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Why complex programmes are complex and what practitioners can do about it.

Blog posted by: Dr. Andrew Schuster, Partner – Transformation Risk and Advisory, PwC, Transformation Risk and Advisory, PwC, September 2023.

In recent years, society has become more projectified, whereby more and more organizations are using programmes and projects to deliver value to the economy.

According to ‘The Golden Thread’, a study commissioned by the Association for Project Management (APM), 8.9 percent of Gross Value Add and 7.9 percent of employment in the UK economy is driven by programme- and project-based working.

Some programmes and projects are more complex than others. In such cases, it is important to use more robust governance, methods (e.g. processes and tools), cadence of activities, inter-organizational engagement and specialist skills to ensure projects and programmes are delivered successfully.

Programmes are a Type of Organization

Programmes that can be contained and managed using pre-existing organizational governance and processes in a funding organization will be relatively simple. But as programmes grow, they must build the capability to manage the business functions found in any organization, including, for example, human resource management, financial management, supply chain management and risk management.

At the same time as creating the capacity to manage the business functions, the programme must also plug back to the organization that created it. HR, for example, will still have to go back to the corporate entity for approval on hiring new talent as the project or programme just does not have that authority.

And, to complicate matters further, the creation of a project or programme will typically involve several organizations. It is important, therefore, to be plugged into all the funding organizations to ensure it works for each stakeholder involved. Furthermore, the programme’s artifacts and outputs will be developed and delivered by multiple projects led by different suppliers, so there’s a need to integrate these third-party businesses as well.


Leaders that have worked their way up within an organization may never have experienced the level of complexity when creating a project or programme. But coming in as a programme leader means they must understand how to deliver new capabilities in an organization, while creating the capabilities to create new capabilities. The effect is that programmes often take longer and cost more because they are not scoped, planned and costed with this understanding and – hence –fall short of expectations.

Governance and principles

Managing Successful Programmes (MSP) helps tackle the complexities of designing and delivering programmes well. The first chapter in MSP is concerned with setting up a governance structure to manage the multiple layers involved in creating an organization, highlighting the need for putting decision-making processes and support offices, such as PMOs or design authorities, in place before building it up over time.

Indeed, it is the role of the PMO to create all the processes, tools and templates described above, with MSP emphasizing the need to create relationships both within and outside of the programme. After all, it is not just about existing processes; making a programme work relies on connecting with other service providers or functional areas in different organizations. As part of this, MSP describes a concept known as approaches, acknowledging the need to set up these different capabilities. There is an approach for stakeholder engagement, another for funding, and further approaches for the other core service areas.

MSP also contains a set of principles that drive the behaviors which simplify complex programmes and make them more manageable. Going back to those principles will help influence how a project or programme manager approaches their response to complexity. The latest version of MSP highlights pace, for instance. The pace at which things are done is important and you can’t assume that someone will make decisions or set up processes. Managers must keep driving activity and it is here that speed matters – not just the speed of delivery, but also the speed of management.

Complex web of components

Project- and programme-based work matters. It helps drive the economy. But projects and programmes are growing, and the size of the organizational structures required means they are becoming more complex. Consider large transformational projects such as those found in the Government Major Project Portfolio.

The success of such projects depends on managing that complexity. And it is here that Managing Successful Programmes serves as a valuable framework, providing executives and project and programme managers with the best practice principles, approaches and processes they need to deliver their programmes.


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