Key Concepts

This is a series of answers to the questions I’m asked all the time. If you have a question not covered, please contact me and I’ll do my best. These key concepts are information that you can use straight away and which doesn’t need a background in the art or science. We believe that if we can’t explain it to you so you get it, we’re not doing our job properly.


1. What’s the difference between a project, a program and a portfolio?

Every day someone asks me this question.

There are lots of ways each of these is described and many go to extraordinary lengths to explain them in detail.

But it’s not that complicated.

Here’s the simplest explanation I have:

  • Project – single outcome – e.g. a software upgrade
  • Program – integrated outcome – e.g. software upgrade and introduction of new processes and procedures
  • Portfolio – collection of projects and programs – they don’t have to be integrated.

The most important thing is that within each organisation there’s a clear definition that everyone can understand.


2. What’s the best project management software?

Ah. As the saying goes, If only I had a dollar…

The answer is clear cut. Well, that is as long as the questioner is clear about a few things:

  1. What do they want to do with it?
  2. Why they want it? Hard skills like scheduling, tracking and resource levelling or softer skills of collaboration and communication?
  3. When does it have to be operating?
  4. Who has to use it?
  5. What output do they want?
  6. How many people have to use it?
  7. Does it have to be free?
  8. What’s the organisation’s IT policy on software products?
  9. What’s the organisation’s IT policy on distributed v centralised computing and cloud v in-house data storage?
  10. Does the organisation already provide project management software?
  11. Do they want an established brand?
  12. Do they want the software to help do the project management or to help manage the project?

This last question usually sets us off on a longer conversation which is commonly deferred to a scheduled time. But, as I often say, if you’re not clear about the answers then pretty much any of the, literally, thousands out there will be OK. Until they’re not.

More often than not, during a longer conversation, we arrive at a suggestion which meets their needs, budget and implementation tolerance.

But since I don’t know from which angle you the reader are coming, here is my attempt to provide an answer I hope will be helpful.

I qualify my input with the rider ‘there are so many tools out there no one person can know them all so the answers I give relate only to the ones I do know’.

As a starting point, I refer people to Capterra I’ve repeatedly found Capterra to be informative, useful and comprehensive. It’s my ‘go-to’ starting spot when a client wants to really get into the conversation and intentionally choose the best software for them.

If they push and ask me for the ‘broad brush’ or ‘high level’ view I answer as follows.

If you’re looking for traditional software, used for a long time and broadly accepted as a project industry standard then Microsoft Project is as good as any.

If you’re looking for one of the newer, but well established, systems based on collaboration and issue management then I’d look at Jira, Basecamp, Timecamp or Wrike.

They’re all good and each has strengths.

If you’re looking to be on the leading edge then the choices are endless. I have some favourites I’m working with and exploring but none, yet, at the stage where I’m happy to mention them here. I will when I am.

Again the rider; this is very high level and, in no way suggests or endorses any product from any company for your circumstances. And I refer them to the start of the conversation.

One thing is clear, there is no perfect project management software product. It seems to me as though each designer looks at projects a bit like the blind men look at the elephant. They each see something different and build to solve their problem.

It’s interesting to watch and fascinating to see evolve.

The world is still searching.

Neither I nor RNC has any commercial relationship with any product or organisation mentioned above.


3. What is a project manager?

I get asked this – or a variation of it – a lot. You’d think the answer’s clear but alas it obviously isn’t.If we were face to face, I’d wheel out a picture of an elephant. You know that one about the blind men touching an elephant? Everyone’s touching the same thing, but at different places, and concludes from what they touch that they know the whole.

Project management and project managers are like that too.

Here are some real life answers from when I’ve posed the question “what is a project manager?”.

CEO – “The person who makes the project happen. The person responsible for it.”

Sponsor 1 – “The person who keeps everything straight, the person who knows where the money is up to, tracks the progress and produces reports”.

Sponsor 2 – “The person who drives the project. The person who is the leader and is accountable.”

Project Manager 1 – “I’m the person who makes sure everything is compliant. The plans are done, the work is tracked, the accounts are up to date, the suppliers are paid and the time recording is correct.”

Project Manager 2 – “I’m in charge of the project. It’s my responsibility to make it happen.”

Project Manager 3 – “I’m a servant, it’s not my project, it’s the project of the sponsor. The sponsor wants an outcome and it’s my job to make sure they get it.”

Project Manager 4 – “I’m the person who makes it possible for everyone else to do what needs to be done to make the project successful. It’s my job to set the course, move the obstacles, support the people and guide to completion. It’s my job to make the sponsor successful.”

From these answers, it’s clear the definition of a PM is in the eye of the beholder.

The trick is to ask yourself, what you believe about getting things done and make sure you hire a PM who fits with your picture.

If you truly believe projects (things that are unique) can be delivered through process and procedure, then hire a PM who answers as PM no.1 did.

The worst outcome for everyone is when the sponsor and the PM come at it from different directions.

Because I’m writing this, and it’s OK to have an opinion, I’d add that I have never seen a unique outcome delivered by relying on process and procedure. But I know there are many who persist in the dream and arrive at the precipice of failure baffled and bewildered.


4. What is a project sponsor’s role?

To be fair, this question is rarely phrased this way.

Mostly it’s posed as an angry statement by a project or program manager/director/leader who feels they’re being let down by a sponsor. They tell me how ‘their’ sponsor isn’t doing any number of things the teller expects of them.

Some of the things complained about include:

  • no project charter
  • not getting the right resources – or enough of them (money and people)
  • not making decisions in a timely manner
  • not ‘handling’ the politics
  • not moving the roadblocks
  • changing their mind too often
  • not representing the project properly/effectively to people outside the project
  • being too closely involved
  • not being involved enough
  • not understanding how hard it is

In the end, it boils down to the PM (insert preferred title here) not feeling supported or appreciated by the sponsor.

Let’s bring the conversation up a level.

What is a project/program sponsor?

To me, it’s crystal clear.

The project sponsor is the person who wants something achieved that can’t be achieved in the normal course of business. The person with the vision/dream/goal.

And, who has the willingness and ability to get support and resources.

The sponsor’s job in addition to wanting something done and getting the resources is to get the PM who will deliver it.

That sounds easy but it’s far from it.

There’s a spectrum of things that have to be done. The question for the sponsor is which do they want to do themselves and which do they want the PM to do?

The spectrum includes:

  • working the politics
  • promoting the project and its outcome
  • defending the project against those who would see it fail
  • protecting the budget and other resources
  • reporting (at, and to, many levels)
  • scheduling and tracking
  • integration and the other key elements of the project
  • people management

Once the sponsor decides what they want to do, and will do, for the project they can then get a PM who can do everything else.

I’ve worked on projects and programs where the sponsor wanted all comms to go through them but left the politics to the men. I’ve worked on projects where the sponsor did none of the things above and it was my role to make it all happen. I’ve also worked on projects where the sponsor did everything except the scheduling and tracking.

There’s no point in starting a project or program with firm ideas about what the other should do and then being miserable. Suss it out. Ask the questions at the start. And if the sponsor wants someone who can do things you can’t, be professional and make a dignified exit.