Program Manager Cleared for Take-Off

Paula Weber
Tom Morris of Up, Up & Away Airlines is a seasoned project and program manager. In more than 15 years of project management and running project offices, he has seen it all. His projects have run the gamut from well organized and competently run to candidates for case studies on what not to do.


Currently Tom is working on development of a new generation of PC-based graphical user interface (GUI) software for reservations agents in multiple call centers. He develops the master agreement and supplemental specifications, then sends them first to the airline's corporate contracts department for approval, then on to the contractor for implementation. This is a premium software development project that cannot fail. Up, Up & Away Airlines is struggling to stay competitive in today's cutthroat airline industry. The airline's bottom line is ultimately dependent upon building and retaining a loyal customer base. To do so, it must upgrade, modernize and improve all technology and operations focused on customer care.


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Tom is the corporate-wide program manager on the hook for the planning and managing of all data and telecommunications projects affecting the customer experience (reservations, terminal and curbside check-in, ticket counter transactions, gate processing and boarding). His current project will be implemented in three stages: upgrading frequent flyer services first, then general reservations and, finally, improving all in-airport customer transactions from curb to boarding worldwide.

Unfortunately for Tom, his airline has never formally defined duties for project implementation within its organization, and few employees have an understanding of program management. The techies in information services have project managers who report to a managing director for implementation. However, there is a legacy misperception that all projects are managed by the airline's information services department because that's where the technical data and hardware talent reside. The IS people think that project management just involves managing the development contractor, procuring hardware and project rolloutin short, their view of PM is that of a software development and system engineering organization. In Tom's words, "They don't have a clue what program management is. They have no concept of a project office."

In the past, Tom worked in organizations having program managers who made sure that all specified software products met the quality standards of the organization. All project managers (software design and development people included) reported to the program manager. But in Tom's current situation, the IS director responsible for implementation is running his own fiefdom. He is conducting training operations, is in charge of all hardware and software development, and even has certain financial responsibilities. In addition, the IS director has made his project managers personally responsible for the success of the program--on time and on budget. But Tom himself is mandated to ensure that very success; his job depends on it.

"This conflict of interest does nothing but hurt Up, Up & Away," Tom explains. "I'm in a difficult position because my program management office was formed to address the business of customer distribution channels. The IS people had neither the understanding nor the headcount to provide timely support for that effort. The corporate mindset that program management involves nothing more than managing software development, hardware configuration and communications support really needs to change if Up, Up & Away Airlines is to successfully implement its new customer care program. Finally, those in software development need to see themselves in their roles as technical designers and expert advisors to the program manager. They are an important part of the solution, but not the only part."

In spite of internal politics, Tom has a wonderful working relationship with the contractor. Communications are excellent. The contractor has a PM process that works, as well as a communications plan and an internal process for handling change. The contractor also holds monthly internal program reviews with Tom in addition to weekly conference calls. Prior to each weekly contractor conference call, Tom conducts an internal conference call during which key parties at Up, Up & Away bring each other up to speed on the status of the project.

"If I had it to do all over again, what would I do differently? Well, since this project is evolving, I would not have done anything different from project start in terms of developing the agreements and supplements. Those work. But what needed to happen and never did was a sound discussion and understanding by all parties as to who was doing what to whom and when. Our project was initiated without a project charter, and there was no high-level project plan, either, although the technical folks have recently started one for their piece of the project. Unfortunately, I was hired only after the project started, so I had no influence regarding mission statement and plan. What I'd really like to solve is my ambiguous position. I'm designated on all documents as the program manager. I am the only one who can authorize procurement of items and spending of money. I deal with the contractor. My neck is on the line if our customer care program goes south. But until my airline gets its corporate act together and unambiguously decides that I'm running a program office, I'll be just a bean counter to the folks in information services."

Tom does not despair, however. He's even cautiously optimistic.

"We have a newly-hired CIO who comes from a PC environment and understands customer care. Above all, he knows we can't afford to fail. If we do, our airline will fold, and we'll all be without jobs. I'm counting on his big picture view of things as well as the new people he is bringing into the company to help turn things around. Until then, I'm fastening my seatbelt and riding out the turbulence."

Step On It

Some of the issues here could have used a boost from the Project Accelerator:

  • Identifying Sponsors
  • Getting Management Buy-In
  • Integrating With Other Projects
  • Synchronizing With the Overall Strategy
  • Building the Plan
  • Identifying Critical Success Factors
  • Managing Expectations
  • Managing Resources
  • You're a real project manager--do you have a real project management story to tell? We want to hear the good, the bad and especially the ugly. Send your war stories to the RPM Editor. If we use your story, we'll send you a T-shirt, mug or hat. You've earned it.

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    "The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions."

    - Leonardo Da Vinci