The difference between project and programme management

That IT projects tend not to deliver many sought-after benefits is not news. Accusing the usual suspects - excessive optimism,...

That IT projects tend not to deliver many sought-after benefits is not news. Accusing the usual suspects - excessive optimism, uninformed and fickle users, vapourware from suppliers, politics and changes in strategy - is also growing threadbare.

The limitations of project management, as a discipline, to facilitate the corporate transformation that today's IT enables and that organisations demand offers a more insightful explanation for many shortfalls.

Many organisations have recognised the shortcomings of traditional project management and have introduced programme management frameworks and roles to co-ordinate and align multiple projects and to act as interface with the business. Yet those that have conceived programmes as a collection of projects and have treated programme management work as an advanced form of project management have not fared well.

Research by Cranfield School of Management and SP Associates, and its subsequent application in two major organisations, shows that many experienced project and programme managers are poor at facilitating complex change. They are not incompetent, rather they approach their work from too limited a conception of what it entails and how to carry it out.

The IT manager who focuses on delivering a functioning system to agreed time, cost and performance parameters may struggle to apprehend and deal with "intrusive" emotional, cultural and political issues.

Our analysis identified four distinct conceptions, with higher-order conceptions linked with superior performance. Lower-order conceptions are grounded in traditional project management assumptions and approaches, while higher order conceptions incorporate themes of strategic management and leadership.

Our research highlights the challenges in making the transition from IT project management to excellence in programme management:

  • Success in IT project management is unlikely to be, on its own, a relevant guide to performance in managing complex programmes. Individuals tend to recreate the approach and environment which has served them well on simpler IT projects.
  • Senior managers, clients or sponsors may be holding back the development of competence. Level in the organisational hierarchy does not necessarily equate to level in the conception hierarchy. Higher-order behaviours are unlikely to be recognised and rewarded, and may even be deemed wasteful, inappropriate or disruptive.
  • Moving up the conceptual hierarchy requires effort. Non-routine experiences are important, such as working in different organisations, roles and countries.
  • Development initiatives need to stimulate new perspectives and experiences. Individuals also need time and support to embed new ways of working.

Individuals and organisations are successfully making the transition - the route map and building blocks exist.

This article outlines research conducted by Sergio Pellegrinelli of SP Associates and David Partington and Malcolm Young of Cranfield School of Management

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