Opinion

Programme management is just as useful for small businesses as it is for corporates

6 min read

23 June 2015

When SMEs are attempting to achieve sustainable growth, considering the benefits of programme management could save them from resembling plate-spinning acts.

For many larger enterprises, programme management is essential. It establishes processes that can be re-used across the business, saving time and resources, and meaning projects can be started (and finished) quicker, potential issues can be identified earlier and communication is improved.

Yet for startups and small businesses, programme management is much rarer and it is hard to see why. Growing a business from conception to market leadership (or even to creation of a completely new market) is never smooth or linear. Companies that want to excel at innovation learn to take a holistic approach that exploits the most promising ideas, channelling their energy and resources to deliver the maximum disruptive effect. However, even the best run small firms find that the initial passion, agility and networking skills of their founders are challenged as more formal structures need to be put in place. 

Sustainable growth is a drain on resources   

Whereas the early stages of a business’ development can be likened to a single major project, the need to reinvent to achieve sustainable growth can spawn dozens of new initiatives, each of which represents a drain on resources and management time and talent. These initiatives can range in size from minor tweaks to major infrastructure swap-outs, all competing for share of heart, mind and pocket.

In most smaller businesses, this competition leads to growing pressure on the handful of talented employees who are the critical driving force. External investors may sense the building stress and look to the executives to set clear priorities, and evidence that they are identifying and addressing the bottlenecks that are holding back operational growth and performance and address them first.

In order to maintain a well-ordered stream of deliverables, larger and long established corporates typically have some combination of strategic planning and programme management capabilities. This allows senior executives to focus on their own duties, leaving the day-to-day prioritisation to steering groups whose input comes from a programme management office (PMO).

PMO for smaller businesses       

This is not the case for smaller businesses or startups, which often resemble plate-spinning acts, with strongly held beliefs and short-term imperatives taking precedence over highly structured governance, a reflection of the dynamism and goal orientation of the founders.

Even the establishment of a PMO in such a business can be highly contentious, being seen by more entrepreneurial senior managers as an effort to rein in and stifle creativity. This is especially so when the PMO conforms closely to larger corporate norms, such as preparation of detailed business cases.

A PMO in this environment needs instead to recognise the unique and changing needs of its own environment. Smaller businesses are often are built on thin foundations because of limited funds, expertise and the need to get to market as quickly as possible. This places different demands on PMO staff. 

Instead of a sizeable team applying a strong methodology and working with well-organised functional teams, a small team (often only one or two people) needs to work with managers in a hands-on environment, getting agreement on how to stabilise and strengthen the foundations while putting in place building blocks for the next cycle of reinvention. This needs to be done against a background of time pressure and limited resources.

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A different type of programme manager       

These challenges demand a different breed of programme manager. They must have an instinctive feel for the health of the business, a natural ability to grasp novel concepts as they surface within the business, and a deep commercial and technical awareness of the relative merits and impact of potential options. Most importantly of all, though, they need a deftness of touch, knowing when, with whom and how to introduce appropriate levels of process discipline.

This will include challenging decision makers over matters such as scalability and supportability of IT platforms, timings of multiple major changes and their exponential impact on staff. It will also mean driving the top team to control the number of simultaneous initiatives queued and in execution, by tracking and illustrating performance.

As this breed of programme manager is rare, smaller businesses either recruit from corporate environments or select one or more of their ambitious project managers. It is highly beneficial to leverage the skills of an interim programme manager with start-up familiarity to help in the selection of the most suitable candidates for permanent roles.

This approach ensures that a solid foundation can be put in place that will support the cyclic reinvention of a growing business by implanting a methodology that aligns with the aspirations of the management team and any external investors. Programme management in such a business is ultimately more about pragmatism than purism.

Maurice Vink is principal consultant at PeopleTECH

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