Madness of Program Management
I’ve worked in Program Management for eight years, leading small projects, transformation programs, and managing a worldwide portfolio of strategic initiatives. It feels amazing to learn something new every day, engage with the finest brains to tackle complicated problems and assist businesses in achieving outstanding results. Furthermore, the ability to take a similar approach to the role regardless of the industry has allowed me to transition from one company to another, and still generate value from day one.
Nonetheless, with each year in the role, the playful thought that “Something isn’t right” grew more and stronger inside me. I couldn’t understand it, and every time I found myself in that frame of mind, I blamed it for my lack of experience, education, and strategic attitude. I pushed my limits to study more, take on a larger projects, experiment with methodologies, and develop my own execution frameworks, yet it still seemed unsatisfying. I expressed my feelings to others and received no practical response, which isolated me with my thoughts for an extended period of time.
It’s been ‘cooking’ subconsciously all these years and here I would like to share few observations from my professional life in this field.
The state of madness Program Management is designed for the most organized and disciplined individuals, capable of transforming chaos into order, bringing clarity and purpose, making things happen, and adding value in challenging moments. However, despite the role’s objectives and design, the reality is far more complicated. It has unspoken burden of dealing with redundant methodologies, people who believe they are important, confused teams, and lengthy, unnecessary meetings, all of which underutilize people’s potential by putting them in stressful, overcomplicated, and time-wasting situations.
My personal record is 56 meetings in one week and 18 meetings in one day, which I DO NOT RECOMMEND.
Here are some examples of nonsense that should make you reconsider pursuing a profession in Program Management.
Certified and forgotten: Program Management has high standards, a solid knowledge-base, a supportive community, and certification that comes at a steep price. The only problem is that it is impractical. Almost every Program Manager I’ve worked with put only 20% of theory to practice or isn’t sure how to apply it in the real world at all. I’m incredibly pleased for individuals who are celebrating yet another PMI or Agile badge on LinkedIn, as it appears to be the only place where it seems to be beneficial.
I ‘risk’ you not: Risk management is severely underutilized. In startups, an Excel file serves as a mitigation tool with no clarity or processes behind it and almost no likelihood of minimizing risks and vulnerabilities. On the other hand, corporate is all bureaucracy, with the success of risk mitigation based on a 25-step review process pushed and tugged between 7 layers of management. Before mitigation is executed — it’s often too late. Program managers dislike addressing risks in such an environment, and they are self-forced to deal with them without much assistance. I know of a corporation that paid millions of dollars in fines to authorities because risks were never mitigated due to the administrative load involved with the procedure.
Once promoted, never demoted. When Project Managers who have been promoted to Program Managers are requested to run a project, they feel embarrassed since it is no longer considered respectable to function on a ‘lower’ level. I really like to see them managing one of NASA’s program for a change, I’m sure going back to project level wouldn’t be such a big deal after.
Master of the Universe: Wearing multiple hats is frequently a job necessity at startups, which is why there are Program Managers, Scrum Masters, Business Analysts, Account Managers, Customer Success Managers, and Product Owners all rolled into one person. Oh, and let’s also ensure that the project is completed on time, under budget, and using the latest Agile methodology. If this trend continues, Program Managers will have to soon consider getting medical help for dissociative identity disorder and sleep deprivation vaccine.
“No soup for you, come back in a year”: Program Management is costly, which is why small businesses avoid hiring Program Managers by allowing teams to self-organize or switching to the Master of the Universe strategy outlined above. In such cases, the usual conclusion is that consumers and stakeholders do not receive what was promised at all. In the best case scenario, they receive something completely different or or are subjected to the agony of continual project delays.
How many PMs does it take to change a light bulb?: In a bureaucratic corporate world, you may easily have three Program Managers driving the same initiative, one from the business side, one from operations, and one from the technical side. It’s a fantastic accomplishment if all three are on the same page, yet, most of the time, everyone is pushing in separate directions, prioritizing the requirements of their individual stakeholders. I once ran a program with a similar setup and it took 12 months just to begin the planning phase, although the entire program should have been completed in 12 months. I left the firm, and after another 12 months, I discovered that the program had only recently kicked-off.
Where is the ‘status’ Lebowski? Enterprise Program Managers are my favorites, and they would want to smack me for saying this. In corporate world requirements might be so minimal, you can boil down the job description to three items: submitting reports, scheduling meetings and keeping presentation up to date. Once I worked with a Program Manager who been in the role for 37 years at the same company, doing exact same things over and over again, the only thing that been changing is a name of the next initiative. Classic 9 to 5 with mortgage, 4 weeks vacation and no extra pressure in life.
The ball is on another side: There is Program Management software for practically any sort of business, and more and more solutions with great UI and UX are being released to the market every year. Most of the time, such collaboration tools aren’t very effective since they don’t go beyond ‘101’ demands. Most of the companies I’ve dealt with just do not want to collaborate since they are too exposed and subject to criticism and are clearly not ready for open conversation. It takes skill to appear busy while doing nothing.
“Look, Ma, no hands!”: Do you want a methodology? Most of the time, you don’t have any, or the one you do have resembles Frankenstein’s monster. For example, I witnessed SAFe methodology utilized for 10 people, and little wonder the team couldn’t accomplish anything between lengthy rituals and preparations. I witnessed the exact reverse when Scrum is being utilized for 300 people, and no surprise there is no alignment, and the program is perpetually behind schedule. Unless you work in a challenging field, such as space or mass manufacturing, current methodologies are far too complex for application in the field. Certification corporations are just exploiting them to drain money.
Nothing personal, just business: Executive-level initiatives aimed at transforming organizations, regions, and markets are unusual in their own right. When you look closely, you’ll notice that it’s a platform for professional advancement and political warfare. The Program Manager in charge, who is usually an executive, is responsible for the effort’s overall success. People like that don’t know or care about how the program is being carried out if the status report is trending Green. Lower-level program managers pursuing advancement may create RED situations to draw attention to their personalities, then overcome those problems, become heroes, and new titles are handed to them no longer after. It is a highly charged climate where people would do virtually anything to climb the corporate ladder.
Combine the points mentioned above with day-to-day activities that also include unmet customer expectations, cross-departmental collaboration gaps, time and geo-location challenges, vendor dependencies, people issues, objectives misalignment, prima donnas of various kinds, contract gaps, and technical problems. All of that is on YOU — Good luck. Result are quite predictable: delays, no value created, money wasted, finger pointing, burned out people, disappointment and constant anxiety with stress.
Back to basics
I discussed some of the issues with a friend and mentor when he replied, “We need to get back to basics.” It hit me like a ton of bricks. It became evident at that point that we had overcomplicated so many things that we were no longer capable of being productive without stimulus. The key is simplicity.
What are the basics?
Let rid of your ego and be as transparent as possible about what you do and why you do it, then make sure others understand it the same way.
Right people on the bus, wrong people off the bus. Give them a basic and easy-to-follow process, as well as the opportunity to develop and improve over time.
Determine what to measure and what to sacrifice in the event of a disaster. Never put people’s health, family time, or reputation at risk. When your house is on fire, and everyone is screaming, it doesn’t matter whether you’re 99% on budget.
Manage risks like a pro and disclose them with utmost honesty and transparency.
What defines a great Program Manager?
Communication — speak, write, listen, think confidently, but don’t BS.
Build a strategic growth mindset by asking why, what, and how questions.
Extensive accountability — and the power to hold others responsible.
What can lead to the success of the Program?
Documented clear vision, purpose, objectives, and success criteria.
An operational model that can withstand real-world pressure.
A winning team always looking for ways to improve — no compromises.
Visualize as much as you can — process, progress, problems.
A single source of truth