Programme and project management both involve coordinating various parts and people. Although some think that programme management is simply project management's big sister, the experts say they require different outlooks, some different skills, and therefore different training, as Helen Boddy found out.

Setting up the criminal records bureau is an example of a programme. It was composed of several interdependent projects that were brought together in order to work more efficiently in delivering the benefits to all the bodies involved - including designing the IT systems, deciding how to apply them, setting up the processes around signatures, creating the office space, and recruiting the staff.

Both project and programme are buzzwords that pepper the modern business world. In the UK, project and programme management guidance developed by The Office of Government Commerce (OGC) - Prince2 and Managing Successful Programmes (MSP) respectively - have become very popular, along with the associated training.

There is often confusion, however, about what the difference is between a project and a programme. Most experts appear to agree that programmes are vision led, typically composed of inter-related projects. Projects, on the other hand, particularly when following Prince2 guidance, are process led with a defined output.

'Programme management is more than just an amalgamation of projects,' says Anne-Marie Byrne, who is project manager for the refresh of the Prince2 guidance.

'The MSP definition says that a programme is a coordinated set of projects aimed at delivering a single long term vision. programme can be to develop a new service, or be about achieving culture change, business change, or other long-term benefits.'

Melanie Franklin, CEO of Maven Training, adds: 'The key difference is that programme management ensures changes are made in the operational environment, so that changes can be made by projects.

'MSP is very good because it helps you identify all the pieces of work to get from A to B in a logical, organised way. It tells you where to start. All interested parties are given a role and voice, which is a lot when you multiple the amount of people involved in a project by the number of projects.

'Programmes are usually strategically more important than projects, although not all are strategic. They tend to have a higher profile.

'There is a need for a clear payback from both projects and programmes. A project has a business core, which is the anticipated benefit - usually it is achieved after the project is finished - for example receiving more orders once a new system is in place.

'Once the project team disbands, the users get the benefits. Often, nobody takes responsibility to see if the benefits are realised. Programme management addresses this head on. It focuses on benefits management and realisation.'

John Woodley, senior consultant on project and programme management at Parity, has yet further definitions to add: 'Projects are around activities and well-defined requirements based on a well-defined process. Projects typically take months, whereas programmes can take years. Projects typically are for a smaller scale of change.

'With programmes there is more ambiguity on how to do them and more ambiguity on what the final outcome will be in terms of your control. There will be more factors deciding the outcome, etc.

'Over the last few years, the government has run a programme to change attitudes to drink and driving to become acceptable - it's taken a long time. There have been projects within it such as a TV campaign and a poster campaign. With programmes such as this one it is not always clear when they are finished. And the outcome can even be unclear.'

Skills needed

If programme management is about developing, communicating and delivering a vision, while project management is about process and detail, it's not surprising that some of the skills needed are different, if not all.

'Many of the skills and attributes needed are similar,' says David Reynolds, chair of BCS Project Management Specialist Group and director of business consultancy KatAlyst. 'Both would rate "completion" and "attention to detail" among their key drivers. Both need team working skills, an ability to make judgments based on feedback and advice received from team members and clients.

‘The project manager is able to focus attention on a relatively smaller set of influencing factors in order to deliver successfully.

'However, because of the variety of projects within a programme, I would say that a programme manager, in order to deliver confidently, would benefit from both a wider and more in-depth set of experience in different business sectors and project types, and would have an ability to step back and view the overall picture rather than focus on a specific set of project deadlines.

'The ability to harness hard earned experience in differing environments should not be underestimated. The need for strong and agile people handling and influencing skills are more magnified for the programme manager. Balancing the challenges from a variety of different users and internal and external suppliers, requires the ability to speak and quote from real experience.'

Woodley, on the other hand, sees more differences between the skills sets. 'Programme management is about managing change,' he says. 'Project management is about understanding the big change, and delivering the detail. They do need different skills'.

The research backs this up, according to Byrne: 'Cranfield University did some research on individuals and aspects that make good programme managers. Good project managers are very output related and set on deadlines. Programme managers need to be more flexible and willing. If a project manager were to be asked to deliver a programme, they would need at least training and probably coaching too, to support them through the change in thinking required.'

Some project managers move successfully into programme management, according to Franklin, but they have to be prepared to be less hands-on. The other group of people who typically take programme management courses are senior managers, operational managers and directors.

'They use the programme structure to achieve change,' she says. 'It gives them a route map. MSP helps break down the process of taking the division to the next level.'

Mark Carr, PPM training manager at Xpertise, also thinks that MSP is ideal for senior management.

'Some project managers convert to it but it's not an obvious career path for a project manager,' he says. 'It is a different set of skills. MSP is more strategic, more about what you want to do, rather than prescriptive. Programme managers tend to have change and leadership skills and recognise the need for change. MSP has transformational flow in it.

'A lot of project managers ask: "What happens if this happens?" Some project managers like the processes and not thinking about what they want to happen. Those doing Prince2 courses tend to be accepting of what the guidance says, whereas those on MSP courses tend to ask a lot of questions.'

Training required

The qualifications that have become the de facto standard in the UK are Prince2 and MSP, both developed in line with the related guidance. Both have Foundation and Practitioner examinations, with MSP also having an Advanced Practitioner examination.

UK training companies report that growth rates for MSP are often outstripping those of Prince2. Nevertheless, project management courses still command much higher attendance, for instance Xpertise sees 10 students on its Prince2 courses, for every two that take MSP.

The focus of the courses reflect the difference in the skills.

'MSP training is about how to develop a vision, and how to sell the better future to the stakeholders,' says Woodley. 'MSP also focuses on strategic benefits - how projects within a programme deliver output. A programme needs projects to deliver outputs and strategic benefits. Outcomes are greater than the individual outputs.'
'MSP is also about leading and embedding change. It has the concept of change agents in a business as usual environment. Programme management introduces a new way of working to an organisation and helps it stick.

'Prince2 is quite prescriptive, from a controlled start through to controlled closing down. It covers how to understand and document requirements. It focuses on delivering products through time, cost and quality. It gives an indication what to do if a project deviates from the plan.'

Is it worth a project manager studying programme management and vice versa? The experts think there are benefits in, at the very least, having an overview of the other subject.

Franklin says: 'Programme managers who have also taken Prince2 qualifications make life easier for themselves. It is like knowing how to say hello, thank you and goodbye in a foreign language. It smooths the transition.

'Projects are usually part of a programme, whether project managers know it or not. Programme management courses give project managers a breadth of understanding. They help them see how their hard work on a project fits into context.

'If project managers do MSP, they learn about the programme lifecycle, how projects fit together, how to write a better business case and how benefits should be described. They can improve their project from what they have learnt in MSP.'

Reynolds points out that, while it's difficult to argue against obtaining qualifications, practitioners should beware that this is not at the expense of stifling common sense and creative thinking.

'For example, blindly following all elements of Prince2 could well weigh it down with an unhealthy level of control rather than allowing it to blossom. Training courses are not a substitute for real experience.'

Why bother with projects or programmes? Woodley sums up: 'Both projects and programmes are there to deliver changes. The rate of change in business is increasing and will only get quicker. If an organisation finds programmes and projects difficult, which are both about change, it will struggle to survive.'

Prince2 refresh

The new version of Prince2, Prince2 2009 is due to be released in spring 2009, along with the accompanying updated Foundation and Practitioner qualifications.

The message from Andy Murray, lead author of the new Prince2 2009 guidance, is that the method will not be fundamentally changed from the current version of Prince2, which was last updated in 2005.

'Reviewers have been surprised how little the content has changed in some aspects,' said Murray at the Best Practice Event at the end of June.

'The story is just told in a more accessible way. We have added some extra bits about principles and about environment. We have beefed up some concepts and removed some over-prescriptive bits.

'Many of the comments from the review process have asked to make the books thinner and more accessible, and easier to read. There were requirements to include some new elements, for instance addressing how projects evolve and the continuous negotiation of projects, softer skills and the environment.'

Instead of one book, there will be therefore be two, each of around 275 pages:

  1. for those who manage and work in projects
  2. for those who direct it.

If someone is considering starting Prince2 now, Murray advised them to go ahead with Prince2 2005. 'If you do the training and learn how to use Prince2, you will be able to use it for Prince2 2009,' he said.

Draft two of the books will go out to review groups in mid-late July. Feedback will then be incorporated with final sign-off towards the end of the year.

For the qualifications, APMG has just started the consultation with the accredited community and via them the users. There are no plans for bridging qualifications between the two versions, according to Murray. When Practitioners re-register (which they are required to do every five years), they will then become Prince2 2009 registered.

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