Five Tips to Successfully Manage Large IT Programs


Over ten years ago, I transitioned from software quality assurance to IT project management. Since then, I have led Agile scrum teams and managed small to medium size projects, as well as large IT programs. The ones that I have found the most challenging, and most rewarding, are the big programs. They take years to deliver, cost millions of dollars, and get the highest visibility. These big initiatives provide unique challenges. In this article, I’m going to provide five tips on managing large IT programs.

1) Establish clear project goals and scope

Often, stakeholders on IT programs learn they have different understandings of the goals. There are a couple of reasons this happens. First is the mistake of going from a program charter, into requirements and delivery. The charter is ambiguous, and requirements are detailed and specific. Between the charter and requirements there is room for misinterpretation. The other reason often has to do with politics. Managers can push for outcomes that benefit them, straying from the program goals. If not addressed early, this lack of alignment can sink an initiative fast.

The best way to address this problem is to establish clear project goals and scope right from the onset. Write down in explicit and plain language the objectives for the program. Also be clear about what is not in scope. Once all the stakeholders agree, get their approvals in writing. This will create alignment and ensure that everyone is rowing in the same direction. Defining project goals also provides a way to redirect people if they start to go off course.

2) Embrace champions and expose resisters

Sometimes it is the people, not the work, which are the most difficult. It is important to identify early who are the true champions and who are the resistors. You will know who the champions are because you will see them helping the program. Embrace them, ask them for help, talk to them. Their influence and knowledge will be crucial to the success of the program.

Resistors are sometimes not as easy to spot. They may attend meetings and talk as if they support the initiative. Meanwhile, they are behind the scenes causing damage. Or they may stay quiet and do as little as possible. Either way, the problems they cause can be so immense that if they’re not dealt with early, they can sink the program.

The best way to deal with resistors is to remove them from the program. It is a common mistake to try to embrace them and get them onboard. Yet, program managers often lack formal authority to remove stakeholders. What the program manager can do is expose them. Make it obvious to the executives and sponsor, who do have the formal authority to act, who the resistors are. If all else fails, try to limit the involvement of resistors.

3) Leverage the power of SteerCo (Steering Committee)

SteerCo is a powerful tool to help address critical issues, risks, or decisions. The other great benefit of SteerCo is that it provides a process for transparency. Sometimes stakeholders come to me and ask for something in the shadows. When this happens, I let them know that they can present their case in front of SteerCo. This is a wonderful way to fend off the people who are not in alignment with the agreed upon project goals and scope.

4) Get down in the trenches

The best IT program managers get down in the trenches with the teams. They roll up their sleeves and do everything they can to move things forward. In my case, I spent the first years of my career as an administrative assistant where I would make photocopies, bring coffee, and set up meetings. I then studied software development and became a software tester. This background gives me the ability to get down in the trenches with the teams and help.

Leading by example on large programs is so important. There is nothing worse than a program manager asking you to complete tasks while they contribute nothing. Get your hands dirty and take the time to learn about the technical aspects of the program. That might mean reading books or watching online videos.

5) Have Fun!

Finally, we must have fun! Jack Welch said once that during his time at General Electric, every week they found a reason to bring in a keg. While I wouldn’t support a keg, I get the point that teams must celebrate and enjoy themselves. IT programs are difficult for everyone involved. Besides, we are in a post Covid era where many people feel overworked and unhappy. Celebrate small wins as much as possible, and always start out meetings by connecting with people on a human level. Laugh and have a sense of humor.


Navigating IT programs can be a formidable challenge. Yet, it is in these very challenges that the greatest rewards are found. By setting clear project goals and scope, you establish a unified direction. This aligns all stakeholders and mitigates confusion. Embracing champions and exposing resistors ensures that the right people are driving the program forward. Leverage the power of SteerCo to empower executives to make crucial decisions and maintain transparency.

Getting down in the trenches with your team not only demonstrates your commitment but also fosters a collaborative and motivated environment. This direct approach, combined with a technical understanding and service-oriented mindset, positions you to lead by example. Finally, fostering a fun and engaging work atmosphere helps to ease the pressures of the job.

By integrating these strategies, IT program managers can steer their projects to success. The journey may be demanding, but with the right approach, it can also be fulfilling. It’s about ensuring the program’s success for the organization while creating a positive and supportive experience for everyone involved.

About the Author: Mike MacIsaac is an independent IT program management consultant for MacIsaac Consulting.

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