Is Program Management a natural art or science? Answer: both
Once it just so happened that 3 of my key customers were facing challenges in completing their big data projects in their journey towards cloud migration and overall digital transformation. The background is that the firm that I worked for used to help them across various industries in both services and technical account management as they were rolling out some very strategic initiatives leveraging our products. These strategic efforts were of the kind that involved loyalty building, Customer 360 or even those just for post-merger M&A integrations where large complex data silos had to come together. Unified data lake management and Application modernization were the kinds of projects being handled in this case.
The task at hand was to help them succeed, and that’s the role of any Customer Success organization anyway, but we were aiming at ‘Customer Delight’ and that meant going the extra mile. Thinking outside the box and leveraging design thinking to improve the customer journey and the onboarding experience was key. Our technical account managers, and project managers were very talented and could adapt to any scenario, any domain, any industry vertical and solve any problem that the customer faced. However, the key question was on how these common challenges and repeating patterns could be handled in a very structured and reduced-risk manner. Here is where the art and science of Program management comes into play. We need to look at all components here : financial management, schedule management, resource management, quality management, technical deliverables and value management.
Any project team, whether following an agile/lean methodology or stage-gate waterfall methodology, can follow the safe path and achieve common goals of a balanced outcome for the project delivering value within-budget, using resources efficiently and on -time. We had to consider the challenges around ‘accurate estimating’, trade-offs between ‘cost, schedules and quality’ and handling ambitious ‘customer expectations’ with finesse to not only ensure project success but also the success of our data engineering/operations products (the adoption there-of to generate 1000s of analytics use-cases in a short period of an year). Our Program Management Office was instituted to handle to such complex challenges with artful skills in governing the initiatives and ensuring true maturity in project delivery. Hence, after much brainstorming, re-tooling and new process design, we came up with a few great best-practices :-
a. CAP : A ‘Critical Account Program’ ( to handle all the Portfolio of Projects) including frequent ‘Architecture reviews’ and regularly scheduled ‘Health Checks’
b. Customer War Room Operations (with virtual teams between PM, ENG & Delivery)
c. Smart Time tracking & accounting to help with better evolving estimate generation
d. Introducing SaaS based PSA tools for CSM leaders, TAMs/CSAs and Solution engg.
e. Joint Success Planning processes that would help Sales, Product Mgmt, Services, Engineering & Finance to anticipate upcoming changes along with regular business operations
f. A ‘Customer-360 dashboard’ for all of us to use as a single view of Voice-Of-Customer using our own data integration tools along with SFDC, FreshDesk, Jira and Kimble feeds. These correlated views and decisioning tools would end up giving the foresight for better project and program management
The results of enabling such collaboration among people, processes and technology tooling provided the firm with benefits with far-reaching impacts, as follows:
i. Time to Market improvements by +35%
ii. Percentage Utilization improvements by 20%
iii. Faster Time to Value (TTM) +50%
iv. More reliable schedules (delivery guarantees) +40%
v. Better judgement and tracking on Gross Margins and Renewals/Cross-sells
vi. Culture building and improvement in handling problems across the firm
vii. Positioned much better with Customer in Trusted/Advisory roles + Testimonials
The lessons learned along the way are key in building a framework for high performing teams:
a. More than being highly productive, being more capable and self-learning, maturing
b. Having a shared,agreed-upon roadmap & common set of success plan parameters (CSFs)
c. Having a strong metrics and process driven approach to handling success plans/projects
d. Engaging early with the client/customer sponsors to ensure a good understanding
e. Setting and re-setting expectations regularly with Customer Sponsors (using EBRs/QBRs)
f. Clarifying responsibilities and roles (RACI matrix) ahead of the kick-off with all parties
g. Retaining a positive team environment and ensuring reinforced learnings thru journey
h. Dealing with risks & issues in a collaborative problem-solving framework using tools
As a follow-up we should all remember that problem solving using program management techniques is really more of an art than science, but you need both. Techniques such as :
- RCA : Root Cause Analysis (to find the real cause and fix the real problem)
- The 5 WHYs : asking why repeatedly to better understand the problem
- Kepner-Tregoe Method (Situation-Problem-Cause & Solutioning-with selected risks)
- Vilfredo’s Pareto Analysis (80%-20% rule and Cost-Time-impact analysis charts)
- Ishikawa’s Fishbone holistic problem analysis
In conclusion, as Captain Lorca quoted in ‘Star Trek Discovery’, “Universal laws are for lackeys, CONTEXT is for Kings !”. We need to utilize both sides of our collective human brain for creative thinking as well as logical thinking to ensure that we realize the longer-term benefits via effective Program Management. It’s both an ART and SCIENCE, but it’s up to us to be creative in successfully delivering Programs.
Author : VirooPax B. Mirji. — — Viroo Mirji (@ vpax)
p.s. These are personal views and should not be considered as representing any specific company or ecosystem of partners.