IPMA International Project Management Association
17 May 2017 / 6:39

The interrelations between projects, programmes and change

This week the ISO/TC258/WG4 finishes its work on a new standard, the ISO 21503 “Guidance on Programme Management”. The core team of about twenty international experts and many more in national mirror committees explored the topic of programme management over more than three years. One of the key points of the discussion was to clearly distinguish programmes from projects (as well as from portfolios, operations and similar activities). This wasn´t easy because many organisations and even standards use the terms very sloppy and this has found its way into text books and the mind of practitioners. In addition, the issue of change was a major point of discussion in the working group, as programmes are often chartered to realize change.

It is nowadays consensus that a programme is a bundle of interrelated components (projects, other programmes and related work) that is intended to achieve strategic objectives and to realize benefits. Through projects and their deliverables, a certain capability is built, which can be levered through a programme to achieve long-term objectives, outcomes or an impact that is related to a strategic ambition. For example, a bridge is a deliverable of a project to connect an island with the motherland. The bridge can be used for other projects to develop the island, establish businesses and residential areas. The outcome or impact is the development of the island, including but not limited to increase business, to settle people as well as to reduce poverty. This is why programmes are seen as means to perform change. It may be a strategic initiative of an organisation to perform internal change, or the change programme of a government to develop local communities, or the product development programme of an Automotive Manufacturer to enter the market of electric cars. Projects, programmes and change are connected, they are intermingled and dependent from each other.

Why shall we group projects to a programme? Because they might be interdependent and thus we need to manage them holistically. We aim at achieving benefits by managing them together. Programmes are temporary, not permanent. This raises the question of when to end a programme and when to start the utilisation or operations. It is a tricky question and needs to be clarified before starting into the programme. The programme manager is responsible for realizing benefits in the scope of the programme. Certainly, more benefits are realized beyond the scope during the remaining lifecycle of the system, product or result of the programme. What concerns change, the programme needs to ensure that the change does not stop with the end of the programme and is continued in a sustainable manner.

We often hear that managing a programme is about the same like managing a project. That´s misleading and maybe cause for many failures of complex endeavors being managed by using standard project management methodologies. Managing a programme focuses on managing the interrelations between the programme components, realizing benefits and sustaining the change. It spans much longer than projects, needs to be more holistic, systemic, strategic, and thus may be grounded on systems engineering, social sciences and complexity theory, to name only a few…

Professor Roland Gareis and his son Lorenz recently published a book (German language only), which addresses the topic from a systemic and constructivistic perspective. It is aiming at a new species of “Intrapreneurs”, delivering business value and shaping the “project-oriented society”…


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Reinhard Wagner

Author of this post

Reinhard Wagner has been active for more than 30 years in the field of project- related leadership, in such diverse sectors as Air Defense, Automotive Engineering, and Machinery, as well as various not-for-profit organizations. As a Certified Projects Director (IPMA Level A), he has proven experience in managing projects, programmes and project portfolios in complex and dynamic contexts. He is also an IPMA Certified Programme and Portfolio Management Consultant, and as such supports senior executives in developing and improving their organizational competence in managing projects. For more than 15 years, he has been actively involved in the development of project, programme and portfolio management standards, for example as Convenor of the ISO 21500 “Guidance on Project Management” and the ISO 21503 “Guidance on Programme Management”. Reinhard Wagner is Past President of IPMA and Chairman of the Council, Honorary Chairman of GPM (the German Project Management Association), as well as Managing Director of Tiba Managementberatung GmbH.