I have published quite a bit on the topic of program and project management. The reasons why should be quite obvious, as this set of disciplines, when done right, yields significant positive results in terms of improved business and mission outcomes for organizations. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, an astounding 97 percent of organizations believe project management is critical to business performance and organizational success. Yet, in many organizations, these disciplines are quite immature. According to PMI, for every $1 billion invested in the United States in programs and projects, $122 million is wasted due to lacking project performance.

Based on my experiences working for the government and serving large commercial enterprises, organizations face a shortage of seasoned, skilled employees in all the program and project management disciplines. That shortage extends beyond program and project managers to other key positions, including requirements and system engineering leads, development and test managers, and operations managers.

Too often, those in program and project management leadership roles have nowhere to turn for help. Consequently, they often rely on contractors for support, and while there are excellent firms that can provide expertise, contractor support does not instill the institutionalization of program management approaches necessary to improve an organization’s capabilities over time.

There is a model that has made a meaningful difference in organizations’ ability to deliver successful IT programs: the Program Management Centers of Excellence (PM COEs) that draw on best practices, capitalize on pockets of excellence throughout an organization, and provide help for programs on initiation and throughout their life cycles.

The PM COE has three primary functions:

  1. It gathers best practices into a single resource center. Primarily, COEs identify and codify methods, processes, sample work products and tools that represent best practices in a particular discipline housed in an accessible, centralized library. For example, a Requirements Management COE would help define the appropriate methods and tools to use in defining and then managing requirements for different types of IT programs, such as application development and the integration of commercial software. The library would hold sample artifacts and reports to share, for example, examples of a functional requirements document and the appropriate level of requirements definition for a series of agile development sprints.The resource center also provides a basis to update training programs across the organization.
  2. It helps create a network of experts. The PM COE seeks and identifies expertise in order to share it across the organization. It develops communities of interest in which practitioners from across the organization convene (both virtually and physically) to discuss the state of the art for their discipline, review artifacts in the resource center, discuss current issues and collaborate on approaches to resolve those issues.The goal is to develop an online learning community that crosses barriers while assisting program and project managers and their teams.
  3. It offers help for programs and projects. COE members are available to help programs in need, whether they are just starting out or long-established but struggling to succeed. With a mature PM COE model in place, the leaders of all major new programs should be required to use the PM COE to ensure that they are adequately addressing all critical aspects of running a successful program. Too many programs fail right off the starting block, and the PM COE could be instrumental by helping programs at the beginning. In addition, leaders could avail themselves of a COE if they are struggling with a particular aspect of program execution.

There are a few keys to success for this approach to work in any organization:

  • The model must rely on the expertise that lives in the organization and support it with a small, centralized governance and coordination function.
  • The PM COE culture should be about helping programs, not enforcing compliance. Senior leaders must come together as a “coalition of the willing” to foster a strong commitment to helping programs succeed. That way, program managers will be comfortable seeking the help of the COE.
  • Success depends on senior leaders prioritizing the establishment of COEs. By making program management a priority, senior leaders will free experts from across an organization to spend a portion of their time helping create and sustain the COEs.

This process is not impossible. At the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), we established 14 COE discipline areas under a unified governance structure that made a significant difference in the execution of the agency’s modernization program. Other agencies and private sector organizations have had similar results. Given the low success rate accorded to IT programs and projects, an investment in staff with the right senior-level support could provide an excellent return for large companies and government agencies in terms of dollar savings on programs — and, much more importantly, better business outcomes for organizations.