Programs are finite, too

A project has an ending, a program sometimes has two.

Since the nineteen nineties many debates have been waged on the ending of projects and the way in which this should be achieved. Meanwhile, the fact that projects are finite has been accepted amongst project managers, although the actual ending of projects still does not always go smoothly.

But how about programs? Even to this day, some managers still hold to the believe that programs are infinite and could go on forever. And even when a program is ended, often the reason for stopping the program and the terms and conditions under which the decision was made, all too often remain unclear.  This article aims to answer some of these question, by means of a case study. Because programs are finite, too.

At the beginning of the year, in which our case study is situated, a large IT-company has entered into an agreement with a semi-governmental organization to outsource its mainframe-activities. The deal included multiple computer systems, including all related datacenter services. The program “Professionalization Outsourcing Relationship”  lies at the base of the case study described in this article. A program with not just one, but two endings.

The case study

The changes, involved in the transitional phase, are concluded in the fall of the same year except for a number of remaining issues. In the subsequent professionalization phase, in which performance goals, as agreed upon by way of Service Level Agreements (SLA’s), are being achieved, both organizations conclude improvements  are in order. To this end a survey is conducted into ways of improving the cooperation between the two organizations. The results of the survey are compiled in a report, the main body of which consists of an improvement plan, comprising some twenty separate activities. The activities range from small to large, from simple to complex and from easily achieved to requiring planning over several years.

The recommendation from the report, to implement all the defined activities, has been accepted. For the implementation a program-approach is selected, because simply implementing the various solutions as separate projects, will not guarantee the achieving of the common strategic goal. The goal of the program “Professionalization Outsourcing Relationship” is the professionalizing the cooperation of the client and IT-business organizations. Which translates in improved performance, transparency, mutual understanding and trust. The activities, as defined in the survey report, are deemed (suitable) means to these ends.

MSP in stages

The program-approach is based upon the Managing Successful Programs (MSP) methodology and consists of a number of phases or stages (figure 1)

FIGUUR 1: Program stage planning based on MSP

Stage 1 Preparation
Focus, in this stage, is on validating the survey report and setting up the initial program organization.

Stage 2 Benefit selection
In this stage the main objective is on determining quantifiable goals for the program

Stage 3 Determine Blueprint
Here the so-called Blueprint of the future organization is presented. The Blueprint describes the future organization (as goal for the program). In this case this organization is a ‘virtual’ organization, an organization on the coupling plane of Client-organization and IT-organization.

Stage 4 Defining projects
Based on predefined (and quantifiable) benefits as well as the blueprint, in this stage projects and activities will be started. These will be documented in the program planning.

Stage 5 Executing Projects
This is the stage where projects and activities are actually executed.

Stage 6 Closing down the program
The program is closed down with an evaluation of the goals and benefits achieved and the formal communication about the end of the program.  The program organization is dismantled and program documentation is archived.

Figure 1 gives an overview of the different stages in general. The chosen approach and structure of the program ensure that along the way the program requires less and less involvement of program management and results are embedded more and more in the regular organization. This article does not go into details on the actual management of the program, but instead focuses on the end, the closure of the program.

Programs are finite.

Looking at the case study we will now try to address the questions of why programs are finite and when and how they should be ended. In order to do that, we will zoom in on the factors that determine the end of a program and that necessary to round off a program smooth and successful.  We will start with the question: “Are programs finite, or should they be?”

The term ‘program’ is used in many different meanings. It is, therefore, important to use a clear and decisive definition. For this article we will use the following definition for the term ‘program’:

“A temporary and flexible organization formed  especially for coordinating and managing the implementation of a coherent set of projects and activities, aimed at realizing benefits related to the strategic goals of an organization.”[1]

This definition clearly states the temporary nature of a program. But are there any logical arguments to be found for this statement? In order to answer that question, we have to look at the basic question: Why was the change instigated through a program, as opposed to changing (the organization) as part of everyday (management-) activities?

Separate management.

In order to realize changes in standing organizations, extra efforts (above and beyond normal day-to-day activities) have to be made. Efforts which, all too soon start to exhibit all the characteristics of projects.  The many projects and activities in a line organization, the relationships between activities and influences from (often complex) surroundings set high demands, in terms of effort, on company management and their co-workers. For the implementation of organizational changes, the existing line management and implementation capacity are insufficient. In organizations, set on realizing serious changes, the need has arisen for some other way of managing the implementation of these changes.

Program management is such a way, when it comes to managing the implementation of a coherent set of projects and activities. With the creation of a separate program-organization dedicated to achieving the strategic goals set, the line organization saves itself time and money. The savings possibly achieved by means of a program approach, know many aspects. One of these aspects is the fact that, the moment the biggest change is achieved, the major gains (partially) have been realized and the overall impact on the regular organization is reduced, a choice can be made to hand-over the remaining, outstanding, activities to the line organization. In any situation there will come a time when the costs of maintaining a separate (program-) organization does no longer outweigh the benefits of such a decision. This may well be the most important reason for ending a, otherwise successful, program.

“When the objectives of the program have been achieved, or when it is concluded that the remaining benefits do not merit the maintaining of a separate program-organization, the program should be terminated.”

If the above answers the question of whether a program should be ended, there still remains the question of how to do so. In the program from this case study, “Professionalization Outsourcing Relationship”, this question was addressed very conscientiously. Lessons learned during this process have become references for future programs.


The program “Professionalization Outsourcing Relationship” has reached the stage where the standing organization can direct en finish the ongoing activities, without the support of program management. This situation has been reached in accordance with the initial program planning, due to the combined effort of the program organization, which has focused on this goal. Based on the situation, the program board has decided to end the program and hand-over the remaining program activities to the standing organization for completion.

Business change management ensures that the changes, brought about by the program, become embedded into the standing organization. In this program the role of BCM was fulfilled by line managers from both organizations.  This was a deliberate choice, since the process continues after all projects and activities are completed. In the end ‘maintenance and control’ as well as further optimization will be carried out completely by line management. In this way parts of the program structure remain present in the line organization, even after termination of the program.

Figure 2 shows assurance in the line organization, after termination of the program.  Control transfers from the program organization to the line organization. The ‘relation escalation board’ remains unchanged and consists of the senior management of both organizations. The regular strategic meetings are supplemented with members from the program board. Program management is transferred to the contract manager and the service manager who take part in the service management meetings. The contract manager and the service manager performed as Business Change Managers during the program.

FIGUUR 2: Assurance of program results after the formal end of the program

Closing down the program (1)

Just like projects, programs are finite. The criteria for closure as described in this article are recognizable for stakeholders and easily identified at the start of the program. This makes the program tangible and provides insight.

In fact there are two reasons for ending a program:

  • When the blueprint and benefits have been realized, or
  • The organization is capable of continuing the changes in the line organization,

The program is complete and the program organization can be dismantled.

Closing down the program (2)

The actual program has now been terminated but, as mentioned, there are still a number of activities form the program being carried out by the line organization. At some point in time these too will be embedded in the standing organization and the last remaining elements of the program organization will merge with the line organization. At that point the program will be completed entirely.

Finally some recommendations that may prove useful in the execution of a program;

  • Keep in mind that the difference between programs and projects is not always immediately clear of all participants and it takes time for people to get used to this;
  • The demarcation between program and line management is a fine line and needs to be monitored. This is particular true because both operate in the same context. Division is important because the goals of the program (professionalization) differ from the (daily) line management goals.
  • Ensure ample capacity (time) for Business Change Management. The program and the line organization come together at Business Change Management. This double function demands for extra  effort outside normal duties.

Hedeman B., Vis van Heemst G.

Program management, an introduction based on MSP

Van Haren Publishing, 2009

Hendriks T., Vis van Heemst G.

Programs can end

Projectie Augustus 2005

[1] Hedeman, Vis van Heemst, 2009

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