Program Management – Top-down/Bottom-up?There is often a gap between the strategic vision and plans of a corporateexecutive/board and the immediate needs experienced by staff “at the coal-face”. Responding to the latter is generally a more tactical focus, possiblyconsuming resources that might otherwise be directed at addressing thecorporate strategies. Likewise, without comprehensive communication andengagement, grass-roots tactical solutions may take portions of the companydown a path that doesn’t synchronise well with longer term strategies,potentially making future changes more difficult. This article presents somethoughts on the creative tension between that top-down vs bottom-up focus inprogram management, with some examples that have helped build a greatersense of engagement for the customers involved in these programs.The January 2010 AIPM PM-Select article: “Projects – Real, Virtual or What?”(Blomquist & Lundin), had an interesting reference to a book (published onlyin Denmark?): “Project Management in Loosely Coupled Systems” byChristensen and Kreiner (1991) which espoused the view that projectmanagers should not follow the most common advice given to projectmanagers, and that trying to be rational by sticking to the plan will have youlose sight of the changing world and come up with something that no onereally wants any longer. This certainly was a good primer for thinking “out ofthe box”!A key customer/manager (let’s call him Max – not his real name) on a recentproject management assignment had a keen desire to counter the negativeexperiences and perceptions of recent projects/implementations. Theseprojects have unfortunately increased the workload for his team, with littleperception of a “wider” benefit to the rest of the organisation to make it seemworthwhile. The work environment for these guys has seen their current toolsgetting old and less reliable, with a wider scope of work expected of them,increased number of jobs per day, and a more complex infrastructure beingmanaged which is also old and under progressively more load (an all toofamiliar litany in many organisations!). With further significant changes due tobe delivered to this part of the organisation, Max wanted to deliver small,beneficial changes for his group as a means of not only helping themovercome business problems but to give them some positive experiences ofchange. One where the WHOLE change is something that gives themsomething valuable, something they will appreciate.An example is where Max arranged for a small database application toreplace four essentially identical hand-written forms, each of which went todifferent parts of the organisation. While a planned major (strategic)replacement of systems for this group would probably replace these manualforms, this implementation was still some time off. The new (interim) systemwas implemented with wide consultation, incorporated feedback from thatconsultation, and included training for all directly affected stakeholders. It waslargely accepted with enthusiasm, with the exception of a few older staff whostill found that the pen is less frightening than the keyboard! The salientlessons: 1) Responding to end-user pain points; 2) Engagement of allrelevant stakeholder groups; 3) Regular, relevant communication; 4) Making
modifications in response to feedback; 5) creation & execution of a trainingpackage; and 6) knowing that you can’t always make everyone happy!“Progressive small wins” as a concept has periodically came into focus, forexample coming to the fore in a discussion with one of the project teammembers who happened to be making a comment about lack of cooperationfrom Max’s group. Given the work pressures mentioned above it is notsurprising for them to respond negatively to new initiatives that even hint atmore work! Responding to this project team colleague’s comment with aparaphrasing of Max’s previous observation/desire: “For these guys, changehas always meant pain!” he pondered that for a moment and agreed. Thefollowing observations about end-user engagement and incorporating bottom-up elements to a program are approaches to help reduce that pain.Note/Caveat: The buy-in that can be won with the implementation ofprogressive mini-projects as responses to bottom-up initiatives can be LOST ifthe bigger project is then done “from on high” (ie with minimal end-user/customer engagement). This customer engagement is crucial, but it istragic how often this is done poorly. It is not exceptionally difficult to engageend-users, though it does take a commitment to listening, comprehensivedialogue, empathy and a range of other emotional intelligence skills – the soft-skills increasingly recognised as being at least as important as the technicalproject management skills. And it means being vigilant in watching for, andcountering as best we are able, an apparently easy assumption that “we knowwhat the customer wants/needs”, or the notion that “we are just implementinga bit of technology”. Hearing comments like “the guys will really love this”should ring alarm bells, unless genuinely being said as a response to seeingthat user-defined requirements are being comprehensively met.Responding to Max’s clarion call (though that’s not what he’d have called it)for regular small benefits being delivered, a Program Management Group wasestablished, combining this area of the business together with selectedmembers of the relevant delivery section of the organisation. While the notionof Program Management certainly exists within the overall company andwithin this delivery branch, this particular customer area felt it had minimalconnection with the Program – also a common experience in manyorganisations. They are now delighted to have this vehicle that both keepsthem informed of wider activities as well as streamlining the process ofrequesting new initiatives.Essentially, this Program Management Group becomes a sub-group of thewider “Official” program. It does raise the intriguing challenge: Are we, in ourfocus on Project/Program/Portfolio possibly neglecting some areas of thebusiness in our attempts to ensure broad corporate and strategic alignment?This question was reinforced during the question time after a recent WomenIn Project Management seminar, presented by Lynn Crawford – “Speaking theright language: getting buy-in for PPPM”, where Lynn discussed theimportance of engaging with the senior executives against a recognition thatthere is a significant gulf in understanding and terminology between theexecutive and project stream, with a clear challenge for us in the projectstream to learn to speak the language of the executive – especially outcomesand governance. In a slightly contrary position, one of the attendees spoke of
her experience in facilitating change, largely informally, throughout many partsof her organisation. This ground-up approach she took felt remarkably similarto what Max was after!There is a need to combine both bottom-up with top-down focus on programs,paying adequate attention to the small, bottom-up initiatives that can be fairlyquickly implemented and can be integrated and interspersed within the widerprogram of more major works. (Note that a streamlined system forgenerating, approving and funding these small business cases will berequired.) These initiatives will give gratification to the initiators, moraleimprovement to the group, and, crucially, facilitate an interest, even a keen-ness, to be involved and engaged in the larger, strategic top-down projects.Change is inevitable, and the rate of change is accelerating. It is alsogenerally acknowledged that almost all of us are resistant to change, with themain exception being the person who is trying to effect the change!(Intriguingly, while we only have the power to change ourselves, we have apredilection for wanting to change others!) The key of course is to get thegroup to come as close as possible to being the instigators, and owners, ofthe change in their environment. Based on this writer’s experience, the bestway to do that is to actively engage those people, as comprehensively and asearly as possible, in the change process within a project. Yes, this appliesmore to business projects than it might to construction andpublic/infrastructure projects, but where there are many impactedstakeholders the same principles would apply. Getting stakeholders on-boardand integral to the decision-making process will help make the differencebetween a satisfied stakeholder community that is ready to engage in the nextproposal and a disaffected and resentful one. Some specific examples (farfrom exhaustive) of approaches that have been effective: Formal forums for engagement – ensuring all affected stakeholder groups have been identified Actively following up on suggestions and recommendations, bringing them to a close (even if no action to be taken, but at least clearly communicating back that it was considered, and why it is not suitable to act on at this time) Keeping the core team informed – formal communications supplemented by water-cooler/corridor discussions Real acknowledgement of issues, problems and risks Investing significant time in dialogue with end-users / customers, not just management-level stakeholders.Caring about the people involved in and impacted by a project is a coredimension of what helps foster the engagement of especially end-userstakeholders/customers of change. Embrace them as valued individuals andbe prepared to be warmed and amazed by the way these potentiallyadversarial characters will join you on the change journey – even if the“outcome” is less than perfect, as we all know it usually will be.In summary: Find out who the actual customers and relevant stakeholdersare, and spend time with them in mutual dialogue. Agitate for formal
stakeholder forums. Be part of the bridge that connects the customers withthe project team. Rarely can we expect to see a utopian outcome from ourprojects. But as it turns out, the smaller, simpler, bottom-up ones that caneasily be overlooked can often come closest to those ideals of perfection!Peter Reefman is a Project Manager who at the time was working at an AustralianUtility Organisation.