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Is Your Program Board a Help or a Hindrance?
By Peter Osborne

Best practice in program management states that ‘Successful delivery needs an engaged senior management team as part of the Program Board’. But as someone tasked with the responsibility for delivering major change, how do you avoid your Program Board operating as a talking-shop, or worse, a forum that actually impedes program delivery?

We often work with clients to recover under-performing programs and it is clear from this experience that an effective Program Board is crucial for delivery success. The good news is that it is never too late to ‘tune’ your Program Board to help rather than hinder delivery.
Any textbook or course on program management will tell you that to ensure effective direction and control of the program, you will need a robust governance structure. This provides the framework for your decision-making process, in which all stakeholders are properly engaged in key decisions, and empowered to take those decisions along with relevant guidance to the program team.

Experts will also tell you that your Program Board should be at the heart of your governance structure. The board must include those stakeholders needed to ensure the correct business involvement to support delivery, as well as alignment to existing business operations. What is often not stated is that having an ineffective or dysfunctional Program Board can materially undermine delivery success and that it is, in many instances, up to the program to rectify!

Prevention is better than cure, however, and is achieved by putting in place the right Board structure at the outset. It acts as the ultimate authority for the program, with a remit that includes making key decisions and unblocking issues that cannot be resolved at the program level. Operating effectively, a Program Board sets direction and approves changes to scope in line with the vision, takes appropriate decisions at the right time, engages in the resolution of issues that cannot be resolved by the program, and acts as a conduit between the program and the rest of the organization and external stakeholders (e.g. suppliers and customers).

That your Program Board will do these things and do them well is not a given. A textbook approach is necessary but not always sufficient. In fact, there are several ways in which your attempts at successful delivery can be thwarted by the Board – for instance, if it takes decisions seen as helpful but which, in fact, are not; or instead ones that undermine and obstruct progress; or if it acts purely as an information sink and takes no decisions at all.
The program sponsor and Board ‘own’ the program. The program is therefore, in theory, the agent of the Board. It bears repeating, however, that the program should not suffer a dysfunctional Board without taking remedial action – it is up to the program, in many instances, to provide a framework that allows the Board to operate effectively.

And remember, the structure does not have to be static – configure the Board to align with a specific program phase or activity if the current set up isn’t working. As the program changes through the delivery life cycle, so too does the Board’s involvement, which covers Terms of References, membership an attendance, behaviors, and reporting and information.

Terms of Reference

You will need to clearly define and articulate the roles, responsibilities and accountabilities of all Program Board participants and make sure the entire membership signs up to these. The sign off and acceptance of accountability for achieving the agreed program’s outcomes must be built into the Terms of Reference. A program sponsor with overall accountability for delivery of the program and who chairs the Board is a non-negotiable.

Of particular importance is getting the Board to accept collective accountability for program goals, rather than allowing the representation of sectional interests. Good Boards will recognize that they ‘serve’ the program – but will also demand good inputs and real clarity from the program team to ensure decisions are based on the ‘full disclosure’ of all relevant content.

Membership and Attendance

Empowered and involved members are the cornerstone of a credible and authoritative Board. Membership needs to be appropriate to the roles the Board fulfills and should include a Program Sponsor (delivers agreed business benefits); Program Director (champions program); Program Manager (delivers to time, budget and scope); Suppliers (deliver into the program); customers (beneficiaries); and any other key stakeholders. Where programs are set up outside business-as-usual activities, it’s crucial for the Board to engage operational line managers as key enablers and secure their buy-in to end goals.

Any Board that has either the wrong members or too many attendees will have a negative impact on decision-making and, ultimately, delivery. Each board meeting must be treated as a key, contributing event to the program delivery, and not compromised by avoidable attendance issues. Schedule Boards in line with program needs, not diary constraints.

Behaviors

The correct behavior of members is fundamental to removing and preventing obstacles to the successful implementation of your program. Managing program issues and risks is not about maintaining logs, it is about immediate articulation, open discussion, appropriate escalation, prompt action and resolution (not blame). These principles apply to all levels of the program, including the Board – in fact, one of the functions of your Board is to unlock issues and take mitigating actions against risks. Prioritize this when allocating roles and responsibilities.

Key to managing issues and risks is an escalation process that works. It’s important they are not raised indiscriminately – applying a filter using factors such as impact, probability, and ability to control will highlight those that require the Board’s involvement for progress. Raising lower level issues and risks at Board level will look like the program isn’t able to sort out problems; not raising them will leave the program dealing with problems it hasn’t the authority to fix.

Effective Reporting and Information

Support of the Board in terms of secretariat responsibilities must lie within the program itself. The program needs to influence structure, inputs, attendance and agenda – let go of this responsibility with extreme reluctance. The Board must be equipped with the correct tools, including a high-level plan, milestone schedule, and risk and issue log. In this capacity, the program must support the Board with a robust process that confronts real issues and engages membership on difficult decisions. It also needs to guard against decisions unraveling, becoming the basis for further discussion, or being re-opened as an excuse for inaction.

Finally, serve all meetings superbly: timely and accurate minutes; a clear agenda; informative, honest, appropriate and accurate reports; advance distribution of papers, papers that support the program and not a specific function. This sounds a bit mundane and secretarial, but it forms the foundation for a professionally-managed program and fosters valuable stakeholder confidence.

In conclusion, it is the program’s responsibility to deliver the program scope on time and within budget, and the Board’s responsibility to direct and provide the foundation that allows this to happen. A good Board is pivotal to achieving delivery success, whilst the program is responsible for effecting the appropriate corrective actions if the Board is not delivering. And the program sponsor, as the delegated authority, has overall accountability for delivering the benefits and agreed program outcomes.

Peter Osborne, is the managing director at LOC Consulting. LOC Consulting is a specialist management consultancy, which partners with its clients to deliver complex business change and IT projects and programmes. Since 2005, we have worked with a number of global and niche organizations across a wealth of disciplines to achieve sustainable, measurable business benefit. We deploy dynamic and innovative consultants who specialize in programme healthcheck, recovery and delivery, drawing on a wealth of proven experience and leading practice methodologies to enhance clients’ business delivery. Our capabilities span the entire project delivery lifecycle – from the initial shaping of ideas through delivery and implementation. Our founding values are rigidly deployed on every assignment and this focus on quality has resulted in LOC being ranked the 40th fastest growing private company in the UK, by the Sunday Times, and is reflected in our client references. www.locconsulting.co.uk

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