Program management is not to be confused with project management, and the two titles should not be used interchangeably. We generally relate project management responsibilities to the oversight and management of time, budget, and scope. This is a challenge at the project level and is substantially more complicated at the project, portfolio, or program management level.

Program management is typically associated with a person or service responsible for the oversight and governance of multiple individual projects, related or not. Successful program management requires a  variety of responsibilities and methods.

A successful program manager must have a combination of skills ranging from engineering through organizational change management. The wide range of skills required makes a program manager seem like an octopus, with each arm accomplishing tasks entirely different from one another. Or perhaps if you’ve ever witnessed a circus juggler, you would also relate them to a program manager as well. They keep all the plates spinning in the air at once without dropping a single one.

In order to positively impact an organization, a program manager must be able to:

  • Govern
  • Plan
  • Design
  • Engineer solutions
  • Support organizational goals and objectives
  • Align individual projects with the goals and objectives
  • Manage both people and projects
  • Manage a budget
  • Apply projects to transformation
  • Communicate change, status, and integration
  • Manage and mitigate risks
  • Manage conflict
  • Quickly analyze and resolve issues
  • Assess and manage quality
  • Assess resources, timelines, and performance

An effective program manager is an extension of the organization’s Executive Leadership group. They have the trust and sponsorship of the Executives. To some extent, an organization is entrusting its very future to the program manager and their team. There must be complete alignment among the executives and the program management team to ensure that organizational missions and goals are met. The program manager also implements an early warning process or method to detect any variation of the various projects’ progress or outcomes.

There is a multitude of metaphorical comparisons for the characteristics of a successful program manager, but in reality, they have to be many things at once: an effective organizational change management advocate, an engineer, a gifted process manager. They must also possess requisite soft skills such as collaboration, negotiating, facilitation, people management, oral and written communications, and a drive to succeed. Whether they need to be an octopus, a juggler, or simply a magician, program managers require a broad palette of hard and soft skills.