Program Managers as Top Chefs

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Categories: Program Management

Given the lack of understanding about the work of program managers, I thought it would be helpful to explain their role by using a restaurant as a metaphor.

Think of the kitchen as the project management office (PMO), menus as the programs and each dish as a project.  

The chef is the program manager. The restaurant owner and manager rely on the chef to create the menu, which has to reflect the restaurant's cuisine, but with a range of affordable (yet profitable) dishes. The chef must then supervise and motivate others to cook the dishes.

Cooks are like project managers. They're responsible for executing the dishes designed by the chef and ordered by the customers. Other kitchen staff members are like the project team, helping create each dish successfully.
Restaurant managers are like general managers in a project setting. They coordinate the different arms of the restaurant, supervise the staff, order supplies, take care of the accounts, pay wages and handle customer complaints. However, they rely on the chef to ensure the restaurant is successful.

The restaurant owner, manager and chef meet regularly to discuss business. These discussions are the restaurant equivalent of strategic planning. The chef learns what's required of the menu (or program) and how much money is available to spend on preparing dishes (or projects).

In a lot of companies, the owner, manager and chef are all the same person. Yet many people can't successfully perform all three roles.
The restaurant owner and manager may want to be involved in the cooking, but it's far more effective if they have the support of a properly trained chef.

The same is true in the business world. We need to spend time educating CEOs and general managers about the benefits of working alongside a properly trained program manager.

Then we won't just have great restaurants, but great companies.

What do you think? How does having a defined role of a program manager help organizations?
Posted by Lung-Hung Chou on: August 11, 2011 11:16 AM | Permalink

Comments (5)

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Himanshu Bansal
This is a great metaphor. Actually, running each day of restaurant is like a program. All the projects (dishes) have their risks - customer may have asked for something but cook and kitchen staff may have prepared quite different.

This is the reason project/program management is a profession in itself irrespective of which industry uses these services.

Dmitri Ivanenko
Thanks Roger. Great explanation and example, easy to understand by probably anyone.

I think that having a program manager allows the company to have a focused individual to manage a set of similar projects and interact with the business as required, without having to manage other parts of the business environment.

Rita Tandoh
Thanks, Roger for the insightful metaphor.

Enrique Galvez-Durand

One question: Are you sure you're not confusing Program Manager's with Portfolio Manager's role? Could you tell me the differences between these roles and, with both definitions in hand, explain why the Top Chef is a Program Manager?


Roger Chou
Hi Enrique Galvez-Duand:

With regards to your question, I agree with you, it is very easy to confuse portfolio management and program management. This is because they both involve strategic planning and how to achieve organizational goals and objectives, as you can read in the Standard for Program Management (Chapter 1.3, 1.4) and the Standard for Portfolio Management (Chapter 1.42).

For a restaurant - whether a chef is a portfolio manager or a program manager depends on what their role is within the restaurant's management. If a chef not only works in a kitchen but is also part of the restaurant's management, with the authority to make decisions about business strategies of the restaurant, then that chef can be regarded as a portfolio manager.

A program manager can be said to be responsible for implementing a chosen strategy through a collection of projects they oversee. A portfolio manager can be said to be responsible for helping choose a strategy, planning its implementation and then monitoring that implementation through a collection of projects they oversee.

A portfolio has different components (projects or programs) that form a business strategy, and in devising that strategy the portfolio manager approves only those components which directly further the business' objectives. In our example with the chef, if the chef decides to close the restaurant because it is not fulfilling the business strategy it was set up to fulfil (making money, a distinctive menu, quality of food desired, etc), then they can be regarded as acting like a portfolio manager.

Also, the portfolio can be regarded as “a snapshot of the organization's projects in work, reflecting the organizational goals at the time the projects were selected” (Chapter 1.42). This description is not applicable for program management. Why? Because programs, together with projects, are already in that 'snapshot'.

I hope this explains your question


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