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Growing Project Managers into Program Managers

As a program manager, a question that I commonly face is: “We are starting a large program, and our team has a really smart project manager whom we would like to place in a program management role. Do you have templates you can give him/her to help get started?”

This question worries me, because this treats program management as a larger project, or something that can be achieved by a competent project manager with the right templates. I think this understates the difference in project and program management; the central difference being that fundamentally, they operate in different places in the knowledge funnel – a program manager primarily uses Heuristics while a project manager uses Algorithms.

I’ll summarize the ideas in a knowledge funnel below (a search for Roger Martin or the Design of Business will provide more details, including some of Martin’s slides on the topic, which I highly recommend):

The knowledge funnel has three stages, each with increasing knowledge of the problem to be solved. In the first stage, the problem is a mystery. The process of solving a mystery starts with questions, and we eventually develop certain ways of working called heuristics that allow us to tackle the mystery. As we develop more experience and expertise, we refine these ways of working into algorithms. Now, while each successive stage enables us to move faster and solve a problem with lower skills, it is however important to recognize that each stage ends up focusing on a smaller problem; we go from a larger mystery of delivering business value using IT to using an algorithm to deliver a specific project output (perhaps a tool customized to specifications).

From an IT vendor perspective (especially from an Indian IT vendor perspective), delivery of large and complex programs is still not at a stage where project managers have algorithms to deal with delivery of value. A classic algorithm that project managers use is the PDCA (Plan – Do – Check – Act). This works well to deliver defined activities (especially those that can be captured in .mspp files). However, negotiating the definition of success, navigating politics and an outcome (as opposed to output) orientation are activities that cannot be tracked linearly.

Making the change from a project to a program manager involves providing experiences that allow a manager to understand the heuristics and to practice adopting them. Providing templates cannot achieve these experiential skills.

In my next post, I will talk about some of the heuristics I use in my program management work. Meanwhile, feel free to share your thoughts on it.

  • Anshuman Singh

    Avinash, interesting perspective.

    It would not only apply to Programme Management but also many other disciplines. By providing templates, you can’t make a Developer an Architect. You can’t make someone a Business Analyst by handing over a Use Case template. For that matter, even a (true) Project Manager would first rely on Heuristics to create a Project Plan and amend it (again based on Heuristics) as the project moves along. The catalogue of available heuristics increases as one gains more experience. Any strategy evolves as things progress – be it Business or even writing a small piece of code.

    In the end it’s about complexity of problems. Programmes are more complex because of their fuzzy definitions and boundaries.

    Problems that are complex (or for that matter new) would require Heuristics (trial and error) in solving them. What better place to see it than, seeing it in children as they acquire new (and often basic) skills. Heuristics is an intrinsic part of how we learn as humans. And when the problems and their solutions become predictable, it turns into algorithms. Just how my drive to my new-office may start as a Heuristic (trying alternate routes & modes) but eventually become an Algorithm.

    And probably that’s why Wise Men share Heuristics as words of wisdom, but never Templates.

    Keep writing,
    Anshuman
    http://uk.linkedin.com/in/singhanshuman

  • Production management

    I might think when you started your work/projects you need to plan some management by doing that it’s easier to run your programs and to get better results.