IPMA International Project Management Association
29 September 2017 / 6:07

Programmes are not just big projects

Nowadays, in many organisations, the term programme is used to mark the top of the project hierarchy: small project, normal project, big project, programme. It is often used to promote good senior project managers, after a while in business, they become a programme manager. But this approach is like: a small apple, a normal apple, a big apple, and finally a pear. Projects and programmes are distinct areas of professions, although both act in the field of change. A programme is after a completely different goal, applies different approaches, and finally requires different competences.

Even though the word as such does not really matter, it is important to focus on the right things. In our project world, the only thing which really matters is to make sure you achieve what your customer(s) want. Do they want results, do they want implemented benefits, do they just want a solution to a problem? It’s up to our professionalism to choose the right set of tools to fit the job.

IPMA defines in its new Competence Baseline for Individuals IPMA ICB® version 4:

  • A project is a unique, temporary, multidisciplinary and organised endeavour to realise agreed deliverables within predefined requirements and constraints.
  • A programme – set up to achieve a strategic goal – is a temporary organisation of interrelated components managed in a coordinated way to enable the implementation of change and the realisation of benefits.

So, there is obviously a different perspective. One could say, a programme organises from expected benefits top-down to execution, a project manager executes from the bottom up to enable the organisation / the principal to create benefits.

In addition, the believe that a programme is something bigger, more important, more difficult, more complex than a project, is total nonsense. Although in general, programmes are executed by more senior people, this is not due to complexity, complicatedness or importance. These terms are simply not a part of the definition of programme and project.

Let’s look at a good example. The Gotthard Base Tunnel, the longest and deepest train tunnel in the world, was a project. The team had to dig a massive hole through the central alps, applied brand new technologies, installed uncountable amounts of materials to finally enable trains to run safely from Erstfeld to Bodio through the alps. It cost a fortune, lasted more than 10 years, and endless, often very difficult management decisions had to be taken. Although you may call it a megaproject, it is a project, not a programme. An undertaking with a clear objective, clear results: a unique, temporary, multidisciplinary and organised endeavour to realise agreed deliverables within predefined requirements and constraints.

In parallel to the Gotthard Base Tunnel project, a programme was conducted to organise the flow of traffic from Rotterdam and the industry centres in Germany through the alps to the northern Italian industry area and the Genua harbour. Many areas had to be tackled, including the traffic flow with the neighbouring countries, upgrade of current and buying of new rolling stock, new customers’ offers and timetable, new maintenance concepts and logistics concepts, upgrade of access routes in Switzerland and neighbouring countries. Last but not least more than 3900 employees had to be trained in the new approaches and technologies, while maintaining the current operations.

The money and time spent was just a fraction of the cost for realising the tunnel. The programme had a complete different approach than the project: unclear outcomes, a multitude of stakeholders, unclear timeline etc. But this programme was essential to exploit the tunnel in the most efficient way; and also, essential to fulfil the will of the Swiss nation, who accepted the enormous investment. The target was never to have a tunnel up and running, the target was to relocate goods transport cross the country on rail, away from the roads. A typical programme, set up to achieve strategic goals, managed as a temporary organisation of interrelated components in a coordinated way to enable the implementation of change and the realisation of benefits.

Which one of these undertakings was more difficult to manage? This is the wrong (and even unimportant) question, because both were extremely difficult to realise. And they were realised in completely different way.

But if a programme and a project are different, does a manager leading the endeavour need different competences? Of course, they do. That’s what I am going to write about in my next blog. Please let me know your thoughts about the subject, too. And that is exactly the point, why the new IPMA ICB® describes the distinct (and the common) competences in their newest version 4.0.

Have a look at it! To enable a world where all projects (and programmes) succeed!


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Author of this post

With more than 35 years of professional experience, Martin Sedlmayer leads successfully complex change programmes. During his career, he has worked in the domain of project management as a project manager, programme leader, portfolio manager, and manager of project organisations. His industry experience includes finance, manufacturing, logistics and not-for-profit organisations.

His special interest is the challenge of competence development. He was lead editor and project manager for the new ICB4® (global competence standard for individuals working in project, programme and portfolio management). Currently, he serves as Vice President of IPMA’s Executive Board for Products and Services, as board member of both the Swiss national project management association spm and the Swiss certification body VZPM.

Martin is IPMA Level A® certified, acts as an assessor for fifteen years in various countries and holds a MBA in International Management from the University of Applied Sciences in Berne Switzerland, the University of Freiburg Germany, the State Polytechnical University of St., Petersburg Russia, the Babson College of Boston USA and Jiao Tong University of Shanghai China. He publishes regularly, speaks at conferences and events worldwide.

He can be contacted at martin.sedlmayer@ipma.world

His LinkedIn profile https://www.linkedin.com/in/sedlmayermartin