Why Traditional Program Management Is Dead

  • By: Change Strategists
  • Time to read: 9 min.

If you’ve been following strategic management forums and blogs, you’ve likely heard the phrase “traditional program management is dead” or something along those lines. While that’s the truth, few forums and blogs have done a postmortem on this approach to program management to find out where it went wrong and what lessons we can all learn from its death. Let’s change that.

Traditional program management is dead due to the following reasons:

  • Technology has reshaped corporate change.
  • Change no longer has start and endpoints.
  • Traditional change initiatives are top-down impositions.
  • Traditional change management is often a blame game.

Read on to find out how each of these factors has contributed to the death of traditional program management and how a new alternative approach has addressed its predecessor’s shortcomings.

A Quick Overview of Program Management

To understand the meaning of program management, you need to know what a program is in the first place.

A program refers to a collection of closely-related projects with shared outcomes, requirements and strategic, organizational, or business objectives. The projects in a program complement each other to form a single package of work directed to a common goal.

Typically, programs are meant to enact specific organizational changes to facilitate growth through market expansion, efficiencies, digital transformation, and innovation.

Program management provides the structure and strategic direction required to guide a program towards its goal. It’s how the various projects in a program are coordinated, controlled, and aligned to a specific goal to deliver specific benefits through change.

Traditionally, programs have always required a dedicated program manager. The manager is involved in all aspects of change programs, such as coordinating various activities, ensuring that relevant internal and external constituent groups are working towards the same goal, and documenting and reporting progress to keep the various stakeholders in the loop.

Some of the defining documents of well-managed programs include:

  • Program Mandate
  • Program Brief
  • Program Definition

Program definition is perhaps the most robust document of the three. It must capture the following information:

  • The most recent business case.
  • A blueprint and vision statement.
  • Management strategy.
  • Risk and issue logs.
  • Benefit profiles.
  • A strategy for keeping various stakeholders engaged.
  • Stakeholder map.
  • Resource allocation and management strategies.
  • Quality management strategies.
  • A clear outline of how program benefits will be realized.
  • A communications plan.

Having reviewed what program management is all about, let’s get to the nitty-gritty of today’s discussion.

Why Traditional Program Management Is Dead

Traditional program management is a carefully planned and orchestrated strategic endeavor to steer an organization towards a specific, beneficial change.

It’s an extremely plan-based waterfall approach, where teams work step-by-step towards a large, due-date “roll-out” or “launch”. The emphasis is on implementing plans effectively, reliably, and within predetermined budgets agreed by the various stakeholders.

This approach to program management is obsolete. However, it’s only the traditional approach that’s dead and not the whole concept of program management. Despite the ever-increasing sense that it’s almost impossible to manage change in the fast-paced environment businesses operate in today, program management remains relevant.

So why is traditional program management dead? Haven’t careful planning and choreographed execution always been praised regarding organizational transformations and changes?

The reason traditional program management no longer works is a combination of several factors. These include

  • Rapid technological advancements have reshaped corporate change.
  • Organizational change no longer has start and endpoints: it’s a continuous process.
  • Traditional change initiatives are typically top-down impositions.
  • Traditional change management is often a blame game.

Technological Advancements Have Reshaped Corporate Change

Technological advancements have revolutionized many aspects of doing business today, and the way organizations approach strategic change is no exception. The emergence of new technologies has created new opportunities and challenges for organizations.

The main challenges are the speed and flexibility with which an organization responds to new technology through strategic change. Organizations that can solve these two challenges have opportunities to gain a competitive advantage by leveraging new technology to gain the upper hand.

Artificial intelligence (AI), in particular, is changing a lot in the workforce. Job descriptions are changing rapidly, and a lot of work that humans once did is quickly getting shifted to machines. As a result, some jobs disappear, new ones emerge, and the way employees communicate and coordinate among themselves and with management will change drastically.

That said, AI isn’t only changing the modern workforce. It’s reshaping corporations at various levels, forcing them to rethink things like supply chains, service/product portfolios, customer management systems and generally restructure large-scale corporations.

Technology’s changing at such a fast pace in the digital age and subsequently triggering rapid corporate reshaping. So, organizations no longer have the luxury of taking months drafting the change plans. What’s more, it’s not clear these changes will be well received at various levels of corporate governance.

These two factors have revolutionized the way corporations approach program management.

There’s less reliance on planning and more dependence on flexibility in modern organization change management. This invalidates traditional, typically plan-based program management and necessitates agile approaches to organizational change.

Change No Longer Has Start and End Points

Another potential explanation for why traditional program management no longer works is that it treats organizational change as a project with a clearly defined start and end. That’s why such initiatives have always been plan-driven. They assume that organizational change starts with adequate upfront planning and ends with a final roll-out at a specific predetermined time.

The problem with plan-driven change initiatives is that program plans are based on a snapshot view of an organization’s reality at a certain time. This snapshot view provides a starting point for organizational change, allowing program managers to plan for a future reality and guide the company towards it through program management.

On paper, this approach to change management may sound logical. But with change virtually a continuous process for most organizations in the modern business environment, it’s wildly off the mark.

According to Gartner.com, the average organization has undergone at least five significant firmware changes in the last three years. What’s more, almost 75% of organizations expect to take more major change initiatives in the next three years.

Indeed, change is the new norm for today’s organizations. It has no start or end and thus can’t be managed as a project. Why? Because by the time a program plan is enacted, the organization’s reality has changed, making the plan outdated.

And since traditional program management is typically rigid because it’s plan-driven, outdated programs are often not updated to catch up with the new organization’s reality. As a result, program managers often have to create change through outdated plans, which never works.

Traditional Change Initiatives are Top-Down Impositions

In traditional program management, a few people at the top make organizational change decisions. The grassroots levels of the organization are barely involved in deciding what change is required and how it should be implemented.

The problem is, approaching organizational change this way often increases resistance among staff because they feel like they’re forced to accept a plan that they had no say in. When employees don’t embrace it, it’s almost impossible to create any change in an organization, no matter how well planned it is.

The most effective organizational change initiatives aren’t imposed. Instead, they’re rooted in an all-inclusive culture shift. They involve various organization stakeholders from all levels of the organization hierarchy.

It allows everyone to provide suggestions and take substantial responsibility in leading the company towards the desired direction. This kind of change is more sustainable because it feels more natural and non-coercive to the various stakeholders.

Traditional Change Management Is Often a Blame Game

If you look at traditional change roadmaps, you’ll notice that most of them are deficit-and-blame-based. They start by identifying organizational shortcomings, determining what’s causing them (through analysis), identifying potential solutions, and then proceed to create a plan for taking corrective action. It’s the default organizational change model in many companies.

When such programs define the cause of the problem, they’ll often blame external or internal factors. That’s why most program vision statements have something that reads along the lines of:

  • “Our competitive edge has been undone by rapidly changing consumer needs and intense competition. If we change XYZ, we can recover our leadership position.”
  • We’re lagging behind the rest of the industry and must change to survive. If we change XYZ, we can leverage our assets to become an above-average performer in our industry.”

Now, you likely won’t find these statements word for word in every program vision statement: they might be paraphrased.

The point I’m making is that there’s an element of blame to each. In the first statement, the market bears the blame for the organization’s loss of competitive advantage. In the second statement, the company’s management and employees are responsible for its underperformance.

The problem with blame-based change initiatives is that they increase resistance, especially when the blame is put on internal stakeholders. Whether it’s management or staff, no one likes to be the scapegoat for what’s wrong within an organization.

In most cases, it leads to more finger-pointing within the organization, distracting stakeholders from the most important element of change management: taking corrective action.

What Is Good Program Management?

Having seen why traditional program management no longer works, you’re likely thinking,” what’s a better way to approach and manage organizational change and transformation?” The answer, in a nutshell, is “agile”.

Good program management is an agile, value-driven approach that focuses on speed, collaboration, efficiency, and waste minimization. While it does borrow from some of the core concepts of traditional program management, agile program management shifts the goal from plan execution to delivering value through change.

The role of the program leader is also different in agile program management.

Whereas a program manager runs traditional programs, agile programs are managed by an integrated products director, sometimes known as a product manager. An integrated products director acts as the link between teams, customers, and internal stakeholders.

Unlike program managers, they’re less focused on “checking boxes” to ensure that plans are executed on time and within budgets.

Instead, integrated product managers are more concerned with setting and adapting product roadmaps to current market conditions, development teams’ capacity, and customer demands.

Typically, their work revolves around answering the question, “what do we need to do next”. To do it well, they need to think critically, synthesize information to come up with solutions, and communicate effectively to facilitate collaboration across teams.

Having reviewed what agile program management is and how it’s led, let’s see how it addresses the main issues of traditional program management.

What Makes Agile Program Management Better?

Agile program management addresses the shortcomings of its traditional counterpart by:

  • Prioritizing flexibility.
  • Facilitating collaboration and involvement.
  • Focusing on value delivery instead of plan execution.

Let’s briefly discuss each of these points.

Prioritizing Flexibility

Agile program management is based on the premise that change is constant. To keep up with rapid changes (such as the emergence of new technologies), teams adopt an iterative approach to product development. Feedback is provided regularly, allowing teams to adapt quickly amid rapidly changing conditions and requirements.

Facilitating Collaboration and Involvement

Agile program management is also built around collaboration and involvement. An agile team is an integrated system where various stakeholders actively participate in developing and delivering value. In other words, everyone is involved in deciding on and implementing changes, rather than a select group of executives.

When stakeholders get a say on the various aspects of organizational change, they’re more receptive to it. There’s a sense of a shared goal, and teams are more likely to collaborate to achieve it. And when things don’t go right, there’s less finger-pointing because successes and failures are shouldered by the whole “integrated system” and not individuals or departments.

Focusing on Value Delivery Instead of Execution

Agile program management measures success in terms of responsiveness. That’s unlike traditional program management, which measures value in terms of the efficiency and reliability with which a plan is executed.

Focusing on responsiveness allows agile teams to deliver what’s needed when it’s needed. While efficiency and reliability are still important, they’re not as critical as delivering the right kind of value. In simpler terms, sticking to a plan and executing it per predetermined timestamps is not as important as providing what customers need when they need it.

Summing Up

That does it for our post mortem on traditional program management. To recap, the causes of its death are the lack of flexibility to evolve with technology and treating organizational change as a project with a start and end.

The lack of stakeholder collaboration and involvement is also part of the diagnosis. It makes traditional change initiatives top-down impositions and facilitates blame games when things don’t go right.

The future of program management is agile, built around flexibility, collaboration, and value delivery. The Program manager is dead. Long live the Integrated Products Director!


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