Billion-dollar lessons in Program Management

Being a part of a team that initiates a new billion-dollar program can be both exciting and challenging. One colleague of mine said it’s the same as a $100 million program just more zeroes as he smiled.  For some of us, it feels like the next natural progression in one’s career after becoming a seasoned project manager in an organization.  In fact, many of the same skills that you would need to manage a project successfully are applicable when planning, initiating, and executing a major program.  But make no mistake, there are definable differences between a project and a program.  A project has a definite beginning and end. A program may not have an end and is made up of a group of related projects, subprograms and program activities that are managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits for the program and organization not available from managing projects individually.

Managing a program is a great opportunity to showcase your technical and soft skills and interact with numerous stakeholders while navigating the many phases of the program’s development.  From initiation to planning to execution you will find yourself making major decisions that will shape the future of your program. However, careful consideration for the impacts of these decisions must be made and the door must stay open to adjust as the program progresses and lessons are learned.


During initiation, you may be involved with drafting legislation that helps gets the program started.  You may seek the advice of financial advisors who will help identify and secure financing to pay for the program.  With the help of attorneys and legal counsel you may develop legal documents from memorandums of agreements to process agreements to information sharing agreements and non-disclosure agreements.  You may be involved in each one of these activities as you creatively and enthusiastically explain the nuisances of the program so that these professionals can develop and set the best foundation for your program.  It is important during these conversations to know who your stakeholders are.  You must communicate effectively with each group and each discussion must be tailored to their level of understanding.  You will want to limit the use of acronyms and perhaps provide a little more background information, that may be important for them to capture the purpose and goal of the program.


As some of the planning documents are developed, which include roles and responsibilities, project schedules, estimated budgets and spend plans, stakeholder engagement, procurement strategies and contracting goals you will slowly start to see the program’s vision become a reality.  At this stage you must have some flexibility to compromise with the other partnering organizations, as needed, in order to achieve the priority goals of the program.


Below are 7 essential actions that are critical for the early success in the execution of your program.

1. Get “Buy In”

You must get buy in from the executive team or you may find yourself spinning your wheels.  Each decision that the program team makes will be questioned and challenged leading to indecision, re-analysis and therefore paralysis.  While it is always good to get constructive feedback, an executive management team that is fully on board will make recommendations and provide resources that will move the program forward toward the program’s defined goals instead of sending it back to the drawing board.  Unfortunately, this may not always be the case throughout the life of the program; there may be other competing factors for the executive team, there may be leadership turnover, the program may no longer be a priority of the organization, or there is some other environmental influence (political, organizational, economical) that may affect their support. Invest time and effort to keep leadership informed by sharing progress updates and program benefits regularly.

2. Bring in the Experts

Large organizations that have programs as a regular part of their business model have a Program Management Office (PMO).  This may not be a physical office in many cases, but may be a dedicated team of professionals that understand what resources are necessary to successfully run a program.  They have “toolboxes” or templates of management plans that help form the planning documents, such as, Program Management Plans, Scope Management Plans, Time Management Plans, Cost Management Plans, Stakeholder Engagement Plans, etc.  They also provide experienced staff to assist the program team in preparing these documents.  This PMO has previous experience setting up programs and providing the necessary resources and manpower that will be needed to successfully execute the program.  If your organization does not have a PMO, then a Program Management Consultant can be used in their place and provide many of the same benefits.

3. Be a Champion

Negotiate, persuade and build alliances.  There may be times where you must convince others that the program is feasible.  Remember, this is a new program, one that the organization has ever done before.  You are one of the pioneers.  If it is a very large program, some of your peers may see it as impossible or at best a huge problem.  They may say things such as “good luck” or “better you than me” sarcastically.  You must be capable of seeing the complexities, challenges and realities and still have the faith and vision to believe it can be managed and executed efficiently.

Stakeholders can influence your program positively or negatively, but you have some control over that.  From the beginning, identify the people and organizations of influence.  These are not necessarily the people with the highest titles in the organization.  Engage them early and often.  Be honest and explain the effort in language that they can fully understand.  If you can keep them content, then you have won half of the public relations battle.  Be ready to communicate the benefits of your program to many diverse groups using different techniques that effectively get your message across to that particular group.

To garner support, set up quarterly meetings with all the relevant stakeholders to keep them informed of your program’s plans.  These regular meeting help to open communication, build trust and a better overall understanding of the program’s goals and objectives. Large programs require the support of not only the initiating organization but also of the effected stakeholders, which could include businesses, residents and other agencies. These stakeholder meetings will allow for frequent sharing of information that could impact the program’s trajectory. This expression of trust and respect to these groups will pay dividends down the line.  Some of the meetings will result in word of mouth advocates for you and the program which can boost your chances for success.

4. Expect uncertainty and manage expectations

On programs, both large and small, the only certainty is uncertainty. With any new programs there are certain levels of “knowns”; known knowns, known unknowns, unknown knowns, and unknown unknowns.  Expect to encounter them all and be prepared to handle them with grace. Most of these “knowns” can be handled through risk management techniques and are usually identified at your Risk Management Workshops.   When you expect challenges, you are more capable of seamlessly handling the mitigations that are required as a normal part of doing business.  By the very fact that the program is new, you should expect unknown unknowns.  These are the challenges you will face routinely, and you will be happy that you have built alliances that can help you come up with solutions that fit the program and the organization.

It is not unusual for programs to be initiated without their entire scope defined.  Do not assume that certain measures are in place.  Always verify.

5. Document Lessons Learned

Document lessons learned.  I repeated this on purpose.  One of the advantages of running a program is you get to consistently refine the processes.  This is called progressive elaboration.  Each time you finish a stage of the process, you should be discussing how you could improve that process resulting in a clearer scope, better quality, lower costs or a decrease in schedule.  Generally, it is not unreasonable to come away with several lessons learned during an average week.  Remember, it does not have to be some big earth-shattering lesson, it could be something very simple that makes the team, project or program more effective and efficient. Document lessons learned and use them.

6. Communicate the vision and lead the team

You are a major influencer of the program, but single minds follow single tracks.  To be the most effective leader, you need perspective and should put together an advisory team.  These are key individuals from different disciplines that may interact with your program in some capacity.  You may need to coordinate with them in some way as their projects may be adjacent to or overlap your program.  They may be working on citywide policies that may influence your program.  Sometimes you find someone who has by chance worked on programs similar to yours and can provide great advice.  They will become champions of your program and share your confidence for the program’s outcomes.

7. Enjoy the ride

Lastly, it is important that you have a passion for the program but also take pleasure in the work and the progress made.  This will help you sustain your energy through the long hours and tireless effort that is necessary for lift off. Programs last for years and there will be turnover of staff.  The work is often complex, but the Program Manager’s job is to simplify it.

Very few people get the opportunity to run a mega program.  It is a great opportunity to use all your skills and intelligence to find manageable solutions on a daily basis.  You will interact with people from all different disciplines and get an understanding on how entire organizations work from top to bottom.  In the end, you will have a feeling of satisfaction in taking on an enormous responsibility and challenging yourself.

Before taking on the role of Program Manager, I recommend that you read the Project Management Institute’s (PMI) guideline called The Standard for Program Management.  Reading this book certainly prepared me for the job as well as guided my expectations along the way.

About the Author:  Keith Foxx, P.E. was Program Manager, part of an expert team, for a billion dollar initiative to underground powerlines in the District of Columbia.  He wanted to share some of the lessons the team learned early on in the program.

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