Every so often it is a good idea to do a check-in on some of the things we have made long-standing assumptions about, particularly when it comes to jargon and lexicon. Our language evolves, updates, and adapts very quickly alongside the quick pace of change in our culture and technology. However, we still carry with us the historical baggage of past meanings and contexts.
The business world is rife with jargon, nomenclature, specialized lexicon, and acronyms beyond the limits of retention of the human brain. This makes it possible to be both extremely precise and maddeningly vague at the same time. Words and phrases can have more than one meaning and therefore be borrowed across disciplines, providing for genuine confusion.
Recently I was speaking with a colleague about business development. After a full 30 minutes of conversation, I realized that we were talking about two completely different things. I was speaking of business development in the more recently adopted definition akin to "sales" and my colleague was speaking of business development in its more traditional understanding of actually planning and building a business, not "developing" sales leads.
That exchange got me to thinking about all the various "standard" business related terms we use every day that seem clear enough, but perhaps are not. One of the classic culprits that jumped immediately to mind is the definition of Program Management. Rather than wax on with an etymological history of the phrase, I thought I would address five common myths about program management to help properly define the phrase.
Myth #1: Program Management is just another word for IT
Program management is a function of managing a number of projects that are related to a strategic purpose or goal. Program managers maintain a strategic view and help to drive the contributing projects. There are program managers in Information Technology (IT) and program management is a useful function in IT engagements. However, when you hear the phrase Program Management, it does not exclusively refer to IT-based projects, coding, or software development. Program management is used successfully in every industry and it can be utilized in any complex project environment. Rule of thumb: When you hear "Program Management" think of a very large project made up of many smaller projects that all have to be coordinated. This can be necessary in any industry.
Myth #2: PM-ing requires Gantt charts and other heavy-duty industrial-scale processes and tools
Many tools, concepts, and practices have been created to advance the ability of program managers to master increasingly complex project and program challenges, while leveraging more and more capability from their teams. Many of the tools and techniques are for a specific scenario or purpose but have been "borrowed" for other uses. Many methodologies require an "all in" approach that is actually not very flexible, making it difficult to borrow just one part and make it work effectively in a different context. Program management is about planning outcomes and organizing complexity. You can do that with just a pen and paper if necessary. And in many cases, PM-ing is more about effective communication than any diagram, process input, or timesheet. A rule of thumb: There are many methodologies available, but an effective program manager first focuses on understanding the objectives they have to meet, the resources they have available to them, the risks they can expect, and then develop a strategy to navigate. No one tool or methodology fits all, and not every tool is needed every time.
Myth #3: Program Management is a part of Operations
If it's not IT then it must be Operations! Program Management has also become associated exclusively with the purview of project execution. This a key function of program management, but is not the sole domain of program managers. Many people liken program managers to contractors on a construction site, which is a decent analogy. But, PM-ing is not just about "construction" or managing the building of something. Any complex project environment is ripe for the strategic skills of a program manager, whether in marketing, Operations, even IT, and any other part of a business that needs to drive a complex effort to some end.
Myth #4: Planning and reporting are all that are needed for project success
There is often a misconception that program management in general is overkill. A program management office/organization (PMO) is bureaucracy, overhead, and will slow things down. This overly-simplified thinking holds to a false logic: A well-planned project and good reporting is all you need to get you to "done." More projects and programs fail due to under-planning than over-planning. Regardless of the approach, planning and reporting need to be relevant, consistent, and consumed in a timely way to be acted upon. Effective program managers know how to deliver results. Results, it should be noted, include clearing up misunderstandings, bridging divides of communication among project contributors, holding participants accountable, poking holes in assumptions, defining a plan for success, adjusting that plan time and again, negotiating issues and challenges, compromising where necessary, and arriving at "go live" with something that actually works as intended. Here's a quick tip: Any project that starts by defining reporting metrics will be a badly run effort.
Myth #5: Planning and reporting is all PMs know how to do
On the flip side of the same planning/reporting coin, there is also a misconception that program managers just do Myth #4. Program management is not just about planning out a project and then creating dashboards and reports. At times program management may get a bad rap because of the vast number of metrics that can be used (and over used) to measure the progress of the projects being driven. Anyone who has been required to enter their time in Microsoft Project Server could be forgiven for developing such stigma against PMs.
Remember, much of both project and program management is about identifying risks, qualifying the unknown, and quantifying the results. However, this can create nightmarish Excel spreadsheets and badly conceived "Executive Summary Reports" that are more work to create than any insight they may generate. Effective program managers know how to deliver results (see #4's debunking above). A rule of thumb: An effective program manager will plan the path, survey the path, course correct, and deliver.
With these myths dispelled you can see that program managers deal with and manage complexity in any realm in which such skill is needed, regardless of industry or discipline. And even though you now know that "PM" is not a synonym for "IT", you may still glaze over when a passionate program manager starts talking excitedly about the new insights gleaned in the discovery phase of their latest engagement. And that is OK. Just compliment them on their ability to navigate complexity.