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Programme and Project Management

Firstly, our interest in, and approach to, Programme and Project Management is not to cover or teach various tools, techniques or methodologies.  There are plenty of those on the market already.

Rather, our interest arises in Programmes and Projects as mechanisms for executing change. In our experience, it is all too easy to rush into a Programme or Project, throw the full panoply of methodologies such as Managing Successful Programmes or PRINCE2 at them and then be surprised as the initiatives begin to founder.  The problem in our view is that insufficient thought is given to the nature of the change and the level of uncertainty involved.

Eddie Obeng[1] has helpfully written about two main elements of uncertainty for Programmes and Projects – how well the objectives/outcomes (the ‘what’) are known and how well the mechanisms for delivery (the ‘how’) are known. We have characterised the levels of uncertainty this represents as follows:

  • The ‘what’ and the ‘how’ are both known: these are the least uncertain changes and in many ways the lowest risk. Whilst there may still be a great many activities and tasks to perform that need to be sequenced in complex ways, a ‘template’ approach to programme and project management can be applied.
  • The ‘how’ is known, but the ‘what’ is not. We characterise these as the answer or solution looking for a business problem to solve.  This is often the case with new technologies before the ‘killer app’ is identified.  These initiatives pose some risk and a ‘template’ approach to managing them is unlikely to work.  What might be needed here is a period of piloting and prototypes that test how the ‘answer’ might bring business benefits – so that the ‘question’ (the ‘what’) becomes clearer.
  • The ‘what’ is clear, but the ‘how’ is not.  In contrast – here it is clear that there is a business problem.  But, there might be a range of solutions that could address it.  Again a ‘template’ approach to managing these is likely to fail. Instead, here one might expect to see a series of short phases with lots of parallel activity as solution options are tested for feasibility and either eliminated or passed through a decision gate to the next stage. Again, the level of uncertainty means these are likely to be higher risk than where the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ are clear.  Often the risk is higher in delivery terms than where the ‘how’ is known and the ‘what isn’t.  (In theory, for bullet two type changes, they can at least be implemented successfully; but they may not deliver the expected – or indeed any – business benefits).
  • Neither the ‘what’ nor the ‘how’ are known: this is the opposite extreme to the first bullet – the most uncertain and the highest risk.  Such change initiatives are more common than one might think.  In the public sector, many policy-led changes start in this space.  For example – the introduction of Tax Credits in the early 2000’s in the UK started as twin policy aims to ‘make work pay’ and ‘to eradicate child poverty in a generation’.  Useful outcomes as far as they go – but not a detailed ‘what’ in change terms and certainly no indication of ‘how’.  That came later (see below).  Similarly in the private sector; in the mid-nineties, IBM was brought to the brink of disaster.  Louis Gerstner, the CEO who took over in 1993, is credited with turning things around.  As Gerstner intimated at the time, the ‘Big Blue’ nearly got eaten from below by small fry.  There was a clear need for change but the exact nature of what was needed and how it could be implemented was initially unclear.  The subsequent refocusing on the IT services business (a small part of the business at the time) now accounts for nearly 50% of the IBM revenues.

Choose success or failure

So – our intervention here is designed to explore the levels of certainty around the change to be implemented so that an appropriate Programme or Project Management regime can be put in place.  In many instances the change may move through different levels of certainty over time – with a need to evolve the management arrangements to suit that progression.  For example, returning to Tax Credits – initially only a high level statement of intent was available (as above – ‘eradication of child poverty in a generation’).  It is often the ‘what’ which is clarified first (in this example, the ‘what’ was clarified as the provision of money to parents).  The ‘how’ of delivering that outcome is then also clarified (again in this example, the mechanism of payment was identified as a ‘tax credit’, aligned with the tax system rather than welfare and payable by Inland Revenue).  Our approach can therefore also be used on in-flight programmes and projects as an assurance mechanism testing whether management arrangements (governance, stakeholder engagement, level and type of planning, resource profiles looking forward, etc.) are appropriate for the current level of certainty – and how those might need to change.

Our four-step I D E A approach to explore Programme and Project Management challenges is therefore:

Step 1 – Initiate: here we build an understanding of the nature of the change to be implemented – or in the process of being implemented – in terms of the level of certainty over the ‘what’ and the ‘how’

Step 2 – Design: for new initiatives, the design might take the form of an engagement exercise / event for stakeholders and those likely to be involved to examine the way the management arrangements for the initiative might best work and how those might change over time.  For in-flight projects, this might be the design of a short series of events and interviews as an assurance process.  The exact nature of the design will be agreed with you.

Step 3 – Execute: we would then run the event or events, based on the customised approach that has been agreed.

Step 4 – Action: lastly, we will capture the output from the work within twenty-four hours of any event or intervention.  This will include: materials used and / or developed, actions / next steps agreed, etc.  We shall also follow-up 2 to 4 weeks after the final event to talk through progress and act as a reminder for agreed actions.

For more information on how we can help you transform your organisation, please contact us at

[1] Founder of the Pentacle Business School


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