Program Management

Structuring Projects as Part of a Program

Program Management - Structuring Projects as Part of a Program

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Multiple projects are often run as part of a program.

Say you wanted to adopt a new technology and use it to change the way your organization works. To do this, you'd need to implement a number of different projects, focused on different areas of your organization.  However, there are interdependencies between the projects, and they need to share some key resources.

Also, your organization needs to manage the costs for each project within a single overall budget. Instead of running each project separately, it probably makes sense to manage these projects within a single program. But, what type of program structure should you use? And which activities do you need to manage at program level, rather than project level?

In this article, we'll explore program management. We'll look at what a program actually is, and review different types of program structure.

Definition of a Program

A program usually consists of a number of projects that contribute to the same strategic goal, and which have the same business sponsor. Some organizations also refer to large and complex projects as programs.

The main benefits of managing projects in a program are:

  • You have a single delivery structure, and a single senior sponsor is responsible for achieving the goal.
  • It's easier to manage interdependencies, conflicts of interest, and competing requests for resources between projects. Managers, sponsors and steering groups can make decisions in the best interests of the program as a whole.
  • Managers can appoint program-level resources to work on behalf of all of the projects to improve effectiveness and efficiency. For example, you could set up a department to provide the IT support for all projects involved in the program.

If you run your projects within a program, you must decide on the role and responsibilities of the program manager, the support that this person needs (which is usually called the program management office, or program office), and the way that resources need to be distributed between the program and projects.

There's no single solution to how to organize this, as it depends on the organization, and the goals of the program. However, we'll look at a typical program management structure that you can use as a starting point to assess what's required for your program. We'll then look at two examples of how this structure may work in practice.

A Typical Program Management Structure

Figure 1 below shows a typical program management structure.

Example Program Management Structure

The two tables below show the phases and processes of program management, and the roles and responsibilities that program and project teams may have within this structure, depending on how you decide to organize things.

Table 1 – Phases

Phase Program Level Responsibilities Project Level Responsibilities
Program strategy and business case. Develop a strategy for the program as a whole. Develop an overall business case, with program-level costs and benefits. Develop project mandates for each project. Contribute to the program strategy and business case where required.
Preparation. Appoint project managers and perhaps other key project team members. Set up the governance group. Develop the program charter. Appoint all other project team members. Establish any project-specific governance structure, if required. Develop the Project Charter or Project Initiation


Development and testing. Training and business readiness.

Support and benefits realization.

Establish principles and constraints within which the projects must operate. Agree on the approach to be used within each phase. Deliver the project within the program framework.

Table 2 – Processes

Process Program Level Responsibilities Project Level Responsibilities
Phase management. Determine project phases and phase start and end dates. Sign off on phase entry and exit criteria. Manage the project within each phase.
Planning. Establish planning methodology and conventions. Agree on the overall program plan, including project plans at the milestone level and the program critical path. Monitor progress against this high-level plan. Agree and deliver to the high-level program plan. Conduct detailed project planning. Monitor progress against this plan.
Control. Agree and sign off on the high-level scope, business case, and benefits for the program as a whole. Support/manage escalated risks and issues from the projects. Manage the governance process. Allocate budgets to projects. Establish and manage program reporting, and internal program team working mechanisms. Manage detailed scope, issues, and risks. Escalate areas of concern to the program level for support. Collate and manage costs and benefits information for the project, and report this to the program manager.
Team management. Manage shared resources within the program. Manage program-level team members, and project managers. Manage project staff.
Communications and change management. Manage communications with program-level stakeholders. Develop the program communications strategy. Ensure an integrated change approach across the program. Manage stakeholders local to the project. Conduct communications and other "adoption" activities with wider stakeholder groups in line with program strategies.
Procurement. No typical setup. This depends on what makes the most sense for the program as a whole.
Integration. Manage integration points between the projects within the program. Manage integration points between the project and "business as usual" functions.
Other. Establish the project management methodology to use for the program and associated projects. Conduct audits of associated projects, if required.  

Examples of Program Structures

The program structure above is a useful starting point, but it's not appropriate for all programs. These examples show how you can amend this structure to serve your own needs.

Example 1: A "Thin" Program Structure


In this example, the sponsor has formed several projects to deliver a key strategic goal. There are only a few interdependencies between the projects, but these interdependencies are critical. They all must deliver change into the same parts of the organization. Therefore, the main benefit of establishing a program is to give increased visibility to these interdependencies, and to manage change in an integrated way.

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The program structure consists of a program sponsor, a program manager, and a support person. The program manager is accountable for the program as a whole, with an emphasis on leading and driving the overall change strategy. The project teams then do the detailed communications and change work. There is also a dedicated support person to collate reports, monitor costs and benefits, create communications and presentations, arrange program meetings, and prepare for program steering group meetings.

This is an example of a "thin" program structure, in which the program manager's main role is to provide leadership and direction.


Program managers will always benefit from having project management skills. But in a "thin" program structure as in example 1, the most important skills are usually:

  • Managing relations with key stakeholders.
  • Controlling the program as a whole, rather than managing the details.
  • Providing leadership and direction.

So you don't always have to be an experienced project manager to be an effective program manager.

Example 2: A "Thick" Program Structure

In this example, a company is rolling out a new system across several business units in different geographical areas. They've created a roll-out program involving the initial system design and build, and pilot implementation.

The program manager is "hands on," directly managing the initial design, build, and implementation. He or she manages the delivery of core components that are common to each implementation. He needs to know the details of the rollouts, the issues that the projects face, what's being done to manage issues that impact the critical path, and how staff are adopting the new system.

The program office provides the support included in the typical program structure. In addition, the program office provides resources, experience, and advice so that each group of implementers doesn't have to learn everything on their own.

The program office also includes additional strategy and control roles. These roles ensure that the original design is being appropriately implemented and adopted by everyone in the company.

This is an example of a "thick" program structure, in which the program manager holds significant control and support.

Four Steps to Decide Your Program Structure

Follow these simple steps to help you determine which structure is most appropriate for your program:

  1. Identify which projects should be brought together into the program.
  2. Identify what you must control at the program level to ensure that you meet your program and project goals.
  3. Identify the services that the program should provide to increase project efficiency.
  4. Identify the project cross-linkages that you need to manage, so that delivery is robust.

Further Program Management Tips

  • Don't simply set up a program with "standard" program roles – think about which roles are appropriate for your particular situation. This will help you avoid confusion and duplication of work between the program and project offices. By adopting this, you'll avoid unnecessary costs created by unnecessary roles.
  • If you assign an activity to the program office to improve efficiency, make sure that the activity serves the needs of the project as well as the program. If not, the activity may be duplicated within the project, and you won't achieve the efficiency you intended.
  • When you design the roles required to ensure that changes are adopted, consider your stakeholders' perspectives. Then determine who should do what. Stakeholders may become overloaded and confused when they have to deal with too many different people within the program.

Key Points

Our "typical" program structure gives you a useful starting point for determining your program structure, but it doesn't provide the full answer. You can base your structure on this, or use a variation of our "thin" or "thick" structure examples.

When you develop your proposed structure, review it from several perspectives. Make sure it works for everyone involved – the project team members, project managers, program manager, program sponsor, governance group, and stakeholders.


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