9 high-impact techniques program managers need to know

9 high-impact techniques program managers need to know
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Managing a project or a program is no easy feat. Managing multiple projects, trying to stay on top of timelines, and scheduling resources amongst priorities would be enough to make anybody cross-eyed if not handled and scheduled correctly. But the good news is that skilled project professionals, including program managers, can manage and track multiple complex projects simultaneously, driving programs to meet their expected outcomes. 

But it’s not a bunch of hocus pocus and magic that makes this happen. Program managers and project managers need an in-depth understanding of high-impact techniques and project management methodologies that contribute to the likelihood of project success. So, we rounded up the basics of nine techniques you should know if you don’t already. But first, let’s clarify the differences between project management and program management and how they relate.

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What is program management?

First, let’s jump into the basics of program management and how it differs from project management. The Project Management Institute (PMI) defines programs and program management as, “A program is a group of related projects managed in a coordinated manner to obtain benefits not available from managing them individually. Program management is the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to meet program requirements.” By this definition, dependent projects are a part of more extensive programs. 

Similarly, Atlassian uses a train analogy to describe the difference between programs and projects. In the breakdown, conductors (project managers) operate trains (projects), pulling together a team to achieve goals. A program would consist of a collection of trains (or projects) running on different tracks. The station conductor managing all of the project trains is the program manager.

While we consider program management and project management to be closely related disciplines, it’s necessary to distinguish between them and understand their differences. Projects tend to be smaller, focused pieces of work with short-term deadlines. Programs tend to have larger scopes, unknown or fluid deadlines, and many dependent deliverables and outcomes (from the projects). Projects and programs are essential in helping businesses achieve their goals.

9 techniques you should know

Running programs and projects, no matter their level of complexity, requires a significant amount of effort and coordination. Whether a program manager or project manager, you should know these nine high-impact techniques to succeed in your role.

Program evaluation and review technique (PERT)

What it is: PERT stands for program evaluation and review technique. It’s a visual project management planning tool for complex, detailed projects. In 1957, The U.S. Navy Special Projects Office developed the technique to simplify planning complex projects. Using PERT, you can calculate the amount of time it should take to complete a project and visually display the project timeline and dependencies.  

Image source: Asana

Follow the five steps from Asana below to make a PERT chart:

1. Identify and collect all necessary project tasks and related information.

2. Define task dependencies.

3. Connect project tasks to one another.

4. Estimate your project timeframe.

5. Manage task progress through to completion. 

Why it’s high-impact: A PERT diagram reveals how tasks connect and what timelines could look like, providing a complete picture view. Understanding dependencies can better support your team's allocations. Not only can you use these visuals for specific projects, but they can also provide insight into a program and more effective project planning. 

Critical path method (CPM) 

What it is: The critical path method (CPM) is a project management tool for scheduling project activities. To model a project, you simply input factors involved in the project and the optimal timeline for completing each element. The critical path identifies the longest string of dependent activities the team must complete in a specific order to complete the project on schedule.

There are three key elements needed to determine what the critical path is. They are: 

  1. A list of tasks required to complete the project 
  2. Any task dependencies
  3. The duration of each task

Like PERT, you can use CPM charts to provide a visual overview of a project.

Image source: Lucidchart 

Why it’s high-impact: CPM is a great project management tool for informing project planning, facilitating effective resource management, and avoiding bottlenecks by highlighting dependent work. It can eliminate or reduce non-critical tasks when time is of the essence. Understanding the critical path for projects within a program can help keep a program moving forward.

Work breakdown structure (WBS) 

What it is: A work breakdown structure (WBS) in a project management method for breaking down complex, multi-step, large projects into manageable, smaller chunks and milestones. According to the PMI and the PMBOK® Guide—Third Edition, a WBS is “a deliverable-oriented hierarchical decomposition of the work to be executed by the project team to accomplish the project objectives and create the required deliverables.” 

Image source: ProjectManager.com

Wrike recommends gathering critical input, assessing the project scope first, and transparently prioritizing the work using Gantt charts, spreadsheets, or other visual hierarchical representations. Once you outline the deliverables and tasks, you can easily assign them to project team members for completion. 

Why it’s high-impact: Programs may have extended or unknown deadlines, making it more challenging to assign tasks and predict the impact of future work on project timelines. Organizing projects and breaking them down improves resource planning and can strengthen stakeholder relationships and realistically set expectations. This method is also a great way to get a high-level view of all projects within a program and keep track of progress under one umbrella.

Gantt chart tool

What it is: A Gantt chart is one of the most common and well-known tools in project management. A Gantt chart is a bar chart in which a series of horizontal lines visually display project activities and tasks against time. At a glance, they give users a look at the activities within the project or program, when each one begins and ends, how long each task is, where project activities overlap, and the entire project timeline from start to finish. ​​

Image source: Instagantt

Fun fact: Karol Adamiecki, a polish engineer, developed the first Gantt chart in the mid-1980s. The Gantt chart got its name from Henry Gantt, an American engineer and project management consultant who created his own version of the chart following Adamiecki. 

Why it’s high-impact: Gantt charts are simple but provide all of the necessary information program managers and project managers need in one place. They show the project timeline and the timelines for individual tasks within the chart, highlighting task dependencies and milestones simultaneously. Tools like Smartsheet and Instagantt help put these visual timelines together.

Agile project management

What it is: Agile project management is an iterative approach most commonly used for software development projects. It emphasizes gathering feedback and responding to change. The Agile Manifesto is the foundation of Agile practices, and it includes 12 principles for effective work. Agile refers to the general best practices for organizing and executing projects, and within Agile project management, there are various methods to choose from. Some of the most common Agile frameworks include Scrum (see below), Kanban, lean development, extreme programming (XP), and Scrumban

Why it’s high-impact: Agile project management can support a variety of types of teams. The Agile methodology enables team adaptability by providing connection points, such as daily standups to change directions as needed. It can result in higher customer satisfaction because teams can iteratively incorporate customer feedback and demonstrate improvements in short turnaround times. And finally, when teams implement Agile properly, it increases autonomy, encouraging team members to make decisions and changes as needed rather than going through costly and time-consuming processes for approval.

Scrum framework

What it is: Scrum is an approach to Agile project management. Many software development teams use this approach. Scrum is more lightweight and adaptive than other frameworks because teams can make changes midway to provide a better product or outcome. The adaptability of the Scrum framework is vital for addressing changing market conditions, which is why development teams rely on this approach. 

The framework includes the following timeboxed events: sprints, sprint planning, daily Scrum, sprint review, and sprint retrospective. Most often, a Scrum master leads the team and is responsible for removing obstacles for team members so they can get their work done. Other essential roles on the team include a product owner and the development team. Fast, iterative development is at the heart of this structure.

Why it’s high-impact: Like the other methods previously discussed, following the Scrum framework enables teams to break down complex tasks into manageable workloads. One major benefit of sprints is that they help teams focus on a handful of tasks at one time rather than trying to conquer too much at once. The framework also keeps teams moving (sprints come and go quickly), which can be beneficial in driving a program or project with an extended deadline from start to finish.

Waterfall methodology 

What it is: The waterfall project management technique maps projects into sequential phases with a new phase beginning only once the previous one ends—hence the name, waterfall. According to Wrike, this method works best for team members working linearly in clearly defined roles on a project in which they do not expect the goals to change. 

Project management and software development professionals often compare Agile and the waterfall method against one another. The former is iterative and adaptable, and the latter is linear and sequential. The stages of the waterfall method typically follow the sequence below:

  • Requirements 
  • Design
  • Implementation 
  • Verification
  • Maintenance

Why it’s high-impact: The waterfall method provides structure and, due to the linear nature of its setup, can be beneficial in providing program and project cost and deadlines estimates. It works best for deadline-driven teams with strict schedules to maintain and for projects that you don’t expect to change over time.

Extreme project management (XPM) 

What it is: Extreme project management (XPM) is a technique for managing uncertain and complex projects. XPM focuses on the people side of project management rather than on the timeline and scheduling aspects. The XPM approach is future-oriented, about distributing control, and emphasizes controlling one’s mindset. It’s a method for teams with fast-paced work, complex project outcomes, frequent changes to project requirements, and people-driven projects. You can learn more about this technique in eXtreme Project Management by Doug DeCarlo.

Why it’s high-impact: In a constantly evolving business landscape, XPM best supports high-complexity projects, fast-paced work, evolving project requirements, trial-and-error methods, and teams who have leeway outside of processes. Teams who utilize XPM are able to manage the unknown more effectively since the framework allows for adjusting project plans. This technique works great for teams with fluid work and prioritizes delivering the desired result, not an originally planned one.

Adaptive project framework (APF)

What it is: The adaptive project framework (APF), sometimes referred to as adaptive project management (APM), seeks to do exactly as its name says—accommodate adaptability in the event of unknown factors. Under this framework, team members develop flexible plans and adjust the project for fluctuating circumstances as needed. The phases of APF include:

  • Project scope 
  • Cycle plan
  • Cycle build
  • Client checkpoint
  • Final review

Why it’s high-impact: The most significant benefit of this framework is that it prepares teams to respond to the unexpected and do so (hopefully) successfully. It works well when customers’ needs constantly change, market trends evolve rapidly, technology changes are a key consideration, or business goals and objectives are unclear. While APF and XPM are both techniques for addressing the unexpected, APF focuses on changing environments, whereas XPM focuses on the people side of project management. 

How to choose a suitable project management methodology 

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to choosing a technique that will work best for you and your team. Each one has its benefits that work best in specific environments and circumstances.

Not sure where to start or which one to try first? Narrow down the list by considering the following:

  • Line of work: What line of work are you in? Are the industry and market consistent or constantly changing? Are your business goals constantly evolving or more stagnant? How quickly do you need to turn project deliverables around? 
  • Project complexity and program size: Are projects within your program complex or straightforward? How many dependencies exist? Do you need a method to help you organize and break down complex tasks?
  • Team and organization size: How big is your team? Are team members’ roles clearly defined and established, or do you take an “all-hands-on-deck” approach? Avoid burdening your team with too much structure.
  • Team members’ preferences: Perhaps most importantly, you should consider your team’s preferences when selecting a methodology. If you have a team of 20 and 18 of your team members prefer Scrum, you may want to bump Scrum to the top of your list. Don’t try to force a methodology if one (or more) works naturally.

To lead projects and programs with impact 

Go forth and lead your projects and programs with these high-impact project management techniques. Remember, projects are smaller, focused pieces of work on tighter deadlines. Programs are larger umbrellas containing multiple dependent projects. PERT, CPM, WBS, Agile, Scrum, and XPM are a few of the high-impact techniques you should know. When selecting a methodology to support your project or program, keep your line of work, project complexity, team size, and team members’ preferences top of mind. 

About the author

Alyssa Towns

Alyssa Towns a freelance writer based in Denver, CO. She writes on a productivity and career-related topics for Insider, Clockwise, G2 and other publications.

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