Pros and cons of programmes

Before you decide you need a programme, let’s consider some of the chief pros and cons.

The advantages of running a programme

Probably the most important factor is the realisation of benefits. Without a programme to look after the benefits from beginning to end, then there is a very real risk of those benefits not accruing at all and therefore the programme (and the constituent projects) being seen as a waste of money and other resources. If programme management is only seen as benefits management (although there is much more to it than that), then that is a good reason for considering the implementation of programmes.

As has already been mentioned, it is the control of projects that is the key reason for considering programmes of work. The justification for adding the extra layer of management is the ability to ensure that the correct projects are:

  • Being undertaken
  • Being prioritised correctly
  • Being resourced correctly
  • Are progressing appropriately.

With the correct degree of management information, a programme allows the senior managers to evaluate one project against another objectively and to make value judgements about projects in a much more efficient and effective manner.

The further advantages are probably fairly obvious:

  • It allows senior managers the correct level and degree of detail of information, consolidated from a number of projects and related work, to enable them to make the appropriate decisions about which projects to continue or (more usefully and less commonly) to stop, to resource (at the expense perhaps of another project) and/or to put more management effort into (perhaps because of its strategic importance to the organisation). Senior managers should not generally need to get into the detail of specific projects. Instead, they have the assurance of knowing that the programme team are checking on projects on their behalf and will raise at board level any important issues found in the projects.
  • A programme allows some consistency across the organisation as to how projects are run. It can help to impose some common standards for simple things, like documentation, or for more complex areas, such as a harmonised risk management system compliant with corporate and regulatory standards. Agreeing the approach that is taken by all projects to business cases, risk registers, issue management and related matters can have a significant bearing on the cost of running projects within an organisation. These sorts of standards are those which determine, to a large degree, the overall maturity of an organisation when assessment is made of the programme and project maturity.

A career structure for organisations that run a lot of projects and so have specialist project managers can benefit significantly from the above approach.

  • It can also be very helpful if an external company (outsourcing, for example) comes in to take over part of the work of the parent body. The standards imposed by a programme can then also be used, firstly to assess potential providers and then to manage them, once engaged.
  • It can also provide a safety net for less experienced project managers so that, if things start to go wrong, someone will be available to assist, perhaps in the form of a programme manager or other expert.
  • The reduction of risk within both projects and programmes is another reason for using programmes. If the risk is better monitored, particularly when it is between different projects or even outside the programme altogether, then the chances of that risk causing the major problems that a project alone might suffer is significantly reduced.

The disadvantages of running programmes

The first and most important disadvantage has to be the overhead. It costs money to run programmes, not only in terms of the people involved, but also their necessary expenditure in terms of office space, computer resources, storage and working areas and the like. This expenditure can be considerable, but it would be hoped that each and every job identified would be appropriately defined, have a well-written job description and be fully justifiable as an integral part of the organisation’s delivery of successful projects and programmes. Nevertheless, only when this overhead is significantly outweighed by the measurable benefits accruing from its implementation should programme management be allowed to happen.

There are further disadvantages, though these can largely be overcome.

  • It can be seen as making projects more distant from the executives who provide the funding and therefore perhaps less accountable to those executives. There is, though, another side to this: the executives are not able to ‘dabble’ in the projects, which reduces unnecessary interventions, thereby making projects more successful. Senior executives should provide the vision and the drive, but should rarely be involved with the day-to-day management of projects.
  • An extra layer of bureaucracy can be less than helpful with communications, which must be effective if any project or programme is to be successful. However, a programme can take on the main role of communications, thereby ensuring a that a consistent message is delivered in a standard and easily recognisable format, to reduce the chance of misinformation or confusion. It might also reduce the work load on a hard-pressed project.
  • A programme may impose inappropriate standards on the projects, causing them additional work. Again, it would be hoped this can be avoided in well-run programmes. Not all projects may need to have full business cases – for example, if their work is principally infrastructure based. If a programme requires all projects to deliver a business case, this may well cause unnecessary work for certain projects.
  • Reporting for the sake of reporting, notably to senior staff or programmes, is a commonly-heard complaint. This can be circumvented by ensuring that reports are consistent and produced once, but used many times. The degree of detail required at the different levels of control will alter the style of reporting, but it is not difficult to consider who needs to know what and then to devise a report meeting their needs, based on the information already provide by the projects.

Is it very risky?

It should not be the case that using a programme structure causes additional risk; indeed, it should be the reverse, with the level of risk reduced as a result of the programme. However, there are risks associated with a programme.

If the programme takes resources away from hard-pressed projects, this in itself is likely to reduce the overall effectiveness and efficiency of the projects. Projects should never be seen as a source of resources, financial or otherwise, for programmes.

Using project managers to implement programmes could be a risky solution. Their skills and competences are different and even a very experienced project manager may not have the necessary skills to run an effective programme. More importantly, it is likely they will try to use their own experience, perhaps of big complex projects, as the basis for establishing a programme. This, too, would increase the risk rather than reduce it and could well result in even less successful projects and programmes. There is more on this elsewhere in this resource (Leadership versus management) and later in this topic .

The risk of a poor implementation of programme management is very significant. Wrongly implemented, a programme will do no more than add additional unnecessary weight to drowning projects, with the result that more will fail and the overall benefits of the programme and the constituent projects are lost. It is critical that if it is decided by the senior management of the organisation that programme management is the way ahead, then a properly constituted and planned project to implement programme management must be established. Trying to do it on a shoe-string or in the margins of the business-as-usual will almost always end in failure. It would also show a clear lack of commitment by the senior managers, which in itself is going to increases the risk of failure overall.

That is not to say that some of the disciplines of programme management cannot be used very successfully in an organisation without a formal adoption of programme management. The consistent use of the controls, reporting techniques, risk and issue management and communications could all lead to very successful major projects and does not automatically mean there should be, for example, an identified programme manager.