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The Programme Management Symphony

Different organisations deal with change in different ways but most use variations of portfolios, programmes and projects. If a project delivers a single output and a programme delivers a strategic set of outcomes from a variety of outputs, a portfolio is a manageable group of programmes and projects (sometimes all of an organisations programmes and projects).

There are many takes on the role of the Project Manager and in my time I have heard many great analogies for the people who manage the day-to-day delivery of these initiatives. Lion Tamer was a good one; train driver is another great comparison; a Furby is one I hear the PPM community using more and more especially in agile development circles (in that you have bigger eyes and ears so that you do more listening and observing than talking).

But what of the Programme Manager?

Not always present in some organisations. Not always appreciated in others. Not always necessary especially in smaller businesses where management resources may be at a premium. But when they are needed, programme managers play a pivotal role in achieving organisational goals through large scale change programmes.

The best analogy I have to offer is that the role of a programme manager is akin to the role of a conductor in an orchestra. Think about it:

  • Each musician in the orchestra would be a project officer with responsibility for bringing at least one sound to the symphony (or at least one outcome to the programme, often more); the principal in each group would make a good project manager.

  • Before the orchestra tunes up, each player needs to know how to play! They have training, support and guidance available to them much so that the best orchestras have each musician playing to the best of their ability.

  • Each member of the orchestra needs the right instrument; these are the tools (resources) that are required so that you can deliver your part of the performance – for consistency, the programme needs consistent toolsets so that everyone looks and feels like they are on the same page.

  • On that note (the puns are unavoidable, sadly) each member of the orchestra needs some sheet music, a good analogy for the plans that make sure you deliver the right notes at the right time; a project plan might be the music of a single instrument but somehow all of these sounds need to come together in a unified symphony.

  • The orchestra is arranged in a structure that gives it the optimum performance impact (e.g. putting all the brass, string or woodwind players together is similar to making sure project teams are co-located).

  • Personally, I like to think of the percussion section of an orchestra being a great analogy for the Programme Management Office (PMO) – the literal drumbeat of the programme, ensuring a steady rhythm in delivery by keeping project managers in check with reporting cycles, checkpoints, dashboards, etc.

  • For completeness, you could say that a portfolio manager would be something like the Musical Director or maybe the manager of the concert hall. Someone who sits slightly removed from the actual performance and provides a more senior steer such as booking performances.

  • The audience usually knows what to expect when they are told what music the orchestra is going to play and the whole point of the performance is to deliver an outcome that is expected and that delivers (or even exceeds) the requirements of the audience – this is the benefit they get from paying to come and watch the show!

The key role of the conductor (our Programme Manager) is to make sure that everyone stays in tune and in time during the performance. This is a critical role as without the guidance and facilitated support of the Programme Manager, the delivery of programme outcomes is at risk from poor management of interdependencies, cross-programme risks, shared issues and constraints, resource can be a challenge to keep multiple projects and sub-programmes moving forward together.

The Conductor’s Baton is a good equivalence for the way in which a programme manager provides leadership to the various members of the programme. To do the job effectively, a conductor would need to be able to see the full score at all times, understanding how everything in the musical arrangement fits together. That would be your Programme Plan!

It goes further than just the performance too. After each show, the conductor will be in a good position to provide feedback to each of the musicians. This helps to encourage them, guiding them in how to improve and identifying what might have gone better in their last performance (lessons learned). This might be the greatest missed trick of the Programme Manager as they have to potential to give a more critical performance assessment because they can see the bigger picture of where each member of each team in the programme fits into its success.

So how does this analogy help us to take more from this pivotal role? Analogies are a little bit of fun but they can give you a different perspective on particular organisational challenges. Try looking at how your business is structured and assess whether you are using programme management in the most pragmatic way. If not, what can you do to provide the same level of authoritative leadership, motivation and expertise across your programmes? Maybe you will find opportunities to add the same level of value that a good conductor such as André Rieu, Leonard Bernstein or Sir Simon Rattle could bring to a potentially great orchestra.

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