How Can We Use Program Structures to Make Things Easier?

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May 09, 2019

How Can We Use Program Structures to Make Things Easier?

By John Cropper

Lead, Program Management and Humanitarian

Not too long ago, I was asked to help a former PMD Pro student. She had been asked to sort out a failing project. “It’s so bad; I don’t know where to start…” The process of helping her made me think a lot about what an NGO program is.

I often define a program by saying that it is 2+2=5. By this, I mean that there needs to some added benefit to calling it a program. Otherwise, it is just a sack of projects. What is the point of managing a ‘program’, if there is no added benefit? So far, so good. Nothing to discuss.

The reality, however, is somewhat more complex, and lots of questions start to emerge when you try to unpack a program and its projects. Where does the money come from? Who defines the projects and programs? What are the goals? What has been promised, and to whom, in terms of results? What are ‘we’ trying to achieve? What does the structure try to achieve? For whom? Can the same piece of work be a project and a program?

Maybe this is over-complicating matters, but let’s look at the ‘project’ I was asked to help with. It turned out that it was for +/- US$50 million over three years. It covered HIV and AIDs work over the whole country, with multiples areas of work in each province. If all of this is one ‘project’, then no wonder it is ‘so bad, I don’t know where to start’. Simple tools like risk registers become books. Plans are so complex that they are wrong pretty much as soon as they are written, and the planning process is so excruciating that no-one wants to revisit. So, staff on the ground have nothing to help them deliver. Plans are both vast and too detailed for leadership – but also – paradoxically – not detailed enough to help implementers.

The reason behind structuring the work in this way was that there was one grant behind it - one grant from one donor. It was thought that one grant = one project structure would ‘make things easier’. It might – but I think it misses the question of making things easier for whom?

This structure was designed to make reporting and senior management easier. I personally think this is the wrong way round. Program and project management should be about making life easier for the ‘deliverers’. If we can make project delivery easier, then the project is more likely to be successful.

So, the next question becomes, how can we use program/project structure to make things easier for deliverers? For me, the answer is ‘small is beautiful’. What is the work on the ground and who is leading this? This is probably a project. How is coordination happening across these pieces of work? This is perhaps a program. Anything above this is a portfolio.

In our example, we ended up with a program in each province – managed by a program coordinator. Within each program were several projects – building clinics, training, info, provision, etc. This means that the project staff can use project management tools – so they get an immediate benefit – and there is visibility about what is happening on the ground.

Additionally, there are significant program benefits. 2+2=5 is almost impossible to achieve if people cannot see how their work relates to other work. Managing dependencies across projects is one of the key program management tasks. If you have clear, visible and shared plans at the project level, it at least, becomes possible to understand dependencies.

Making projects smaller and more concrete within a program can also force managers to think about how decisions are going to be received, delegation, cross-project learning and how all of the program work that falls outside the scope of individual projects will be done, by who, when and how does it integrate.

I think that an important part of this clarity on delivery extends to local implementing partners. In my experience, they often do 90% of the actual project work – yet they can rarely take decisions by themselves, everything needs to be checked with the INGO, project management capacity building is limited.

So, what is a program? I think it is a series of smaller, concrete pieces of work – projects - with clear plans and documents that help staff to deliver. Each project needs clear leadership and the ability to take decisions. At the same time, there needs to be a shared understanding of dependencies across projects and how all of the work combines to deliver the program objectives. The Program Manager needs to facilitate all of this. S/he needs to create a project management culture in each project within the program. They need to keep everyone focused on the program vision. They need to manage up, down and across all of the work in the program and if everything is subsumed in a huge megaproject, this becomes difficult, if not impossible.

Find out more about how to develop your program potential, with our dedicated learning pathway in this area:

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