Project managers: Learn an alternative way to manage complex projects

If you're a project manager who is taking on several related projects, you should consider giving yourself a promotion. Columnist Tom Mochal explains why project managers should become program managers to ensure the success of complex projects.

Each week, project management veteran Tom Mochal provides valuable advice about how to plan and manage projects. Tom first describes a common problem scenario, based on real-life situations. He then offers a solution, using practical project management practices and techniques.

The dilemma

Sometimes a project manager who is overseeing multiple, related projects should consider taking on the role of program manager, a position in which a person supervises a group of subordinate managers.

I recently discussed this management style with my friend Bill, who will manage the installation of the manufacturing software for a new plant. We utilize a standard manufacturing suite, but installing the packages and ensuring they are working correctly still requires a lot of work.

Knowing the difficulty in delivering large projects, I was interested in how Bill was going to structure the effort. It seemed odd to me that one person would try to manage all aspects of a complicated project.

"I know we need to break the work down into smaller pieces," Bill said. "Even though it puts an extra burden on me to manage everything. I have a team leader assigned to each smaller piece, but it is still going to be difficult to coordinate." When I asked Bill to describe his role on the project, he said he planned to "…create and manage the work plans, manage the staff, resolve issues, coordinate among the teams, and so forth. Basically all the stuff you have been explaining is the role of a project manager."

"You've got some good people assigned as team leaders," I said. "They could update workplans, coordinate among their teams, and do many of these activities. Why aren't they doing that work?"

"They will be helping, but I am the project manager," he said, "So I am on the hook to ensure the work gets done within expectations."

"It sounds like you are going to be stretched very thin for the next few months," I said. "Are you planning on spending any time at home or just living 24/7 at the office?"

"You're right about the time commitment," he said. "In fact, I told my wife not to expect to see much of me for the next five months."

That's when I told him we needed to set up a program as an umbrella organization encompassing all the subprojects. "Then you can spread project management responsibilities to your senior staff, while still maintaining overall responsibility for the entire effort."

Mentor advice

Very large projects should be broken up into smaller subprojects. One person can handle all the project management responsibilities if these subprojects are sequential, since one subproject begins when the previous subproject ends.

However, if many of the subprojects need to be completed in parallel, one person may not be able to manage them all. As an alternative, set up a program to provide an umbrella structure to manage the entire effort and ensure that all the subprojects are proceeding smoothly and are coordinated. The individual subprojects each have their own project manager who is accountable and responsible for those subproject efforts. They write the project definitions, build the workplan, and manage the subproject to ensure that it is delivered successfully.

In Bill's case, he thinks that he must manage all aspects of all projects. Actually, he should manage the overall program and work with the individual project managers to ensure their subprojects are successful. This will help ensure that the overall initiative is successful as well.

Bill should take on the role as the program manager, documenting the vision and approach of the entire effort in a program definition. A program manager should have these responsibilities:

  • Offer a response at the first level escalation point for problems
  • Manage the overall program budget
  • Ensure high-level milestone dates are being met
  • Make sure that all the subprojects are focused and coordinated to achieve the overall program objectives

Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching the IS division on project management and life-cycle skills. He's also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America, and has developed a project management methodology called TenStep.

Editor's Picks