Key Ingredient for Successful IT Programs: The People!

The single most important element that I’ve learned through my years of experience starting, managing and rescuing programs is the personnel leading the program. Typically, IT program leaders form part of what is called the program management office (PMO) or integrated program team (IPT). There is usually a significant focus on the program manager position, and having a skilled and experienced person in that role is vital for large, complex IT programs. What is surprising, however, is how many programs set up shop without all of the key management personnel in place.


The following positions are typically core roles*, and programs that do not have strong individuals in these positions have high risk:

  • The business lead is a senior official from the organization who has ultimate responsibility for ensuring that the functional requirements are properly scoped and met by the delivered system.
  • The system architect is both a technologist and an engineer who can develop a technical solution to meet the requirements. He or she fully understands the organization’s enterprise architecture and how the new system will interoperate with internal and external systems.
  • The data architect is an absolute must for any highly data-centric system to ensure the proper integration of data from multiple unrelated sources.
  • The security architect ensures that there is a proper security design and integration with the organization’s architecture.
  • The requirements manager is not the business lead but the individual who understands the lifecycle of managing requirements, from elicitation to the change management process to testing and evaluation.
  • If you are developing software or implementing the complex configuration of a commercial package, you will need a development and integration manager.
  • The test manager brings a solid end-to-end view of the testing process.
  • The configuration manager accounts for everything and runs a tight change-control process.
  • The operations manager is the person who knows how to field and operate systems. This individual is always required and is even more critical as an organization moves toward agile delivery. It is not unusual for programs to simultaneously have one release in production, another in development and testing, and a third in requirements definition and design.
  • The contracting officer is the leader from the procurement organization who handles procurement processes and the resulting contracts that support the program.

* IT programs vary greatly, so there is no one model that fits every PMO

Too often, the program manager cannot point to the individuals filling each of those key roles, or too many of the roles are filled by contractor personnel. Many successful systems have been delivered with contractors in a number of these roles. However, if contractors fill most of the roles, the program’s risk increases. It is not that the contractor employees do not possess the necessary competence, and the PMO can certainly include contractor personnel in support roles, but the goal is an integrated PMO, and that goal is difficult to accomplish if contractor personnel hold key roles.

Another key to success is ensuring the involvement of the business organization. It’s crucial to include full-time representatives who can successfully work within the PMO to define the system’s requirements. These individuals should be steeped in the current process end-to-end, have true credibility with senior management, and demonstrate the flexibility to deal with unending change as a program unfolds and matures.

Unfortunately, those crucial individuals are all too often absent in IT programs. The business does not give up its star players to fill those roles. Programs often have specialists in particular business areas but no one with an end-to-end view. This situation impedes a program’s change management process and ultimately affects its schedule and cost. It does not in and of itself doom a program, but it is a predictor of failure.

Finally, all members of the PMO should report to the program manager and should be assessed on a shared set of objectives that support the business goals that created the need for the program. Too often, members of the PMO are measured on process results rather than on business outcomes. Organizations would improve their ability to buy IT substantially if procurement personnel reported to the program managers and were measured not just on following the procurement regulations but on deliverables provided by the contractor and on the success of the program.

So what can you do if you’ve been asked to step into a program management role, trying to start a new program or rescue a program?

My experiences in project and program management have led me to work with Hamid Aougab (he is also an accomplished project and program manager, along with a successful course author and instructor) to create a new course entitled Program Management: Essential Skills for Your Program Success.  What has me most excited about this course is that we have worked to embed insights into the course from our many years of experience working on, running, and reviewing programs in both the public and private sectors. We have attempted to create a course that can accelerate an attendee’s learning, providing valuable and practical methods to help establish and effectively manage a program. But further, we offer insights on how to spot programs that are running into trouble, and what steps can be taken to help get them back on track. So many courses present the theory of project and program management — this course represents the opportunity to help establish practical program management actions that can help individuals and organizations demonstrate repeatable success.

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