What is a programme?

The word programme – spelt the English way, as distinct from program, which is usually only used in the UK to describe a set of codes for a computer – has over the years had a variety of meanings and uses. It has been used to describe a large single piece of work (a programme of public buildings), a set of projects, one big project, as a salary delineator (I was a project manager, but am now paid more and so I am a programme manager), as a method of providing promotion with little change of responsibilities (from senior project manager to programme manager, but doing the same job), as a way of highlighting the importance of the job holder (he is a senior officer and so must be a programme manager) and so on. It should be noted that in the USA and other related countries, the single spelling of program is used in all circumstances.

In recent years, while some of these uses have continued, there has been a convergence on the general principle that a programme is a set of projects and other activities that together achieve one or more strategic purpose(s) for the organisation running it. It is in that general manner that this section uses the word. There are, however, three main types of programme. Each will consist of a number of projects but, depending on the purpose and the manner in which they are put together, will have different intentions and purposes.

Why might I need a programme?

In most organisations, most of the time, there is change going on. Indeed, some worthy scholar once said that the only constant in life today is change and the only variable is the rate of change. This means therefore that there is always likely to be a reason to do something differently, to change what is the current practice or to move into new areas of business. Each of these requires some work to be done that doesn’t fit in with the normal everyday business–as-usual type activities. This type of work is usually called a project. Project Management is dealt with elsewhere in this resource.

Change does not necessarily assure progress, but progress implacably requires change. Education is essential to change, for education creates both new wants and the ability to satisfy them.

Henry Steele Commager

If you have a number of projects running at the same time within an organisation, problems can begin to appear. There might be (and very frequently is) a limitation on the available resource to carry out the project work. This could be people in general, people with the required skill set, or any other resource you care to mention. It may be necessary to decide which project is more important (however you might choose to assess importance) and therefore warrants more of the limited funding, time, resource or other requirement. If there are a number of projects running within the same area, there will almost certainly be conflict of one form or another between them. This is where the programme comes in.

A programme is designed to reduce that conflict and to ensure that the organisation continues to do the best it can with the limited resources available to it. Essentially, you could say that programme management entails doing the right projects, as distinct from project management, which is intended to do the projects right. The coordination it offers makes the successful achievement of the projects it looks after a much higher probability than if each project were to be allowed to run independently.

All sorts of issues can be considered:

  • The timings of the deliverables from different projects could be in conflict with one another
  • It has been known for one project to deliver something which a subsequent project then removes to make way for their deliverable
  • One major problem with organisations today is that of change overload, evident in the general lack of interest and malaise displayed by staff for anything new, suggested or imposed by the management.

Managing the rate of change, and the projects that deliver it, is the role of the programme, so the readiness for the next change must be assessed before inflicting it on a weary workforce. Too much change can be very counter-productive and can lead to little change of significance being embedded as business-as-usual. The successful embedding of change must be the ultimate aim for any project or programme.

So the answer to the question ‘Why might I need a programme?’ is fairly simple: if you are running more than a very small number of straightforward projects and if you have limited resources (notably of people with the right skills), then a programme may well prove to be advantageous. Naturally there are downsides, discussed later, but in general it is probably better in these circumstances to ask yourself ‘Why should I not run a programme?’