Dec 31 2009

Program Manager or Head Coach: Is There a Difference?

Photo: Forrest MacCormack

Having spent about a quarter of a century examining information technology
at federal agencies, I appreciate the enormous challenge that IT program managers face.

They are asked — no, they are expected — to consistently deliver
mission-critical capabilities and outcomes that are tangible and measurable, and to do so within demanding time and resource constraints. In effect,
they must deliver nothing short of championship performances all
the time.

Championships are also something that collegiate and professional head coaches must deliver. Interestingly, we view coaches as consistent and successful if they win a championship twice every decade.

Nevertheless, the similarities between head coaches and program managers are many and profound. So, in keeping with the old coaching adage that "players need to know, and coaches need to teach, the fundamentals of the game," here are a few of the fundamentals of being a successful head coach and IT program manager, all of which involve leveraging people, processes and tools to achieve results.

People First

According to one head coach returning to the ranks after years of retirement, his first priority was to get his coaching staff in place because he believed success all started with the right leadership. For a professional football team, this includes people with the requisite expertise in specializations such as the offensive and defensive lines. For an IT program manager, it's people with expertise in architecture and engineering, configuration management, testing and requirements management, to name a few. These people also need to be able to work as a cohesive group and to teach and motivate the players and the staffs reporting to them.

Without a strong leadership team,
an IT program has one hand tied behind its back. My experience over the years has shown that having all the necessary program leadership positions filled, and filled by the right people, is rare.

Prep and Execution

Coaches and program managers
also need clearly defined, transparent and consistently applied processes that
govern execution of functions and activities.

For coaches, these come in the form of such things as player position assignments, team rules, playbooks, conditioning and training schedules — the list goes on and on.

Program managers similarly use processes — requirements definition, solicitations, contractor oversight and risk management, for example — to increase the chances that throughout
a program's lifecycle, staff will perform at a level that allows success in delivering system capabilities and mission benefits on time and within budget.

Employing these processes involves discipline. According to one head coach, discipline is doing what you are supposed to do in the best possible manner at the time you are supposed to do it.

In these days of tight deadlines
and pressure for instant results, cutting corners is tempting, and it is
not uncommon for IT programs to reduce scope to pursue ambitious or expedited timelines. This is risky and, more times than not, results in doing the wrong thing faster.

As one head coach says, if you don't have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?

Game Plan, Please

An important aspect of having disciplined processes is effectively using
the right tools for the job. The primary tool is something that provides the program with a clear and explicit frame of reference.

Both athletic and IT programs operate within the context of something that is larger than the program itself.
For athletic programs, the frame of
reference includes the game itself — its history, tradition and goals; the on- and off-the-field rules, protocols and standards; and the characteristics of the fans and the cities in which the teams reside. In the case of IT programs, this larger context is the enterprise architecture or architectures of which the program is a part.

But having this context is not the only tool. Coaches have tools to help them see the field, and program managers have tools to give them situational awareness.

For a coach, these tools could be pictures and video, and for a program manager, they could be analyses of trends in system defect density or changes in the number and severity of program risks. Such tools facilitate understanding. Other tools facilitate setting expectations for how programs are executed or games played.

So for both the head coach and the IT program manager, the means to the end is effectively leveraging people, processes and tools. If all three are present and strong, they can create a solid foundation for a team or program to stand. Without any one of them, it becomes a difficult balancing act and one that's likely to topple.