February 18, 2013

Programs vs. Projects

Advising Leaders

Many of our client engagements of late have focused on developing programs; such as a workplace strategy program for administrative staff at the University of Minnesota or strategic planning for the Smithsonian and the Vancouver Art Gallery, or the design guidelines for Google’s workplaces.

A recurring theme from this work is the importance of distinguishing between a program and a project. For instance, part of a strategic plan might call for a specific project such as convening a symposium.  But, it might also call for creating a new ongoing lecture series with a name, a defined staff, and accountability within the organization. This table describes this distinction further:

Long-term / ongoing, regularly reviewedShort-term, with start and end
Named, brandedGenerally named by activity/objective
Governance roles / responsibilitiesTask-based roles / responsibilities
Accountable to organizational structuresAccountability for deliverables
Defined by processes and work flowsDefined primarily by tasks
Identify and manage interdependenciesManage discrete, sequenced tasks
Focused on outcomes and measuresFocused on outputs and deliverables

When planning for the future, it’s helpful to understand the distinction between these two ideas. Can you achieve your vision and goals through discrete initiatives or do they require an ongoing commitment and specific skills, knowledge, and experience? How will they tie into the structure of your organization? How will the relate to the culture of your organization?

Determining where you fall in the project vs. program spectrum can help you understand how best to achieve your objectives and measure their success.  For example, it may be difficult to effect lasting cultural change within your organization through a discrete project.

A project – such as a piloting a new kind of lecture series – can be a catalyst for change by generating interest and enthusiasm, building momentum, and creating measurable results. However, the new processes from the pilot need to be “institutionalized” as the way you do things and have accountability within the organization on an ongoing basis.  So, maybe that “change project” is really more of a “program” and there are other aspects to consider as you move ahead?

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