Published here August 2016.


Musings Index

ISO and Program[1] Management — A Challenging Standard

"ISO" is the international logo representing the "International Organization for Standardization". Why it isn't just called the International Standards Organization, I don't know, so don't ask. As you might expect, ISO is an international standard-setting body composed of representatives from various national standards organizations around the world. It was founded in 1947 in London, England, but the headquarters is now in Geneva, Switzerland. It had its genesis as the International Federation of the National Standardizing Associations (ISA) launched in 1926, but was suspended in 1942 during World War II. ISO currently represents 164 member countries, but works in 196 countries at this time.

Use of the standards aids in the creation of products and services that are safe, reliable and of good quality. The standards help businesses increase productivity while minimizing errors and waste. By enabling products from different markets to be directly compared, they facilitate companies in entering new markets and assist in the development of global trade on a fair basis. The standards also serve to safeguard consumers and the end-users of products and services, ensuring that certified products conform to the minimum standards set internationally.


If you Google "ISO" you will get about half a trillion responses. According to Wikipedia,[2] ISO is the world's largest developer of voluntary international standards. It facilitates world trade by providing common standards between nations. Nearly twenty thousand standards have been set, covering everything from manufactured products and technology to food safety, agriculture and healthcare.

And, of course, that includes Project Management identified as ISO 21500. However, project management is not a "hard" product that can be specified categorically. So, when this ISO 21500 was launched in 2007 and published in 2012, it became known as "Guidance on project management". It focuses on the management of a single project (SPM) with a view to producing "deliverables", or "outcomes" where cultural changes are involved. After five years, I expect this "Guidance standard" to be reopened for review, which is interesting because even the meaning of the title has changed. "Project Management" no longer simply applies to the conduct of a single project, but rather to a range of management categories from projects to project portfolios.

Under ISO's own process standards, the road to change is long and arduous. Setting up any standard is a "project". And this project has a potential life span consisting of nine technical phases (erroneously referred to as "stages") each consisting of between two and nine stages (erroneously referred to as "sub-stages"). A potential of 40+ such stages have been identified, with a "successful" set consisting of a minimum of 24 such stages. That allows an average of around two months per stage if the standard is to be published within five years. ISO project management is beautiful.

I have been participating in this fascinating activity for a number of years as an "SME" (Subject Matter Expert). This effectively means that I get asked my opinion from time to time and this typically results in about one third of the participants agreeing, one third disagreeing, and the remainder standing around watching the fun. But at least it rattles the grey cells and sparks a passionate debate.

And so it is, that we come to discuss Program Management (PgM). The Project Management Institute ("PMI") has taken a leaf out of its own PMBOK® Standard. Accordingly, PMI defines Program Management as "The application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to a program to meet the program requirements and to obtain benefits and control not available by managing projects individually."[3] This definition really beats around the bush. Perhaps a better definition of what PgM really is, is along the lines: "Program Management - A form of multi-project management involving the management of a group of selected projects together with related activities to obtain control and benefits not available through Single Project Management (SPM)."

The problem is that an exact understanding of PgM depends on the environment in which the multi-projects take place. For example, different environments associated with different Areas of Application of Program Management may include such challenges as:

  1. The linking of as-yet unidentified projects with organizational strategy [e.g. over an extended period];
  2. Change management [e.g. new organizational outcomes and/or the introduction of governance];
  3. Very large projects; [i.e. multi million to a billion dollars];
  4. Very complex projects [e.g. with many disparate stakeholders];
  5. Highly innovative projects [e.g. New technology];
  6. Search for medical solutions in healthcare [i.e. Medical research and development];
  7. Software innovation [e.g. Development of new information technology];
  8. Resource allocation and conservation amongst a number of projects [e.g. a political sustainability agenda];
  9. Delegation of responsibility [e.g. For achieving an organizational mission];
  10. (And so on)

In the first instance we have answered the question: "What is Program Management (PgM)?" In the second part we are trying to answer the question: "Why do we need PgM instead of SPM?" To that, there are clearly multiple answers and all of which require, to some degree, differences in management style and management attitudes.

But all of which require more than the application of Single Project Management.

1. Other than in North America, "Program" is spelled "Programme".
2. Wikipedia, accessed 7/9/2016
3. The Standard for Program Management 3rd Edition, Project Management Institute, PA, 2013, Glossary p167
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