will affect the rest of the organization and other operational processes. In this month's column, James Champy offers five essential program management principles for CIOs.

The disciplines of project management have long been part of IT work. A development project seldom begins without a plan -- complete with measurable milestones, staffing requirements, costs and deliverables -- and a person with the skills to manage the job. Today, a plethora of automated tools are also available to help. But many IT projects still fail to deliver on their promise. Either their business impact never materializes, or...

they end up taking longer and costing dramatically more to develop than anticipated.

Unfortunately for many companies, there is an inverse relationship between the size of a project and its likelihood of success. Big blowups are also very public -- like the failure of the nearly $200 million FBI systems project to share information across law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The private sector is not immune. I have seen many ERP projects fail, like one $85 million, three-year effort that never delivered. But smaller projects also get in trouble or unexpectedly become bigger projects.

The cause may be a breakdown in basic project management disciplines: an inadequate plan, late staffing, failures of inspection or simply poor execution. But increasingly, project breakdowns occur because of a lack of program management -- not project management -- disciplines and skills. That's because most IT projects today cut across multiple parts of an organization and are increasingly broad in applications scope. An ERP project is a good example of this phenomenon, but even a finance or human resources project touches multiple departments, functions and processes within a company.

Project management, as its name suggests, usually focuses on systems development activities and related processes, like staffing. But for complex, multidepartmental, or multifunctional systems, a traditional project management focus is too narrow. Program management goes beyond just the system in scope. It includes the project's business purpose, the operational processes that will be affected, the required technology infrastructure and the system's organizational impact. It's a much bigger job than an IT organization has historically undertaken. But an IT manager who says that program management is someone else's job, does so at his own peril.

The best scenario is a program management partnership between IT and business managers. But IT managers have a unique perspective of how work flows through a company. Although volunteering to be a program manager might look like risky business, it's guaranteed to broaden your skills. At a minimum, an IT professional needs to know something about program management. It's even riskier business not to know what's at stake. So, here are a few program management principles to keep in mind.

Have a solid business case for the work. Always know why you are doing a project, and how the performance of your business is expected to be improved. If what's expected isn't clear, your project -- or program -- is already in trouble. There will be no guide for making important decisions, like what to spend.

Make sure that you have active executive direction. The more parts of a business a system touches, the more decisions that will have to be made. Different departments, business functions or divisions will have different views of what a system must do, and someone has to settle the inevitable arguments and drive for standardization. Otherwise, the project will expand dramatically in scope, time and costs. A senior line business executive has to be on duty to make the calls.

Know there are process changes as well as technology changes. Every system enables some business process. You must be sure that your business partners are preparing for the process changes that are driving the need for a new or modified system. If the business isn't ready for the changes, your project will have been a waste of the company's resources.

Create a deep team with the very best people. A program requires people with both technology and business skills. The program staff must intimately understand the parts of the business that are being affected. Most major systems projects will significantly affect the future of the company. Don't settle for staff members who just happen to be available. Go for the best.

Keep in mind that a program is a process of continuous improvement. Almost every industry is going through major change, driven by forces of globalization and technology. That means companies must also be changing, continuously improving their performance. A program may never be complete, although the systems within a program must be operable with quality and reliability. A program manager's job may never be done. Could it be a job for life?

James Champy is chairman of Perot Systems Corp.'s consulting practice and also head of strategy for the company. He is also the author of the best-selling books Reengineering the Corporation, Reengineering Management, The Arc of Ambition and X-Engineering the Corporation.

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