Why Letting Go of Control is Essential for Successful Program Management
Being a program manager is not for the faint of heart. Program managers are held accountable for the delivery of the programs they manage. They are the “face” of the program, providing status updates to leadership, and taking incoming fire when things don’t go well. If high pressure responsibility is not your thing, program management may not be for you.
Working as an IT program management consultant for ten years now, I have learned that there is a limit to how much control we have. Understanding and accepting this lack of control is key because it keeps us from being overwhelmed by stress. Practicing letting go of control is not easy. It is still very much a work in progress for me.
The idea of a program manager letting go of control may seem counter intuitive. Isn’t it the job of the program manager to control things? Well, yes, but to an extent. Here is what I mean by letting go of control. Often on programs, things will not go as planned. For example, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to forecast exactly how long a software development program will take. When things do not go as planned, program managers can feel it reflects on the job they are doing. For this reason, program managers tend to try their hardest to control program outcomes.
The truth is that there is only so much control a program manager has over the success of the program. The tighter they grip down and try to control things, especially when the program is struggling, the more they burn out. Tighter control also tends to have a negative effect on the team progress and morale.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting a completely hands off laissez-faire approach to program management. Program managers need to be actively engaged to help drive programs forward.
My advice to program managers is to let go of what you can’t control. Instead, focus on what you can control.
Focus on What You Can Control
The role of the program manager itself has evolved from command and control to coach, empower, and motivate. Today, more software teams are Agile and self-organizing. They don’t need someone overseeing all their tasks. They deliver faster and better than teams controlled by strict management. It is like what Adam Smith describes in The Wealth of Nations. Smith describes an “Invisible Hand” in the free market that moves the economy. On self-organizing Agile teams, there is also an invisible hand that moves work forward.
Below I will break down key factors that program managers can control. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of all the responsibilities of a program manager. It is meant to highlight important Agile principles of program management. I broke the factors down under the categories of communication and leadership.
In real estate you will hear that the key to valuable properties is location, location, location. For Program Management, it’s all about communication, communication, communication. Continuous, transparent, and honest communication is what it’s all about. Especially clear written communication. Program managers are like the reporter the news. They may not be responsible for what’s happening in the news, but it’s their job to report it. If there’s unwelcome news, communicate it. Don’t delay. As they say, bad news doesn’t age well.
Below are different areas that need solid communication from the program manager:
- Define the Scope: Clearly define the scope of the program and communicate it to all stakeholders. Make sure that everyone understands what is included in the program and what is not. Once defined, track the program to identify any signs of scope creep.
- Risk, Actions, Issues, and Decisions (RAID): Important to be well maintained and specific. All RAID log items should have an assigned owner and anticipated resolution date. Regularly monitor and update the log to ensure that all items are being effectively managed. Update the log as new risks are identified, mitigation strategies are developed, and progress is made. Communicate RAID log to stakeholders regularly.
- Status Reports: Up to date and transparent. No sugarcoating or hiding issues. No fluff. Distributed to stakeholders at least once a week. Avoid using technical jargon or complicated language that may be difficult for stakeholders to understand. Use simple and straightforward language to convey the program status.
- Escalations: A mistake I often see of new program managers is they don’t escalate enough. Often because they are afraid of bringing attention, causing conflict, or thinking the escalation may not reflect well on them. The truth is that escalations are so important for program managers. It is one of the best tools in our program manager toolkit. A simple example may be that a developer on a team continues to deliver low quality code. Since the program manager is not coding (usually), or responsible for hiring developers, we must escalate the issue to the leader who is responsible for hiring developers.
- Stakeholder Engagement: Effective stakeholder engagement is essential for program managers because it helps to build trust and relationships, gain insights and perspectives, ensure buy-in and support, manage expectations, and mitigate risks. If possible, face to face communication with key stakeholders is best. It’s the job of the program manager to engage stakeholders.
- Program Financial Management: Manage and track the program burn rate. Escalate and report any risks or issues related to the program budget as soon as they occur.
Program management is a leadership role. It’s our job to steer the ship of the program and keep everyone rowing in the same direction. This requires strong strategic thinking, decision-making, communication, relationship building, and team development skills. We must lead our programs, while ensuring alignment with organizational objectives and stakeholder needs. Below are some different aspects of leadership that program managers can bring to the table:
- Positive Attitude: A positive attitude is crucial because it helps to motivate team members, build resilience, improve problem-solving skills, enhance communication, and boost team morale. Program managers who maintain a positive attitude are more likely to succeed in achieving their project goals and creating a positive work environment.
- Focus on Motivation: Get to know team members and discover their strengths. Find out what gives them intrinsic motivation. Focus on influence over authority. For more on this, see my post Motivating People Is More Important Than Managing Tasks
- Foster Collaboration and Trust: Trust is the foundation of collaboration. Create an environment of trust by being transparent, fair, and consistent in your interactions with team members. Encourage team members to trust each other by emphasizing the importance of teamwork and recognizing the contributions of each team member.
- Foster a Positive Team Culture: Create a positive team culture by recognizing and celebrating the achievements of individual team members and the team. Encourage team members to support and help each other and provide opportunities for team building activities.
- Be of Service: Take the time to understand the needs of your team members, both as individuals and as a group. This will help you to identify areas where you can provide support and guidance.
- Promoting trust and empowerment: Recognize and celebrate the achievements of team members. This helps to build trust and motivates team members to continue working hard and contributing to the program’s success. Encourage collaboration within the team to promote trust and empower team members. Provide opportunities for team members to work together and contribute to the program’s success.
If you are a program manager and you are doing the things listed under the leadership and communication sections above, hold your head high. You should feel good about your performance regardless of the program status. Remember, as a program manager there is only so much you can control. To avoid unnecessary stress, let go of the things you can’t control. This will free up your time and energy, allowing you to focus on higher-level tasks such as strategic planning, relationship building, and stakeholder management.
About the Author: Mike MacIsaac is a principle Agile IT program management consultant for MacIsaac Consulting.