How Should I Hire a Program Manager?

There’s a common misperception that people who manage multiple projects are “Program Managers.” That’s not only inaccurate–it’s also a harmful assumption that can lead you to hire people with the wrong skill set.

To borrow an idea from Elizabeth Harrin, author of Managing Multiple Projects, a person’s project workload is likely to fit into two categories: Sushi and Spaghetti.

Sushi projects are unrelated and stand well on their own. There are few (if any) interdependencies to manage.
Spaghetti projects, on the other hand, are related to one another–sometimes in very complex ways.

It’s important to understand that managing “sushi” projects isn’t harder or easier than managing “spaghetti” projects. The skill sets required, however, are potentially very different.

Program management requires spaghetti skills. As a reminder, a program is a group of related projects managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits not available from managing them individually.

As you’re interviewing candidates for Program Management roles, you’ll need to consider whether they bring spaghetti or sushi skills to the table. Be aware that there is considerable overlap in these skills. For example, both types require strong project management, team leadership, and communication capabilities.

On the other hand, as you see below, there are differences, too–especially in focus.

Program Managers: Evaluating Sushi vs. Spaghetti Skills

Sushi Focus: Independent Value Delivery
Spaghetti Focus: Interdependent Value Delivery

Both skills require a focus on value delivery. However, “sushi project managers” deliver on multiple, largely independent value propositions. Program Managers, on the other hand, can’t afford to think of their projects as lanes without intersections. The addition of value to one project may detract value from another.

Sushi Focus: Concrete Thinking
Spaghetti Focus: Conceptual Thinking

The move to Program Management requires more abstract thinking skills. Managing a program of interdependent projects introduces volatility, complexity, and ambiguity. To navigate this, Program Managers need to be comfortable imagining and preparing for multiple scenarios all the time.

Sushi Focus: Intentional Stakeholder Engagement
Spaghetti Focus: Pervasive Stakeholder Engagement

Strong stakeholder engagement is a critical element of both jobs–but for Program Managers, it is a constant, pervasive focus. With many interrelated projects happening at once, the opportunities for misunderstandings and misalignment are exponential. A Program Manager needs to be an incredibly strong, empathic communicator who isn’t afraid to be visible and accessible to many people at once.

Sushi Focus: Assessing Risk on Two Factors (Probability and Impact)
Spaghetti Focus: Assessing Risk on Many Factors

Most trained Project Managers are accustomed to assessing risk based on probability and potential impact. As a Program Manager, however, you also have to pay attention to other parameters like connectivity (how many other risks does this one impact?), strategic impact (how will this risk impact the program’s goals?), and controllability (how many options do I have to respond to this risk if it occurs?) Since every individual project risk could impact the program, risk management becomes a full-contact sport.

Sushi Focus: Business Change Management
Spaghetti Focus: Change Fatigue Management

Nearly every project has business change implications that need to be managed. Programs, however, must strategically parcel out change so that “change fatigue” doesn’t diminish results. Projects can’t simply “go live” when they are ready–they need to be deployed thoughtfully in light of the program’s overall release strategy. Otherwise, individual projects are likely to fail on measures of user adoption.


Bottom Line: Beware the halo effect. A project manager who excels at managing multiple independent projects is not automatically a good fit to manage a program. Consider whether your candidate has demonstrated aptitude in the “spaghetti skills” listed here. If you see potential gaps in their experience, expertise, or temperament, be intentional about crafting a development path to help them be successful in the new role.

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