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Driving the Change Agenda through a Low Overhead Program Office

Written By: J. Diezemann
Published On: April 20 2000

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IT Management Issue

Projects are the primary way through which companies transform themselves and evolve as they pursue their vision & mission. Unfortunately, TEC research has shown that the majority of IT projects that wind up on the corporate agenda are created by line operations management or lower in the organization, and that less than 10% come from the executive level. This is a genuine cause for concern.

Our research has also revealed that a vast majority of these projects rely on interpretations or assumptions about business strategy. A sage once said that "Context is worth 50 IQ points!" Yet it is exactly this "context" that is missing in many companies. Getting it right is crucial to getting the right projects launched, at the right time, for the right reasons.

We believe that a Program Office is a low overhead and highly effective way to ensure that a company's business strategy is translated into a holistic and aligned portfolio of projects. Through a Program Office, the organization can become highly adaptive as senior management determines the appropriate responses to changing forces inside and outside the business.

Business Implications

The role of the Program Office is to coordinate, advocate and facilitate key programs & projects that comprise the company's Project Portfolio. The major product or deliverable of the Program Office is an integrated and prioritized rolling 90-day project/phasing plan. The Program Office also advocates standardized project practices and project management methods.

The benefit of a Program Office is that it establishes tight linkage between each project and the corporate agenda, as well as linkages among projects. Without this vertical and horizontal linkage, projects become locally optimized, delivering solutions that frequently add cost to corporate infrastructure and burden extended processes with unnecessary work. In order to achieve this, the Program Office needs to engage senior management in necessary conversations to establish and refresh the list of desired (and prioritized) operational capabilities that will enable the company to implement strategy.

The Program Office is best positioned as part of the Office of the COO. The function should operate with low overhead. Even in large organizations the Program Office does not need to expand beyond three people and in small to mid-sized companies a part-time to one-person Program Office can be effective.

The Program Office need not be a bureaucratic control center for all the initiatives within a company, rather it should be an effective shared service that delivers project orchestration and alignment. It has the benefit of being outside of functional stovepipes, and therefore providing an unbiased view fragment. From this position, the Program Office, headed by a Program Manager, can make recommendations to the executive team regarding:

  • Project charters and scope

  • Relative prioritization of projects (and the correlated utilization of resources)

  • Trade-offs that must be made among projects

  • Applicability of specific technological solutions

  • Validity of projected benefits and risks

  • Distribution of scarce resources among multiple projects

A Program Office requires a hybrid of many management disciplines. It requires basic management and political skills, aptitude in project management, technical awareness, and the capacity for systems thinking (to see the synergies and connections among multiple projects). The Program Manager should also be a standing member on steering committees for critical projects; this will ensure early identification of opportunities and/or conflicts that relate to resource availability, integration and other cross-organizational issues.

IT Implications

IT is continually at the end of the whip. A small wrist jerk by the business causes an amplified impact (and frequently a sharp stinging sensation) on the IT organization and infrastructure. In addition, IT is often paralyzed or disabled by conflicting or inconsistent commands from within the organization.

The creation of a Program Office provides IT with an important and actively engaged ally at the executive level. It provides a singular forum within the organization where IT can receive a clearly communicated set of business priorities, defined in a common language around business capabilities and translated to the project level. This forum elevates the IT discussion above the single project level and it provides an opportunity for IT to raise forward-facing issues related to infrastructure and architecture integration with the business agenda.

Business Management Response

  1. Charter a Program Office within the office of the COO.

  2. Staff the position of Program Manager with a seasoned executive with broad business and IT knowledge who is respected within the company.

  3. Give the Program Office the responsibility for developing and maintaining the prioritized list of operational capabilities that the business needs to realize its strategy.

  4. Have the executive team treat the Program Office/Program Manager as the primary liaison for developing new project initiatives and for explaining the rationale for the current project portfolio.

  5. Ensure that the Program Manager has free access and committed support so that the Program Office does not become a bottleneck and impede progress.

Information Technology Management Response

  1. Encourage and take advantage of the Program Office to drive business and information technology architecture design.

  2. Catalyze business change through a combination of information access, process transformation and systems thinking.

  3. Empower the Program Office with Intranet, Decision Support, and other collaboration and communication tools.

 
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