For which projects do I need a programme?

There is no sensible answer to this because there are no constraints with which to be concerned. Any projects can be run under a programme, but there are perhaps some groupings that are more useful than others.

Sometimes, the move to create programmes from a set of projects that have been underway for a while occurs simply to allow the one in charge to get a salary increase or a raise in job title. This is not good and such a programme will probably add little to the value of the work being done. Indeed, it is likely to add little more than unnecessary bureaucracy.

The obvious reason for grouping projects is when they have shared resources, shared impact, shared funding or shared goal types. Where there are clear and critical dependencies between projects, these are best managed by someone who is sitting above each project with an overall and wider perspective than those who are closely involved with the projects themselves.

Sometimes hard decisions will need to be made: for example, project A will be delayed by three months to allow project B to take all the appropriate resources because it is more important to the business that project B completes on time. The project manager of project A will be less than amused and, without the overall coordination of a programme, may well fight the decision very successfully.

There are different types of programmes that could be considered and these are discussed in this section. These in turn lead to different types of projects being brought together. It is not a general requirement that the projects should be of a similar type (all building projects, for example), although this might well be a good reason to institute a programme, in order to reduce the difficulties caused by a shared resource pool. It is usual to consider the linkages between projects as the key factor in deciding whether or not to bring projects under one programme.

Are programmes only suitable for big organisations?

The simple answer is probably yes, in order to cover the additional cost of programmes, but once again there are circumstances in which smaller organisations could take some critical value from the use of small programmes. The formality with which programmes are run need not be too onerous. This means that, for example, it might be acceptable to use some of the guiding principles of a programme management methodology, but to ask the most senior project manager to undertake the work. This could be a pragmatic way of running a programme at minimum cost while the benefits are retained.

The controls put in place to run a programme would be equally applicable to many larger projects or combination of projects. This is also true of the planning required and the management of risks where the same principles and processes can be used, regardless of the size or complexity of the work being undertaken. It is a matter of degree: how much or how formally any of these controls or processes need to be undertaken will be determined differently in each and every circumstance in which the work is completed. A small project with very high risk will require much more control than a large programme with very limited risk.

The focus on benefits is perhaps the overriding factor. If there is no programme, who will ensure that the benefits of undertaking what could be very costly work are actually realised? If there is no awareness of benefits, then there is every chance that people may undertake serious amounts of work with no real return. The onus will clearly fall on line management and ultimately the heads of the organisation. If they are unaware of this requirement they may well suffer the consequences, the ultimate one being reduced profitability or the equivalent.


If there is a major piece of work to be undertaken, regardless of whether we call it a project or a programme, there will be a certain amount of overhead if effective management practice is to be put in place.

With a small project, the overhead will be small, but as complexity, risk, inter-dependencies and scale increase, the overhead also rises. There will come a point when the overhead needs to rise to a significant level. It is then that a decision must be taken as to whether the controls of a project are sufficient or whether it is now necessary to look at the wider management that programme management brings.

Is there anything else, such as portfolios?

There is now a commonly accepted view that says there is a hierarchy of work that is not business-as-usual work. At the top should be one or more portfolios of work. In many organisations, two portfolios might be acceptable, with one looking after the day-to-day work and ensuring appropriate improvements are made, while the second is looking at radical change to bring about entirely new or different services, products, processes or other changes to the organisation. These portfolios would be a permanent fixture on the agenda of the board of directors or equivalent, and it is as much about giving them the necessary information and control mechanisms to enable them to know how their business is developing, as controlling the work being undertaken.

Underneath these might be one or more programmes or major projects of work. So if the next layer down from a portfolio is a programme, then, as mentioned earlier, the work done within the programme is likely to be a set of projects or related activities. It is, however, also likely that a single major project could be run outside the control of any one programme, perhaps because it was so significant, large, expensive, strategically important or for some other reason. In either case, the oversight of such work would be from the portfolio level, by the board of directors or equivalent.

These projects and programmes will all be temporary governance structures until such time as the work is completed.

It is likely that there will be more than one programme within a major portfolio and, similarly, more than one project in a programme, but there are by no means any formal rules about such things. Essentially, there should be just enough programmes and projects as required to get the work done efficiently and effectively. Again, it is the overhead to bear in mind. Governance structures require people and hence cost, and so should only be considered if the structures are, overall, adding value to the work being done.

In the fairly recent past, there has been a mention of portfolios of projects within a programme. This is acceptable, but the term is now tending to be replaced by other words, such as dossier, to signify groups of related projects. In addition, there has been a lot of mention of the management of portfolios of projects outside the realms of programmes – commonly called portfolio management. This is often used simply to deal with the ‘normal’ work issues of resource conflict or prioritisation of projects that are otherwise more or less unrelated. In this, a number of seemingly independent projects are managed, from a general viewpoint, by a portfolio manager, who oversees the correct allocation of resources and priority. This is not really a separate governance structure from that of a programme – just a different name