“Programs can be set for success or for failure, it all happens during initiation”
When program initiation is done the wrong way, a program will undoubtedly fail. This does not mean that when it’s done right, a program will succeed, but it does mean that the program will have a good chance of success and why it’s mission-critical to start off the right way.
For a successful program initiation, the following ingredients need to be present:
A strong, active program sponsor: The program sponsor needs to know exactly which part within the strategy of the sponsoring organization that the program is supposed to fill. They need to be active during the initiation, and throughout the life cycle, and keep everyone concentrated on the fulfillment of that part. A lot of resources are usually “wasted” doing what can be seen as “good” work, but does not necessarily support the above mentioned goals. The sponsor’s job is to avoid this, and keep focus on the goals that contribute to the realization of the organizational strategy.
A competent, knowledgeable program manager: The program manager is to lead the management team and deliver the program benefits within scope, schedule, and cost. They need to be knowledgeable in the art of planning, executing, monitoring, and controlling, and all in the right proportions. Most recognize the above mentioned fact, but spend plenty of resources in planning — they plan for scope, schedules, budgets, communication, quality, acquisition, etc. All are important and they need to be done right, but program success/failure happens during execution and the many decisions program managers make on a daily basis. PMs need to be skilled in not only planning, but managing — forming the right teams, developing the teams, and making sure organizational resources are spent delivering benefits.
A high-level, realistic estimate of time and resources: Estimates of time, cost, and resources are some of the hardest things done in program management. One of the biggest problems is the misunderstanding about the definition of “estimates”. Conflict, or the appearance of conflict, arises between those who have to estimate, those who need more information about what needs to be accomplished, and those who plan budgets and need to know “precisely” how much something is supposed to cost, or how long it’s supposed to take. It’s important to understand that “estimates” are predictions, and therefore can not always be “precisely right”.
An initial strategic risks assessment: Risks are events that could happen during program execution, and impact programs negatively (threats) or positively (opportunities). During initiation, we still don’t know a lot of the program details, so we have to concentrate on the strategic risks, or risks that often happen to similar programs. One of the big issues is the confusion of risks and outcomes. We need to be very clear and define events that might happen, and how the program management team can respond. The search should be concentrated on those events and their root cause, not their symptoms.
A clear program charter: The ingredients above have to be documented in a program charter — a formal document presented to the program governance board to decide if the program is worth the investment. By formal, we mean a clear document showing that we have a good “case”. There are plenty of program charter templates around. Some of the items that need to be documented include: program justification and its place in the organizational strategy, the program scope, program components, a high-level timeline, main stakeholders, and strategic risks.