8 Critical Success Factors for Managing Large Programs

8 Critical Success Factors for Managing Large Programs

Benefit Realisation

It is a central tenet of the Benefits Realisation Approach that benefits come only with change and, equally, change must be sustained by benefits. People must change how they think, manage and act in order to implement the Benefits Realisation Approach.

John Thorp and DMR's Centre for Strategic Leadership

In recent times the focus on benefit realisation has sharpened for the project management discipline, especially at a program level. Studies show that over 70% of business improvement projects fail to deliver their expected benefits. A program is necessarily aligned to strategic initiatives and therefore has to be linked with tangible benefits. The key aims of the benefit realisation discipline are to inculcate structure, accountability, clarity, and discipline in the delivery of a program.

Awareness of the Macro Environment

A program manager must be aware of how the program relates to the overall business goals. A program sits within the strategic landscape of an organization and has tangible hooks to the broader business environment. A program will have distinct topline and bottomline impacts and therefore becomes critical to the organization’s financial success. Any change in the business environment will impact the program charter. When managers are equipped with skills and knowledge to get an understanding and awareness of the business environment, they develop capability to handle such changes.

A Clear Business Case

It is important to establish and follow a program level business case. The business case will then feed into individual projects constituting the program. A KPMG 2011 survey in the comparatively mature New Zealand projects revealed that only about a third of organizations prepared business cases for projects and programs. Operating without a business case significantly increases the chance of program failure as the team is then not aligned to the business outcome the program is expected to deliver.


A program manager has to bring together a diverse set of teams to deliver common business outcomes. The cross-organizational nature and broad spectrum of program level activities amplify the need for orchestration skills. Can you lead across functions, manage interdisciplinary projects, get the buy-in of the business heads and keep the team motivated on ground? The answer will decide how successful your programs are.


The ability to make things happen: The Program Manager is at the unenviable centre of several disciplines, departments and functions. To steer a program, she has to exert influence to get things done and manage different perspectives, including the user, business, and technical views – many a time in a virtual setting. A program manager often does not have direct line management control over the team. A program manager needs personal dynamism and the ability to influence to get the team together, remove roadblocks, get clearances from across departments and move the program ahead.


When you manage a program, prioritization across projects become a key imperative. Where do you spend your resources? How do you manage scheduling and budget? When do you take a decision to shelve a particular project and instead refocus on another? In a program your resources are divided over several projects; prioritizing between them and managing interdependencies between the constituent projects are key imperatives to ensure success at the program level.

Manage the Metrics

What can’t be measured, cannot be improved. The simple adage holds true for a program. Maintain a program scorecard where you score projects on individual metrics and aggregate to create a program level scorecard. A scorecard is a set of metrics and measures against objectives. A scorecard will keep you focused on the overall project objectives and help you understand deviations. It can also help you pinpoint early problem areas and take corrective actions to deliver on the program benefits envisaged.

Risk Management

The larger is the scope of a program; the bigger are the risks. Risk management at the program level is not a straightforward aggregation of constituent project risks. The program manager deals with risks that arise mostly due to inter project dependencies. Programs deal with a level of business risk that must be handled at the program level. An understanding of the macro environment is key to identifying, assessing, and managing the risks.