Building a Strong Foundation for your Program Management Career

Bill Hoberecht - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Are you thinking about becoming a program manager or are you new to such a position? Or maybe you are guiding someone who is interested in being a program manager.

It's a challenging role. There are so many areas in which to become proficient.

Most of the courses and books you'll find will help you plan and manage a program successfully.  However, before you can be successful in leading programs, you'll need a foundation of understanding.  This article gives you a launching point for building this foundation, with links to books and reference publications that can serve as a starting point for your learning journey to become a top-notch program manager.

The British 2-pound coin has the edge inscription Standing on the Shoulders of Giants (commonly attributed to Isaac Newton "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants," but probably originating centuries earlier).  This suggests that much can be accomplished by building upon the knowledge of those who precede us.

So it is with Program Management.

Most of the courses and books you'll find will help you plan and manage a program successfully.  Very useful information. However, before you can be successful in leading programs, you'll need a foundation of understanding.

This article is different than the content of standard program management training, it is intended to start you on a path of becoming a top-notch program manager.

If you are just getting started in the field of Program Management, a trove of valuable materials is available to help start you on the journey.  This article suggests a starting point for your learning expedition.  In large part, this is to alert you to the many areas of knowledge that you will draw upon as a program manager.  This isn't a one- or two-day exercise; the materials suggested here might take months to peruse and study:

PMI - Standard for Program Management. What better place to start than by reading the PMI publication The Standard for Program Management – Fifth Edition (2024) (the electronic pdf is available free to PMI members).  As with the most recent PMBOK® Guide (2021), this standard has been significant revised from the prior version, abandoning the specification of processes and instead focusing on responsibilities and outcomes.  Starting with a definition of Program Management and the role of a program manager, it then describes eight foundational principles of program management. The six performance domains listed in this publication are a buffet of activities and actions for a program manager, which you tailor for your program.

Achieving coaching excellence. Program management is about delivering value, with work that is performed by many people on the program team.  You'll be much more than a minder of the schedule and issues; you'll likely be called upon to coach people - bringing your experiences and knowledge to play.  Coaching Agile Teams by Lyssa Adkins is the best place to start learning about coaching, whether the program team is using agile methods or not.

Organizational Change Management. A program manager is a change agent.  Your work involves delivering value - and this value is almost always accompanied by change.  I frequently look to Kotter's Leading Change, originally written in 1996.  (His 2014 revision, Accelerate, introduces some changes to the 8-step model; I prefer the original). Prosci's ADKAR model is widely respected and adopted by corporations and is accompanied by training and certification programs.  Choose one of these (Leading Change or ADKAR) for your initial learning and become familiar with the topic of change management and success factors.

Development Team approaches. Broadly speaking, your program may involve projects that use predictive (e.g., "waterfall") methods or may be applying agile methods (variants based upon Scrum and Kanban being the most popular).  Build a basis of knowledge about these methods - you may not need to be an expert, but having a working knowledge and familiarity will be beneficial.

Agile Methods. You'll want to understand the 4 value statements and 12 principles of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development.  This is the commonly accepted reference for defining the adjective "agile" in the context of software development.

The Scrum Framework. The Scrum Guide is the official definition of the Scrum Framework.  Revised every few years by the authors, it might be the most popular framework used by teams.  My experience is that a team may adopt Scrum as defined, but then will make changes to suit their needs.   (If you have the time, Esther Derby's Agile Retrospectives, Second Edition is the gold standard of information on Scrum retrospectives.)

Kanban. Dave Anderson's Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business introduced the software world in 2010 to the use of Kanban. This is a good starting point for learning what Kanban is all about.

Scaling Agile. If you are just starting your preparation as a program manager, then for now be aware that there are various approaches to scaling agile methods from one team to many teams (e.g., SAFe, Scrum@Scale, Disciplined Agile, LeSS).

Predictive Project Management/Waterfall Model. The general concept is to plan a project and then track execution relative to that plan.  A project has phases that proceed sequentially; there is no one set of phases that are standard for every project.  It is widely practiced because an organization's management wants certainty in schedules and cost (which might be an illusion for innovative, complex projects). This is not a new concept.  Bennington's 1956 presentation "Production of Large Computer Programs" introduced the concepts of sequential development.  Dr. Winston Royce's 1970 MANAGING THE DEVELOPMENT OF LARGE SOFTWARE SYSTEMS is incorrectly cited as an endorsement of "waterfall" methods.  Although he includes several diagrams that look like waterfalls, he never uses that term; he describes the risks with such an approach and introduces feedback loops and iterations between project phases.

Mentoring.  I've had two mentors for most of my career - one who is in my profession of leading organizations and programs, and another who is in a completely unrelated field.  My conversations with these two leaders, over the course of decades, has opened my thinking, given me a safe place to discuss sensitive topics, and greatly influenced my career direction.  I've provided the same type of support for several mentees - creating a safe place for discussion and chance for a mentee to muse aloud on a situation.  Having a mentor and also serving as a mentee has the potential for unlimited career and professional benefits.

Program leadership is an exciting and challenging career choice.   We are often called to take on responsibilities in the absence of corresponding authority.  We not infrequently are faced with unknown situations and must invent (often in collaboration with others) a path forward.  We revel in the joy of delivering something having significant value to our customers.  It's a great profession!

This is the first round of study I've recommended to budding program managers. Each of these topics easily has another dozen books worth your time, but that's a set of tasks for a later wave of study.

With your help, I'd like to expand this list and create a follow-on list of topics to study. What areas of learning and what materials have you used in starting your path of becoming a program manager?