HDR employees reviewing project data at a transmission line project

Expert Program Management Tips for a Successful Program Startup

Tap Insight Gained from Decades of Program Management Experience

Program management helps you plan and deliver interrelated projects and services managed by an integrated, multidisciplinary team. Projects are managed together, with an emphasis on coordination and collaboration to best achieve client goals.

Program management leaders Clarice Kinsella, Kevin Burke and Paul Henry share their top tips for program startup.

What advice do you have in establishing a smooth and effective program startup? 

Clarice: Set expectations. Expectations are different for every program. It’s important to establish program-specific expectations between the client, program management team and all stakeholders early in the process. 

Kevin: Get leadership buy-in. Program management is a different way of doing business, and it’s important to get organizational alignment at the beginning. 

Paul. Establish a communication strategy. Understand how the client communicates internally and externally, and the tools they use. Effective team communication is easier to achieve when everyone agrees on the communication medium and cadence.

Takeaway: One-size-fits-all doesn’t work in program management. It’s important to meet clients where they are, and fold into their existing processes and skillsets.

As a program manager, what's a critical element to understand as the program gets underway?

Clarice: Understand the mission. Identify the strategic goal of the program, which serves as the north star in program decision-making. A clear goal enables the program manager to make effective, efficient recommendations. 

Kevin: Listen first. During program startup it’s critical to listen. There are many solutions to improve efficiency, so it’s easy to jump right in and try to solve problems. However, I’ve found it’s important to understand the client’s systems, process and pain points thoroughly to evaluate a more holistic approach to setting up the program. 

Paul. Understand the client’s commitment to change. Various groups and levels across the client’s organization may have varying comfort levels and commitments to change. It’s important to understand the variables to effectively activate the program across the organization.  

Takeaway: It's vital for program managers to have a deep understanding of the program vision. Through early collaboration with various stakeholders, needs can be effectively addressed to support varying, and sometimes competing, needs. 

What's a lesson learned from your experience as a program manager? 

Clarice: Establish a clear division of responsibility. We had a large program starting up in a remote location. The program was complex, large and the client needed help ASAP. We needed to get many systems, processes and tools set up in a brief time. We staffed the program quickly, adding five to 10 people a week. There was a lot of confusion in the scope of work, and we ended up doing a lot of overlapped work and rework. In hindsight, we really needed a clear division of responsibility. Startup typically entails many activities and moving parts. There's a tendency to put a lot of smart, capable professionals on the job, which can create uncertainty if responsibilities are unclear. A clear division of responsibility, coupled with a strong communication strategy, allows everyone on the team to lead from where they are. 

Kevin: Manage risk proactively. I was on a large program with a client that was fast paced and focused on getting the design completed quickly. Because of that, there was less focus on developing risk management strategies, and when risks were triggered later in execution, this led to an increase in cost and schedule slip that could have been better planned for. Risk is often talked about but isn’t always a focus during program kickoff when many other activities need to be done. It’s important to spend some time in a risk workshop to develop a deeper understanding of the potential cost and schedule impacts. The team will have a greater influence on risk mitigation at that early stage and avoid being reactionary later in program execution.

Paul: Document current processes. Capture and document client processes, platforms and the A-Z of project inception, execution, closeout and ongoing operations and maintenance. This is useful in developing the big-picture strategy and ensuring client expectations and goals have the best chance for success. Reviewing details with the client helps identify systems misunderstandings and uncover places where different systems are related. It also helps to outline the steps in each process and the people involved in the process.

Alignment between the client and program manager builds the foundation to develop effective and lasting changes. Visual captures with process flow diagrams and swim-lane diagrams are helpful at “seeing” what happens through the process life cycle, and identifying the actors involved at each step in the process. Organizations that haven’t documented processes in the past may not understand elements impacting their processes.

Takeaway: Selecting an experienced program manager brings big-picture perspective, and opens the door to the best technical and management information to help meet strategic objectives.

HDR’s is ranked seventh in program management by Engineering News-Record magazine. Averaging 20 years of industry experience, our program managers manage more than $20 billion in infrastructure spending.

Clarice Kinsella
Resources Program Management Director
Kevin Burke
Power Delivery Program Management Lead
Paul Henry
Senior Project Controls Manager