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Blog April 24, 2020

The Characteristics of Exceptional Program Management in a Highly Dynamic Environment

Brad Jaehn
Brad Jaehn

Enterprises of all sizes and industries are facing new challenges as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to grow around the world. According to a recent survey by the National Association for Business Economists, the US economy has been predicted to shrink at an annualized rate of 26.5% in the second quarter of 2020.

On a positive note, many firms are quickly adapting and demonstrating the ability to continue to compete in viable ways, even in this new economic reality. What underlies much of the ability to adjust and execute in these new operational conditions? In many cases, each organization has been able to leverage the strengths of strong program management leaders and behaviors.

Looking across a variety of industries, several organizations have pivoted and adapted to new realities to deliver innovative products and services to their (often highly disrupted) customers.

Financial Services: Many leading financial services firms have rapidly designed and developed, and are now deploying, new capabilities to allow for the application and processing of Paycheck Protection Program loans. This program has been created and implemented in an extremely short period by the US Treasury in an environment in which nearly all states have mandated stay-at-home policies, thereby all work has been coordinated and executed quickly in a highly virtual way.

Healthcare: Numerous insurers, providers, and other organizations that play an active role in the testing, treatment, and economics of health care related to COVID-19 have responded in remarkable ways to drive awareness, deliver capabilities, and facilitate servicing and payment for millions of Americans. This has also occurred within a matter of weeks in a highly coordinated virtual means between internal resources, external partners, and governments entities.

Airlines and Hospitality: As two industries who have been the most impacted by COVID-19, both airlines and hospitality companies have been forced to make substantial changes to their products and services as a result of a near shut-down of travel both domestically and internationally. The organizations that continue to adapt to changing regulatory climates and customer needs have done it in a highly coordinated and dynamic means over the last few weeks.

What are some of the key characteristics of highly effective program management, both today and into the future?

1. Program strategy: Establish how we achieve goals

Each organization that has emerged and started to show successes has been able to clearly define and align internal and external resources to a shared mission. Launching a COVID-19 information website or a Paycheck Protection Program application service is a highly complex initiative, and has been made even more challenging by timelines that last for days or weeks rather than months or years. For these enterprises, working toward a core objective has enabled them to quickly serve the fundamental needs of their customers – whether accessing Federal Stimulus funds or obtaining information about symptoms, testing, and care options.

2. Program success: Define measurable success

Many of the companies showing positive momentum in program delivery are the ones that have been able to define measurable success. The organizations that define a limited number of meaningful leading indicators are realizing the most immediate benefits. This may include Key Performance Indicators like velocity, customer acquisition, or applications processed.

3. Program governance: Communicate how we work

At this time, it is more important than ever that “structure follows strategy.” Leaders and managers must be able (and willing) to form teams that are clearly and appropriately organized with the right resources and skills to achieve the mission. Effective program teams have leveraged clear governance practices to manage the flow of work into and out of teams. They have also maximized functional areas in order to stay focused and achieve the needs of the enterprise.

4. Program cadence and communications: Stay aligned and informed

Nearly all program teams are now comprised of individuals sitting in home offices and kitchen tables surrounded by their kids and their pets; the most effective teams are those practicing a strong cadence of communication and engagement amongst the team, and with internal and external stakeholders and partners. The program management function is critical to ensure high value information transfer while providing clarity of direction and decisions on a rapid, regular basis.

5. Program Leadership: Demonstrate key leadership behaviors

As program managers, some of the most effective leadership behaviors are driven by influence over organization. Impactful program managers have shown their willingness to “go deep” and work across various functions with a high level of competency and confidence. They have also proven their ability to provide clear and concise communications, keep their teams focused on the mission and the outcomes, and drive forward progress in unbelievably challenging operational conditions.

The next few weeks and months will undoubtably bring new, unanticipated challenges and situations, but the organizations that most effectively leverage strong program management will continue to deliver critical products and services to the ever changing and evolving needs of their customers.