What Does a Program Manager Do?

Want to learn about program management? We dive into the responsibilities, the skills, and the attributes of a program manager.


What does a program manager do?

Many may not grasp the complexity of the role, but it’s a position that requires a unique combination of technical, project management, and leadership skills. The program manager’s role is not for the faint hearted, nor those who dislike being in the hot seat. But for those who rise to the challenge, it can be a fulfilling and rewarding experience.

In this post, we’ll take a deeper dive into the notion of program management, examining the key responsibilities, skills, and attributes needed to excel in this role. We’ll also explore how the role might evolve in an agile environment, and the benefits that this can bring.

What a Program Manager Does

A program manager is responsible for wrangling the many elements of a program, be it a big construction project or the development of a new product or service. The task at hand is to see the program through until the end — on schedule, within budget, and to the satisfaction of all those involved.

The program manager, a true multitasker, must possess the ability to juggle multiple tasks and projects all at once. And to coordinate the efforts of diverse teams of characters — engineers, designers, developers, and the like. They must also have the gift of gab, able to communicate effectively with all parties involved, the clients, the investors, and the team’s members. A strong blend of leadership, project management, and communication skills are the must-haves.

One of the key responsibilities of a program manager is to lay out and maintain a clear program charter. This includes setting program milestones, assigning tasks and deadlines, and keeping an eye on progress to make sure everything stays on course. The program manager must also have the foresight to spot potential roadblocks and take the necessary steps to overcome them.

Another key responsibility that falls on the shoulders of a program manager is to keep the project within budget, a task that calls for skilled planning and budget management. Constant monitoring of costs to keep the project from going over budget is a must. And they must possess the ability to negotiate with vendors, contractors and other external entities to make sure everything stays within budget.

Aside from these technical skills, a program manager must also certain leadership prowess.

They must be able to inspire and motivate the team. Clear, effective communication of the program’s goals and objectives is a must. Excellent relationships must be built with key stakeholders, and the ability to act as a liaison between different teams — a skill that proves invaluable.

Why Do Organizations Need Program Managers?

Good question.

To help you come to the answer, let me paint a picture for you. Imagine a construction project without a foreman, a ship without a captain, a movie without a producer, a symphony without a conductor. Chaos. Utter chaos. Now imagine a program without a program manager. There you go.

The program manager is that one person who keeps everything in check, who makes sure all the little cogs and wheels are turning in the right direction. They are responsible for keeping the project running on schedule, within budget, and to the satisfaction of all stakeholders, a task that requires a delicate balance of technical know-how and corporate diplomacy.

Think of them like the ringmaster of a circus, juggling multiple tasks and projects simultaneously, aligning diverse groups of engineers, designers, developers and other specialists, all while keeping clients, investors, and team members in the loop.

Without a program manager, the project would devolve into a three-ring circus of its own — with clowns everywhere and no one in charge.

Can a Program Manager Be Agile?

Can a program manager, you might wonder, be agile?

Absolutely yes, they can. Agile, a methodology primarily used in software development, can also be applied to other forms of programs, including those that a program manager may oversee.

The agile approach is based on a set of principles that favor flexibility and adaptability over deterministically following a rigid plan. Agile frameworks, such as Scrum, use short iterations called “sprints” to break the project down into manageable chunks, and regular meetings to monitor progress and make adjustments as necessary.

In an agile environment, the program manager is a sponsor or stakeholder who must oversee the general direction of the program, making sure it stays on course, but also coordinate the efforts of the various teams, ensuring that everyone is working together efficiently.

In agile, the program manager works closely with the teams involved, promoting alignment and autonomy, transparency and continuous improvement. They need to have a good understanding of agile principles and the methodology used, as well as an ability to handle ambiguity and change and be comfortable with the iterative nature of the agile ways to making things happen.

Categorized as Work

By Dim Nikolov

Jack of all trades and master of none. Dim is a Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO) and Certified Scrum Master (CSM). He has a decade of experience as a stakeholder, member, leader, and coach for agile teams.