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The best definition of PROGRAMS you’ll ever read

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Why do organizations designate some services as departments and others as programs?

The term program (or programme if you are British) is not new and has widespread use and means different things depending on who you ask. The most quoted definition is probably from the Project Management Institute. They simply defines it as “a group of related projects managed in a coordinated way. Programs usually include an element of ongoing activity.” While technically true, it’s also pretty vague and doesn’t really answer the question.

The Federal Government has more than 1,500 programs and an entire office that inventories them yet their official definition is no better. “Generally, an organized set of activities directed toward a common purpose or goal that an agency undertakes or proposes to carry out its responsibilities. Because the term has many uses in practice, it does not have a well-defined, standard meaning in the legislative process. It is used to describe an agency’s mission, functions, activities, services, projects, and processes.” They are technically correct but it still doesn’t really answer the question.

I have my own theory about what makes a program special. What distinguishes programs from things like departments, divisions, business units, and service areas? The difference is simple to me. Unlike those other types of organizational structures, programs are managed or influenced by collaboration. Program Managers may technically report to someone above them on the organizational chart but they receive direction, advisement or even supervision from a collaborative group.

  • Here is my definition of a program.

    • Related set of services that benefits a specific stakeholder group (internal or external sub-set)
    • Works towards long-term goals which it doesn’t fully control
    • Receives direction, advisement and/or supervision from a collaborative group (e.g. board, committee, team)
    • Reflects larger organizational strategic goals but functions somewhat separately
    • Provides an opportunity for multiple funding sources outside of primary revenue source.

I know firsthand that managing a program is challenging and often thankless work. You must be both a technical expert and a mini-CEO (who gets paid way less and has little status). Programs collaborative nature often make then the victim of what I affectionately call Organizational Monsters. These are not difficult personalities – rather they are the common threats to collaboration. They are the outcome of a lack of boundaries, expectations, accountability, and systems to support collaborative work. Programs looking to improve performance should start by searching for Organizational Monsters within how they collaborate.

About Megan Wilmoth

Megan Wilmoth has built and managed products ranging from custom software for Fortune 1000 companies to marketing platforms for manufactures. She’s overseen work that impacts hundreds of organizations, thousands of individuals and millions of data points. Her ability to plan and mitigate allow her to succeed in whatever is thrown her way. She is President of Planosaurus, a consulting firm that helps organizations plan to do more with less.

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  • Megan Wilmoth,
  • August 3, 2015


  • William, August 6, 2015 at 3:51 pm |

    I liked this blog. In thinking about my federal program, we actually do meet your definition of a program. We are advised and somewhat managed by a very collaborative group made up of other agencies and professionals. I’d be willing to bet that they would benefit from your insight.

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