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A new paradigm for program management

Peter Reefman
February 25, 2011

There is often a gap between the strategic vision and plans of a corporate executive or board and the immediate needs experienced by staff at the coalface. Responding to the latter is generally a more tactical focus, possibly consuming resources that might otherwise be directed at addressing the corporate strategies. Likewise, without comprehensive communication and engagement, grassroots tactical solutions may take portions of the company down a path that doesn’t synchronise well with longer-term strategies, potentially making future changes more difficult.

Here are some thoughts on the creative tension between that top-down versus bottom-up focus in program management, with some examples that have helped build a greater sense of engagement for the customers involved in these programs.

What’s the plan?

I read an article that referenced Danish book Project Management in Loosely Coupled Systems (Christensen and Kreiner, 1991), which espoused the view that trying to be rational by sticking to the plan will have you lose sight of the changing world and come up with something that no one really wants any longer. This was certainly a good primer for thinking out of the box.

On a recent project management assignment, a key customer/manager, Max (not his real name), had a keen desire to counter the negative experiences and perceptions of recent projects and implementations. These projects unfortunately increased the workload for his team, with little perception of a wider benefit to the rest of the organisation to make them seem worthwhile.

The work environment saw their tools get old and less reliable, a wider scope of work expected of them, an increased number of jobs per day, and a more complex infrastructure being managed—also old and under progressively more load—an all-too-familiar litany in many organisations. With further significant changes due to be delivered, Max wanted to deliver small, beneficial changes for his group as a means of not only helping them overcome business problems but to give them positive experiences of change where the whole change gives them something valuable, something they will appreciate.

Max arranged for a small database application to replace four essentially identical handwritten forms, each of which went to different parts of the organisation. While a planned major (strategic) replacement of systems for this group would probably replace these manual forms, this implementation was still some time off. The new (interim) system was implemented with wide consultation, incorporated feedback from that consultation, and included training for all directly affected stakeholders. It was largely accepted with enthusiasm—with the exception of a few older staff that still found the pen less frightening than the keyboard.

The salient lessons:

  1. Responding to end-user pain points;
  2. Engagement of all relevant stakeholder groups;
  3. Regular, relevant communication;
  4. Making modifications in response to feedback;
  5. Creation and execution of a training package; and
  6. Knowing that you can’t always make everyone happy.

‘Progressive small wins’ as a concept periodically came into focus, for example coming to the fore in a discussion with one of the project team members who made a comment about lack of cooperation from Max’s group. Given the work pressures mentioned above, it is not surprising for them to respond negatively to new initiatives that even hint at more work!

Responding to this, a colleague commented, paraphrasing Max’s previous observation: “For these guys, change has always meant pain.” The team member pondered that for a moment and agreed. The following observations about end-user engagement and incorporating bottom-up elements to a program are approaches to help reduce that pain.

Peter Reefman
Peter Reefman is a project manager working at a large Australian utility organisation.
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