How to work out if you have a project or a programme

Both projects and programmes introduce change to improve something. Neither delivers the organisation’s mission, that is they do not directly serve customers or produce something that can be sold.
Generally, people accept that there is a difference between project and programme.

On a separate, etymological note, project comes from the Latin word for “throw forth” and came into use in English in the 15th century. Programme comes from both Late Latin and Greek. It entered the vocabulary meaning “a definite plan or scheme” in the early 19th century. On this basis programmes are clearly ‘new-fangled nonsense’.

However, the nature of that difference is not commonly agreed and sometimes results in conflicting job titles, descriptions and expectations.

Size is not a good indicator and some people incorrectly describe ‘big projects’ as programmes. While size, particularly duration, is a factor in defining the nature of a body of work, there are many, more significant differences. Rather than present every nuanced example, here are three ways of telling apart projects and programmes.

  1. Programmes can be open end – projects are always bounded.
    If we consider the London 2012 Olympics, each construction site ran at least one project. Those projects ended with hand over to the games organisers. The games were also a project with a clear public end at the closing ceremony and, probably, several other ends as athletes and officials went home, and the venues passed into new ownership. On the other hand, the Legacy was a programme. It doesn’t have a defined end state, although it was time bound. The legacy programme set up, launch and oversaw many projects.
  2. Projects have solid relatively clear outcomes; programmes have aspirational goals.
    Back to the Olympics. The individual projects whether a building or the actual games are pretty much understood. Stop for a moment and consider the goals of the Legacy. They fell into four broad camps: economic, sporting, social and volunteering, and regeneration. These goals are relatively ambiguous; they are hard to describe. But all the projects (eg fund elite sport, invest £1bn in the Youth Sport Strategy) are all fairly easily bound.
  3. Project stakeholders tend to agree about the outcome, whereas programme stakeholders are likely to have very different perspectives on life.
    Sure, squabbling stakeholders beset some projects (caused by bad project definition and buy off) and some programmes boards are suspiciously conciliatory. However, because programmes are unbound and have aspirational goals, stakeholders see both the end goal and the means of achieving it from their own perspective. And many differing perspectives often result in disagreements. The art of programme management is untangling these differences and getting agreement to a set of goals that will benefit the organisation and that the programme can achieve.

You now work out whether you have a project or a programme;

So, what?

Can it be that managing projects is all that different to managing programmes? Oh yes. The Programme Manager has to build consensus from chaos, provide clarity from ambiguity and maintain cohesion when project forces threaten to pull the programme apart. By this definition, the Programme Manager is a necessarily a different beast to many Project Managers. And many would argue a Programme Manager has a responsibility to Project Managers, perhaps as a leader, certainly by setting standards and providing a toolkit.

You might ask, ‘where is the ambiguity between project and programme?’. I feel a misuse of the name Programme Manager comes from the term PMO. When it means Programme Management Office, we start to see people called Programme Manager who collate data, report progress and administrate the risk process; among myriad other tasks. Their role is important and centralising the activity to support multiple projects and programmes can improve quality and efficiency (so I am a fan in principle). But the staff of the PMO are not Programme Managers. I heard them called Programme Officers, Project Controllers, Project or Programme Support staff and Project Administrators. Does it matter? Does a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Well, Juliet thought so of her Romeo and providing we have a common understanding it probably doesn’t really matter. However, if the Programme Manager is challenging methods and bringing fresh insight, while the stakeholders expect nothing more than regular reporting, then the individuals involved are in for a bumpy ride.

Next time: Doing something badly, doesn’t make it a bad thing

photo credit: sam.naylor Pensive via photopin (license)

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