Why managing a program is so difficult?

By Juan Carlos Guzmán Monet, PMP®, IPMA Level B®, Senior Project Manager

jcgm-fotoIt is common that organizations design strategic projects to implement their strategy. However, most of the time they tend to fail with it. The reason for this, I argue, is that projects alone will not be able to deliver the results needed for the implementation of the strategy. There is a need for a larger process of synchronizing initiatives, assignments, tasks and projects that would help to achieve the strategic goals and to make the change possible. The organization should rather establish strategic programs which, on their part, would establish projects that would take the organization to the position set in the strategy. But this is such a difficult and uncertain task. My question here is why is it so?

Managing a program is difficult for several reasons. My argument here is that the main reason is that organizations do not actually realize what a program is. They run programs as projects, and they fail to define program goals and objectives properly. I have experienced this several times during my program and project management career and noticed that for the organization it is difficult to define the program, because it has such a big impact on the way the business is run. Most specifically, it tends to have a difficulty to determine who should have decision-making power: the program or the line organization.

Programs are difficult for such companies that have strong line organizations and a large number of projects, especially if they do not have a strong project portfolio management organization, which would prioritize projects and support the implementation of the organization strategy. Because of this, programs tend to collide with the projects when it comes to priorities, as well as allocating human and financial resources. In many cases, it appears as if organizations fail to have an overall view of all the projects they run and how they contribute to the implementation of the organization’s strategy. Organization should have a method to define the priorities between the projects. Sometimes one small project may have a bigger priority than a complete program. This priority is as temporal as the project and the program themselves.

The program as defined by the PMI Standard in Program Management is “a set of related projects managed in a coordinated fashion to obtain control and benefits not available by managing them individually”.

The organization decides to build a program when the projects they are working with have collided and subsequently, the situation is intolerable. None of the projects seem to deliver results and the project staff is exhausted and their motivation is low, because they do not necessarily know what they should do and in which order and they feel that they spent large sums of money for zero benefits.

Why is it so difficult to define a program?

Organizations have their visions and strategic objectives, but they seem to have great difficulties in implementing them. The organization should be able to clearly define its immediate, mid- and long-term goals and objectives. For the projects, it is easier to define their output, e.g. install the customer relationship management system; build a 4 room apartment with 2 bathrooms, building a nuclear station. For the program, this is different, because it is about creating changes to achieve results, for example, increase the sales by 5 percent; decrease the Operational Costs by 10 % in 12 months, increase the customer’s satisfaction by 1 %, according to the NPS. Another reason for the organization to fail in its change implementation is the non-alignment of the project and its activities to the overall strategic goals and objectives, besides its maturity to implement the changes. The organization establishes projects instead of programs. The purpose of the program is to coordinate the tasks, initiatives and the projects to implement the organization’s strategy.

The programs are established to deliver benefits, for example, to improve the customer experience and the shorten the customer answering time by 5 % in the next 2 years; to improve the quality of life of the people in the region X; to improve the delivery of the organization’s solutions to customer; to increase the EBITDA by 5 %; and to increase the energy provisioning to the country by 3 % by year Y. These are examples of benefits. In the case of benefits, one project alone cannot deliver them. There should be several interrelated projects that are still unknown when the program purpose and the objectives are defined. In fact, in many cases, it is impossible to know all the projects and tasks needed to achieve them. This issue is one of the challenges the organization faces because the managers tend to dislike the uncertainty related to the program. They want to know how much the work will cost, what results will be delivered and when. In fact, they have defined in advance what exactly they want to be delivered and how it should look like. This might even lessen the innovativeness of the project and program organization.

The path from project manager to program manager.

For the project manager who is used to manage a project to achieve “one” specific goal or result the work as a program is very different and might be hard. The focus is on managing the project managers to deliver their projects; setting up new projects, initiatives and assignments with the organizations impacted; acting as an escalation point to the project managers, and working with the stakeholders to ensure their needs are fulfilled and the benefits for the organization and the customers achieved.

The program manager’s main role is to plan, to coordinate, to follow up the work and to communicate with the stakeholders to build the capabilities to deliver benefits for which the program has been set up.

It is easier to lead and manage subject matter experts that are doing the work, than those project managers who are managing those doing the work. At the beginning, a junior program manager may have conflicts with the project managers, because their management styles may conflict with those of the other project managers especially on deciding on what should be done and by whom. The program manager should trust the leaders of the projects. However, this might be difficult because of the change in his/her role, as well as the capabilities and responsibilities of the program manager.


I have presented here that those programs are set up to implement changes in the organization, to deliver benefits and to coordinate the projects and their relationship in order to achieve a level of control higher than was possible if projects were handled separately. Furthermore, I have argued that the clear definition of benefits is a critical success factor for the program definition allowing to distinguish the difference between a project and a program. From the beginning, the programs do not have a clearly defined amount of projects and the order of their implementation. Instead, this happens during the development of the program and is defined by its management team. For the reasons presented above, I am committed to state that the organization should have clearer programs that would allow them to build the capability to deliver the expected benefits and implement their strategy.

  • Jukka

    Great article about difference between project and program management! This is something that I have strucled with and the very first article that clearly specifies those differencies. Looks like Juan Carlos has been in these situations and has self learned to distinguish these management challengies by doing.