Series on Program Management: Making Effective Program Decisions


By Russ Martinelli and Jim Waddell

Program Management Academy 

Oregon, USA

“Show me the data that supports your decision.” This is a common request heard by Ricki Godfrey, senior program manager for T.C. Holmes, a construction engineering firm in the energy industry with specialty in the construction of wind turbine sites. As leaders of an engineering firm, T.C. Holmes’ executives believe every decision should be based upon supportable data.  As Godfrey explains however, “the programs we undertake in the renewable energy sector are usually filled with uncertainty. No two programs are alike.” Because T.C. Holmes is operating in an environment of high uncertainty, data needed to make decisions is usually not available since each program environment is unique.

Many program managers are able to identify with Godfrey’s predicament. Senior leaders desire a high level of confidence with the decisions being made because the outcomes of those decisions can have significant impact on their business.  To gain confidence, therefore, they look for data to support the decisions made. The problem is that most available program data is a representation of the past, and in fast-paced and uncertain program situations, data can be highly unreliable.  As such, it is a poor predictor of future outcomes from a decision.

This highlights an important distinction between decision making in a program environment versus a project environment. For the most part, the project environment tends to be fairly stable by nature (project management is about predictability, change management, and risk reduction), therefore data can be used as the basis for many decisions on a project, and traditional data-based decision methods can be employed.  By contrast, the program environment tends to be much less stable and more fluid.  Data, being a representation of past events, may not directly apply and therefore can actually increase program uncertainty. As a result, program managers often have to rely more on their experience and ‘gut instinct’ to drive their decisions.

This, of course, can put us in a difficult situation with our senior executives who are calling for data-based decisions in order to increase their confidence level with high stakes decisions made on a program. Overcoming this conflict is rooted in trust that a program manager is consistently making good decisions.  Consistency begins with understanding and following five tenets of effective decision making.


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The PMWJ series of articles on program management is authored by Russell Martinelli and James Waddell, principle advisors at the Program Management Academy in Oregon, USA.   More about the authors and the Program Management Academy can be found at http://www.programmanagement-academy.com/.

About the Authors

pmwj19-feb2014-martinelli-AUTHOR1 MARTINELLIRuss Martinelliflag-usa

Oregon, USA 

Russ Martinelli is a senior program manager at Intel Corporation, one of the world’s largest semiconductor companies.  Russ has many years of experience leading global product development teams in both the aerospace and computing industries.  Russ is also a founder of the Program Management Academy (www.programmanagement-academy.com), and co-author of Leading Global Project Teams and the first comprehensive book on program management titled Program Management for Improved Business Results. Russ can be contacted at [email protected].

To view other works by Russ Martinelli, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/russ-martinelli/

pmwj19-feb2014-martinelli-AUTHOR2 WADDELLJim Waddell flag-usa

Oregon, USA

Jim Waddell, former PMO director in the high-tech industry, is a founder of the Program Management Academy (www.programmanagement-academy.com) where he consultants in program management and mergers & acquisitions. He has held a variety of management positions in the high tech and energy industries, has been a speaker at numerous conferences, and is a co-author of two books:  Leading Global Project Teams and Program Management for Improved Business Results.  Jim can be contacted at [email protected].

To view other works by Jim Waddell, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/jim-waddell/