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Project management

Master These 4 Phases of Program Management

An expert explains how to develop a project plan with timelines, stakeholders, and resources, and implement practical tools for communication.

The first thing to know about program management is that, while it bears some similarity to project management, it’s not the same. So said Rebecca DeVivo, MPH, MSW, associate executive director of education for the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, during a session at the annual conference of the Alliance for Continuing Education in the Health Professions.

Projects usually have clear and tangible outcomes and a defined start and fairly short-term end date. Examples include developing courses and managing product launches. A program generally is a portfolio of coordinated projects working toward an overall goal, she said. “It’s often ongoing, it’s less defined, and it’s usually bigger and more complicated,” said DeVivo. “So it can be a little bit tricky.” An example is a certificate program she manages that has courses, an online program, and assessment components. 

Managing both projects and programs is a four-phase process. You need to define objectives, marshal the necessary resources and stakeholders, develop a detailed timeline, and devise some form of assessment. However, program assessment is ongoing, rather than an evaluation at the end of a project.

Phase 1: Initiate—Vision, Objective, and Purpose
It may sound easy to define your purpose, but it can be more complicated than just saying you plan to have a course, she said. “Why are you having the course? Because your members need it?” Well yes, hopefully the purpose of the course is to address an identified gap, but you may also be trying to raise revenues, or because your board told you to, DeVivo added. If you are trying to spread the information far and wide, your goal could be to reach a broad audience to achieve a public health objective. If you’re teaching a very specific skill, your goal could be to just have 20 people in the course. So it’s important to really think through what your motivations are. 

Having clarity on your goals can come in handy when you get what DeVivo calls “culture creep.” That’s when other stakeholders try to add bells and whistles and complexity to the program. “You want to be able to refer back to your objectives so you can say, ‘Well, that would add $200,000 to the budget, which does not go with our goal of making this a revenue-generating program.”

It’s also important to know what your “go/no go” points are, she said. For instance, say you are putting together a budget for a revenue-generating program: No one is willing to budge on any of their numbers; it’s not possible to get more grant money; meeting services can’t cut any expenses, and you can’t cut any faculty. You may have to just look around the table and say, “We can’t do this program. It’s not going to meet our objectives.” That would be your no-go point.

Phase 2: Plan Wisely
All too many managers fail to gather enough information, especially when on a tight timeline, DeVivo said. Find out what surveys and courses the organization has done in the past, and look at the resulting data. “Talk to your colleagues,” she said, citing how a colleague who had done a certification program similar to the one she was working on gave her his project plan. “It saved me probably a year and a half,” she said. Also look at what other organizations are doing, and determine if you need to conduct surveys or other types of research before you can get your project off the ground.

Determine the scope of the program. Line up your main objectives to determine how complex your program needs to be, she said. Will a one-day didactic course suffice to meet your goals, or do you need multiple breakout sessions? Think about what the program needs to include, but even more importantly, think about what you don’t need to include. “Have that discussion with staff and volunteers,” she said. “What are the boundaries?”

Identify resources. No one ever feels like that have enough resources for everything they want to do, so a key planning point is to determine what resources are available. Not just time and money, though those are important, but also equipment, staff, technology, and additional information. “You need to think across departments. You can plan an entire course and have it ready to go, but if you haven’t talked to your customer care or IT team about how to register for that course, then it doesn’t really matter because no one is going to show up,” she said. “From registering for the course to marketing, raising money, and figuring out the finances—think about all the steps as you go, and then put together your project team.”

Assemble the team. Staff, leadership, volunteers, vendors, maybe even an outside consultant—who do you need on your team? What technical, marketing, customer service, and finance skills will you need represented? “Know who your champions are,” she said. “Know who is driving [the program], because when things get difficult, you want to have those cheerleaders … who are passionate about the project to go to when things get dark and lonely.”

Also think about the buy-in and approval process up front, she said. Does it need board approval? Do you need to convince your boss? Then bring in your champion to help convince those you need to get behind the program. “Sometimes it's good to float an idea. Get a sense of what people are thinking a year before you even start to go down the road of planning it. You don’t want to spend a whole lot of money or time figuring out what you want to do only to find out it’s never going to be approved.” Think about the big picture early on, she added.

Develop a project plan. This entails determining the steps you need to take along the way—develop the agenda, get faculty, draw up a brochure, open registration, etc.—and also the sequence of those steps, the time required for each, and who is responsible for completing them. This creates a central place where everybody involved can see what the entire roadmap looks like. Start with the biggest tasks, then drill down, rather than work chronologically, she suggested. Otherwise, it can seem overwhelming. “Start big and get smaller.” Also, while you do need to outline all this, remember that you don’t have to stick to it rigidly. Build in some flexibility so you can shift deadlines or staff when priorities change.

Get feedback from all stakeholders as you go. Tools you can use abound, from Microsoft Excel and Google Docs to Microsoft Project—which is useful for large programs but probably more than you need for smaller projects, she said—and Basecamp. 

Phase 3: Execute
“You want to establish a frequency of meetings for different stakeholder groups,” she said. You might want a weekly meeting with staff stakeholders for a high-priority project that has a short timeline, whereas you may only need to meet monthly for a program that’s happening over multiple years. Think through the meetings with external people as well, such as volunteers, and build those into your project plan. DeVivo recommended developing an agenda for each meeting and then a summary of action items when it’s over. These don’t have to be detailed and formalized, but they should let people know what needs to be covered and who needs to do what, when. 

“Always keep everyone in the loop,” she added. Let the entire team know that you won’t surprise them, and you don’t want them to surprise you. “If registration isn’t going to be up by a certain date, it’s much better to know that three months in advance or whenever you find out so that you can change your timelines and communications and marketing. A lot of these things are interconnected, so over-communicate.” This is especially true for deadlines, she added. When you’re communicating about deadlines, don’t leave it open-ended—“Let me know when you can get it done.” Instead, say, “We’re sending this on X date and if I don’t hear from you I will assume it is approved,” or “I need to hear from you by X date.” When someone misses a deadline, don’t set a new one because that sets an expectation that if your team members miss one, you will just give them more time.

Send frequent reminders, she added. “Embrace your inner stalker and remind people. I always make a joke about it—‘I haven’t stalked you lately, at least since yesterday, so here I am.’”

And when communicating, don’t be afraid to just pick up the phone. “Email can be the devil,” she said. “Sometimes you can solve things in five minutes on the phone that would take you days of emails.”

Phase 4: Time to Close (reports, ongoing improvement, assessment framework)
What are your metrics for success? You should have those defined at the beginning, said DeVivo. Is success based on registration? Your bottom line? The evaluation results? “It might be all three,” she said. “You don’t want to be the person who says, ‘Wow, we had 200 registrants, that’s really great—except for the part where we budgeted for 500.'” 

What data do you need to collect? If you depend on evaluation forms, make sure your questions will get you the data you need to measure your success metrics. Always think about what you would need to know if you wanted to do that project or program again.

Program Management Essentials:

1.    Get buy-in from the key players first.

2.    Plan before you act. Develop the timeline and pad it as needed.

3.    Take ownership of the program—you are the hub—but don’t micromanage.

4.    Try not to get overwhelmed. “My advice is just dig in and start writing a list. You need to get it out of your brain and onto paper.”

5.    Be ready to adapt.

6.    Watch for scope creep.

7.    Always remember your overall goal.

8.    Sometimes it OK, or even better, to not move forward. “Sometimes it’s just better to stop and say, ‘This isn’t working and people are miserable. We aren’t hitting our goals.’ When everybody feels super relieved, you know you’ve made the right choice.”

For more detailed tips on each project phase, check out this post on Paymo: 4 Essential Project Management Phases – The Complete Guide

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