Effective Program Management Can Be a Billion-Dollar Stress Reliever

Construction of facilities, industrial plants and infrastructure of all types is growing more complex. This complexity becomes even more pronounced when success depends on the efficient coordination of a large number of specialized projects.

For decades, the challenges of managing a group of interrelated projects have been met through a programmatic approach. With oversight provided by a single program manager representing the interests of owners and serving as their liaison with project managers, the value of this approach has been well established.

What Is Program Management?

In practice, program management is a flexible project delivery method that is best suited for coordinating and grouping similar projects to achieve cost, resource and schedule efficiency. From adding a new airport concourse at an existing terminal to replacing aging water infrastructure, a programmatic system of project delivery provides the discipline and organizational efficiency needed to maintain schedule, budget discipline and overall quality of work while also adding the ability to properly plan and manage resources.

But today’s challenges have evolved as projects grow more complex. This raises the question: Can programs and programmatic approaches be tailored to meet the unique needs of specific industries?

The essential contrast between projects and programs is rooted in how each are managed. While a project manager will set specific tasks that all ladder up to accomplishing a defined objective, such as constructing an electrical substation or laying a water pipe, a program manager focuses on the broader picture of setting objectives and strategies for execution of a set of projects. The substation or water pipe, for example, may be only one of 50 projects in a program to renovate and expand an airport terminal.

Execution is the main difference. A program sets broad longer-term goals and unifies engineers, architects, constructors and other specialists around a clear purpose and understanding of what is to be achieved. Once that overarching goal is set, the program manager then works backward to establish the framework of what must be done to accomplish that goal.

Creating Scale

If the end goal of a program is to execute 60 projects over five years while staying within a $500 million budget, the execution plan is likely to analyze processes and procedures that can be standardized in order to create scale needed for greatest efficiency. This could be cost-efficiencies of procuring materials and equipment with enough lead time to avoid project delays or staging projects in the sequence necessary to make the best use of skilled craft or trades so that they can move from project to project without causing congestion.

Every single program will have a different goal. This is important to understand in order for the program to achieve realistic objectives. That’s why the program manager largely avoids the minutiae of reading engineering drawings and construction documents that spell out specific tasks. The focus is on execution — really locking in on what must be achieved overall, versus a project manager’s focus on what must be achieved each day. The program execution plan is about what we need to do, while the project management plan is focused on how we need to do it.

A program with 60 airport renovation projects might require a sequence that begins with site preparation, utilities relocation and water and sewer line construction before other projects further downstream are built. With early projects completed, such as a substation to deliver power for construction work, projects such as erecting new buildings can begin. The program defines the scale, scope and schedule of work that must be accomplished while remaining true to the conceptual goal. If the terminal expansion has a $500 million capital budget, the program manager will maintain focus on that higher-level goal rather than the series of tasks needed for each individual project.

The program is a fluid project delivery approach that gives the manager the ability to move people and resources as needed, based on changes that may occur.

Basic Benefits

Leading industry players are well aware of the benefits of program management. A primary reason that owners and/or large institutions turn to program management is because it fosters the ability to efficiently manage scope, time, cost and risk:

  • Scope: After defining the range of services needed, programs and portfolios often require hundreds of skilled crafts, trades and technicians to execute the work. This can cause an unrealistic hiring spike if scope is not defined properly to stage the work over a reasonable period of time.
  • Time: Schedule can become a huge concern if projects are not sequenced logically and delays may occur due to unavailability of materials and equipment or shortages of skilled labor.
  • Cost: It is common for programs and portfolios to have multiple aspects of specialized processes. If not consolidated within an overarching program plan, this can result in cost overruns for needed resources.
  • Risk: With multiple contracts and various firms working on individual projects, keeping track of all the moving parts is vital. A program manager has the high-level perspective needed to stop vital details from falling through the cracks.

Correct Balance of Content

Though each program will be unique and tailored to meet specific objectives that may vary greatly by industry, the basic question always is: What is the right balance of content in the program execution plan?

The answer lies in finding the highest common factor. This concept, borrowed from mathematics, means that the starting point for the execution plan must address as many variables as possible. Often, this can boil down to a simple statement like this: Deliver an operational airport terminal within two years while not exceeding the $500 million budget.

From there, projects can detail out everything that must be done to reach the highest common factor of the program. The program manager must always ask the question: How will doing this help me get to the goal? This is a great way to get rid of the fluff — keeping all the team members focused on essential tasks and not becoming distracted with sideline issues that may seem pressing but really can wait.

A big part of running a program involves communicating with internal team members and external stakeholders such as financial institutions as well as the ultimate owner. The program execution plan keeps all stakeholders engaged and focused on the final goal throughout the life cycle of the program.

Transferrable Skills

Programs are inherently flexible solutions that can adjust for an owner’s specific needs, internal resource capacities or timelines. For example, if a client had originally intended to handle permitting in-house, but later found this was infeasible, the program manager can adjust and bring in permitting specialists to maintain consistency and keep permitting approvals moving in line with overall program goals.

Programmatic concepts can easily translate between industries. Whether it’s a billion-dollar electrical transmission grid upgrade, an airport expansion, or multiyear water and sewer upgrade, the process of handling budgets, schedules, staffing, contracts and communications will remain largely the same.

However, two major trends are coming to the forefront and causing some evolution in program management:

  • Development of advanced technology.
  • Increased demand for program managers with deep, industry-specific knowledge.

Technologies have been available for some time that provide the program manager with the ability to standardize processes for scheduling, invoicing, communication and other key functions. However, technology platforms are evolving to offer integration of various tools to achieve customized solutions. From drones and augmented reality devices to custom dashboards and real-time data reporting, the information captured and available can deliver a valuable means to see progress and make adjustments on a daily basis.

In addition, program managers with industry-specific experience are also proving to be key differentiators for success. A program manager for an aviation facility expansion would have deep insight into landside, airside, refueling, gate operations and the plethora of regulations mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration. The same holds true for program managers who have previously managed utility transmission build-outs or water system upgrades.

As programs grow more complex and expectations soar, industry-specific program managers armed with sophisticated technology platforms can make all the difference.


Vishal Verma, PMP

Department Manager