The vast majority of courses in project and program management present theory and the mechanics of managing a project or program. Hence, these courses are heavy on developing the skills to create a work breakdown structure (WBS), formulate a proper schedule, implement earned value management, etc. All of these “mechanical skills” are necessary, yet through my many years of experience developing, delivering and reviewing programs, I have often seen projects or programs use sophisticated tools and then fail spectacularly.

Clearly, these mechanical skills are necessary but insufficient. This point was clearly demonstrated during a new practical program management course that I co-authored and taught recently, as attendees described the various ways they’ve seen programs fail.

Interestingly, one attendee used a word within the first hour of the course that I use to describe a key aspect of success in program management: alignment. If a program or project manager cannot obtain and then retain alignment among the key stakeholders, it becomes exceedingly difficult to realize the business benefits that the program or project is supposed to deliver. Gaining this alignment must begin prior to the program’s kickoff.

The key is to properly define the business benefits of the program and ensure that those benefits are tightly tied to and support the organization’s strategy and associated objectives. Further, there must be sufficient planning to develop a solid business case that defines the scope of the program (i.e., which projects and other initiatives, systems, etc. fall within it), the high-level approach to executing the program, the description of the business benefits and schedule for delivering those benefits, and an ROI analysis that justifies the program. These planning steps are necessary to drive that initial alignment of stakeholders to understand the need for the program and gain their support.

All attendees weighed in with stories of working on programs, of issues related to receiving conflicting direction from various parts of the organization, and of changing organizational priorities that made it difficult for programs to deliver meaningful business benefits. Later in the course, we returned to the topic of stakeholder engagement to retain alignment. We spent a couple of hours on how to identify and categorize the stakeholders for a program and how to properly communicate and engage with the stakeholders.

It was interesting to see the reactions of some attendees to the idea that your stakeholders extend well beyond the business owners to include everyone who can impact a program or be affected by the outcomes of the program. For IT programs, your stakeholders include users of any new systems the program develops. Stakeholders for a large program can encompass a wide variety of internal and external positions. Successful program managers understand the necessity to properly categorize, communicate and engage with all stakeholders.

The Role of Governance

The stakeholder discussion naturally leads to the topic of governance—namely, how decisions are made on the program, and where the dividing line is regarding decisions that should be made at the program level and those that should be made at a more senior level, informed by the input of the key program stakeholders. After being involved in dozens of programs, I am a believer that program governance works best when there is a single, transparent reporting relationship for a program manager to an oversight (program-level) governance board. A board of executives from key stakeholder organizations must be empowered to make decisions, binding their organizations and creating a partnership among the business, IT, procurement, finance, etc.

The function of the program governance board is not to usurp the authorities of the program manager. It is to provide a forum for the program manager to bring key issues and decisions to an informed, empowered body with a vested interest in that program’s success and that views the program manager as a trusted advisor and subject matter specialist. This process will ensure that the organization retains alignment even when there are changes in organizational priorities and even changes in the personnel serving as key stakeholders.

The closing of the course covered leadership and offered practical approaches for how program managers can lead in an environment in which they have direct control over program resources but in which stakeholders may be peers, superiors or even people outside their organization. Understanding the techniques for and approaches to driving alignment throughout the lifecycle of the program is one of the most important roles of the program manager.

Richard A. Spires is the CEO of Learning Tree International and co-author/instructor (with noted author and instructor Hamid Aougab) of a four-day program management course, “Essential Skills for Your Program Success.” Richard previously served as CIO at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.