Basic Guidelines for Program Planning and Management (in for-profit organizations)

Sections of this topic

    Basic Guidelines for Program Planning and Management
    (in for-profit organizations)

    © Copyright Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD, Authenticity Consulting, LLC.
    Adapted from the Field
    Guide to Nonprofit Program Design, Marketing and Evaluation

    Applies to for-profits unless otherwise noted.

    Sections of This Topic Include

    — What’s a Program? (includes definitions of key terms)

    6 Cornerstones for Solid Program Planning
    8 Guidelines to Keep Program Planning on Track
    Program Direction: Goals and Objectives
    Program Process (Process, Resources and Budget)
    Program Evaluation
    Additional Resources

    Also consider
    Related Library Topics

    Introduction — What’s a Program?

    Varying Uses of the Term “Program”

    There are a wide variety of uses of the term “program”
    in organizations. In it’s most general
    use, a program is a collection of organizational resources that
    is geared to accomplish a certain major goal or set of goals.
    (For those of you who read
    Organizations (an Introduction),
    you’ll recognize that this definition of
    a program sounds like that of an organization and a system. A
    program is an organization and a system.)

    For-profits often use the term for very large business efforts
    that have limited duration and a defined set of deliverables.
    Or, a program might refer to an ongoing set of activities internal
    to the organization, for example, a Total Quality Management Program,
    Workplace Safety Program, the Space Program, etc.

    (Program planning is usually (but not always) of a broader
    scope than Project Planning.)

    Varying Uses of the Term “Program”

    There are a wide variety of uses of the term “program”
    in organizations. In it’s most general
    use, a major program is a collection of organizational resources
    that is geared to accomplish a certain major goal or set of goals.
    (For those of you who read
    (an Introduction)
    , you’ll recognize that this definition of
    a program sounds like that of an organization and a system. A
    program is an organization and a system.)

    Keeping Overall Perspective:
    Programs are Systems

    Programs, like other organizations, can seem a highly confusing,
    amorphous mass that is very hard to comprehend. It can be hard
    to keep perspective. However, like an organization, a program
    is a system with inputs, processes, outputs (tangibles) and outcomes
    (impacts on customers) — with ongoing feedback among the parts.
    This systems perspective helps keep clarity about programs and
    will help a great deal during program planning.

    Program inputs are the various resources
    needed to run the program, e.g., money, facilities, customers
    (internal or external), employees, etc. The process is how the
    program’s products are delivered, e.g., products are provided
    to internal or external customers (internal or external), customers
    (internal or external) are served, etc. The outputs are the units
    of service, e.g., number of customers (internal or external) served.
    Outcomes are the impacts on the customers (internal or external)
    who are receiving the products, e.g., increased quality of products
    for customers (internal or external), enhanced safety in the workplace
    for internal customers (internal or external), enhanced mental
    health for customers (internal or external), etc.

    6 Cornerstones for Solid Program Planning

    With these cornerstones in
    place, the organization is assured of a program plan that has
    a strong foundation and can survive multiple changes as the program

    Program Should Tie to the Organization’s Mission

    Each program should be strongly associated with the organization’s
    overall mission. That is, the organization’s executive leaders
    should work from the mission to identify several overall, major
    goals that must be reached and that, in total, reach the mission.
    If an idea for a program comes up at some time other than during
    strategic planning, executive leaders must ask themselves if the
    program is really appropriate for the organization.

    Program Planning Should Tie
    in With Strategic Planning

    Depending on the nature of the organization, strategic planning
    typically includes review of the organization’s vision, mission,
    values, overall strategic issues and strategic goals (each of
    which, in some organizations, becomes a program) and strategies
    to reach the goals (strategies to reach the goals often are the
    roadmap for how the program meets its own goals). Because the
    program planning must be tied to the nature of the organization’s
    mission, the program planning should be closely tied with the
    organization strategic planning as well. Typically, at a point
    right after the strategic planning process has identified strategic
    goals and issues, a team of planners can draft a framework for
    how goals can be met. This framework is often the roadmap for
    a new program. (For more information about strategic planning,
    see Strategic

    (Note that programs should not be
    ongoing means to fix problems in the organization — otherwise,
    they become just that: ongoing, costly means to fix problems in
    the workplace.)

    Involve the Board (relevant
    to corporations)

    A major responsibility of a board is to set strategic direction
    for the corporation. The corporation’s board should be highly
    involved in authorizing and guiding initial direction for programs.
    Therefore, boards should be involved in strategic planning of
    programs. (Admittedly, many experienced chief executives might
    argue that they actually drive the board to conduct strategic
    planning. Many experienced chief executives, consultants, and
    other practitioners believe that ultimately, it’s the working
    relationship of the board and chief executive that determines
    the success of a corporation.)

    Conduct Program Planning as a Team

    The chief executive, key planners, relevant middle managers and
    major customers (internal or external) should be involved in program
    planning. (“Relevant middle managers” are those who
    lead programs or other departments that will integrate or coordinate
    with the new program being planned.) Often, initial plans for
    a program are suggested to the chief executive and middle managers.
    Program planning is often initiated as part of the organization’s
    overall strategic planning process and so is conducted by the
    strategic planning team, which should be comprised of the board
    (in corporations), the chief executive, employee and key customers
    (internal or external), as much as possible.

    Planning Should Involve Potential
    Internal/External Customers as Much as Possible

    One can embark on a wonderful program planning process with all
    the right parts, but if key customers (internal or external) aren’t
    involved to provide perspectives from the program user’s point
    of view, the organization may build a beautiful ladder — but
    on the wrong roof. Involve customers (internal or external) in
    initial ideas about a program, discuss your perceived unmet need
    among those customers (internal or external), ask how they would
    like the need to be met. You might run a final draft of your program
    plan past a couple of key customers (internal or external). (Note
    that this involvement of customers (internal or external) is a
    critical aspect of the marketing process. For more about marketing,
    see Marketing (research,
    pricing, competitor analysis, etc.)

    Don’ Worry About Developing
    the Perfect Program Plan

    If the organization involves the right people, and if everyone
    participates wholeheartedly and reflects on their experiences,
    then the organization will develop the “perfect” plan.
    The organization remains the only real “expert” on their
    own planning. Outside consultants and facilitators can be brought
    in, but each planning decision is ultimately up to the organization
    members. The “perfect” program plan will meet the nature
    and needs of the organization.

    8 Guidelines to Keep Program Planning on Track

    Basically, planning is taking
    one’s best shot at working through a “tree” of decisions
    (decisions that must be made at some time, and the earlier the
    better) to propose (and often get /investing/funding for) developing
    a program. Your plan doesn’t have to be perfect and, like any
    plan, it isn’t a rule, rather it’s a set of guidelines that serve
    as reference for the future. You can change your plans — just
    know why and be able to explain (e.g., to your board, chief executives,
    investors) why you changed the plans. This planning effort is
    almost always more than personnel want to undertake, but is almost
    always less than they fear. Anyway, this planning effort is required
    if the organization plans to pursue investment/funding. The following
    guidelines will help ensure the program planning process points
    in the right direction and will help ensure the resulting program
    is run effectively and efficiently. (For more information about
    planning, see
    Planning Process

    Focus on Results/Outcomes

    Results/outcomes are benefits to customers (internal or external)
    from the program. Outcomes are usually in terms of solutions,
    enhanced learning (knowledge, perceptions/attitudes or skills)
    or conditions, e.g., increased productivity. Outcomes are often
    confused with program outputs or units of services, e.g., the
    number of customers (internal or external) served by the program.

    Examine Your Intended Results/Outcomes
    – Conduct Some Basic Marketing

    It’s critical to verify that these planned results/outcomes are
    indeed useful to your customers (internal or external). Many people
    mistakenly believe that marketing is selling a product or idea
    — selling is only part of marketing. Sound marketing includes
    researching a market to identify its needs or to assess if an
    idea you already have is really needed by that market. (A market
    is a group of people or organizations that may buy or need your
    program’s results/outcomes). Basically, you’re verifying there’s
    a group of customers (internal or external) who are interested
    in, or even better, really need your planned product. Marketing
    also includes working with customers (internal or external) to
    identify how they prefer to have the product delivered. Marketing
    gives a strong impression of how much they’re willing to accept
    or pay for this product/service — or what to set the price at
    for the product/service.

    Marketing also involves promoting
    and advertising the product/service to internal or external customers.
    For more information about marketing, see
    (research, pricing, competitor analysis, etc.)

    Coordinate the New Program with
    Other Current Programs

    So often, in the excitement of the birth of a new program, we
    ignore precious resources that already exist. The new program
    is but part of an overall organization, an overall system. Pay
    particular attention to how the new program will coordinate with
    other programs in the organization. What inputs are needed from
    other managers and other programs? What ongoing feedback is needed
    among members of the new program and other programs? How can the
    new program benefit other programs?

    Explore if Results Can Be Delivered
    More Effectively via Collaboration

    Successful collaboration brings two or more organizations together
    to work in synergy, in an effort that is “more than the sum
    of its parts.” That is, if both organizations worked apart,
    both would serve customers (internal or external) and produce
    some solutions/outcomes — but not as many and as well as if both
    organizations worked together. In working together, there’s an
    economy of scale, or sharing of resources, that lowers costs and
    focuses more resources on serving customers.

    Plan Key Indicators of Program Success

    These planned indicators will help you establish whether the program
    is successful or not, and will help you avoid doing a program
    for the sake of a program. Consider planning indicators associated
    with intended results/outcomes. Programs are usually defined with
    very explicit deliverables.

    If you struggle with identifying key
    indicators of success, then imagine the program operating in a
    highly successful manner at some time in the future. Then describe
    what features of the program indicate that the program is successful.

    Include Short-Range Focus in
    a Long-Range Plan

    Getting the program off on the right foot includes not falling
    over your own feet because you were looking far off into the distance.
    Many strategic plans are usually three years in scope, with particular
    planning focus on the first year of the three years. Follow this
    format for the program planning as well. Don’t worry about exhaustive
    detail even in the first year of the plan. Plans are guidelines,
    not rules. Plans can be changed — but understand why you changed

    Learn by “Testing the Waters”

    Consider planning a short-term “pilot” program. The
    pilot will be a sort of mini-program that will reflect many of
    the aspects of a full-blown program. However, planning and operations
    regarding the pilot will include numerous reviews and assessments
    from which to learn from experiences around the pilot program.
    This learning will go into planning for the full-blown program.
    Note that investors are often highly cooperative in supporting
    pilots as an approach to research or verify the organization’s
    proposed plans.

    Plan Program Reviews

    Program reviews are regular examinations of the program’s activities
    to assess how well the program is doing. A program review team
    should probably include the chief executive, the head of the new
    program and one or two other program directors, particularly those
    from programs that closely coordinate with the new program. Examine
    if the program seems to be following the original plan. If it’s
    not, the deviation is not as important as understanding why and
    assessing if the deviation was necessary. Take a look at the key
    indicators as noted in the plan. What is the progress toward the
    key indicators? What major problems exist and what is needed to
    address them? How are the actual costs comparing to the planned
    costs? Are any actions needed to avoid financial problems? What
    would you do differently about the program if you could do anything?
    What limitations are holding you back from what you would ideally
    do if you could? What are you learning from the program implementation
    so far?

    Direction: Goals and Objectives

    Program Goals

    Program goal(s) should come from and be closely associated with
    the organization’s overall strategic goals. Think about what,
    e.g., three to five major accomplishments must be reached to attain
    each overall goal. Goals are an overall status to be reached through
    continued efforts in the program. Goals should be described such
    that the organization can assess whether it’s reached the goal
    or not. The goal should establish clear direction for the organization
    and portray that direction to others. The program’s goal may be
    to fix a problem or meet a need among customers (internal or external)
    — not to fix a problem in your organization.

    For example, if you are just starting
    out to develop a new program, typical overall goals might include:
    develop employees, pilot services to one group of customers (internal
    or external), evaluate the program process and finalize program
    process based on evaluation results.

    Program Objectives

    Think about each goal and what sub-goals, or objectives, you need
    to accomplish to reach that goal. (Depending on your nature, it
    may work to instead think of how the program process will be carried
    out and then identify specific milestones, or objectives, in carrying
    out the process. This approach is somewhat like the reverse of
    thinking about goals and associating objectives.)Objectives
    should be worded such that one can rather easily discern if it’s
    been reached or not. They should specify who is going to do what
    to whom and when and how much.

    For example, referring to the above
    goals, associated objectives might be: recruit employees, train
    them, obtain facilities and equipment, install the equipment,
    develop advertising materials, distribute the materials, recruit
    customers (internal or external) for the pilot, develop procedures
    for delivery of products/services, deliver products/services over
    a fixed period of time, conduct evaluation of the program’s process
    and results/outcomes, generate recommendations from the evaluation,
    update policies and procedures in the program’s process, and update
    the overall program plan.

    Process, Resources and Budget

    Program Process

    By now, establishing the program’s process should be quite straightforward
    and depend mostly on the nature of the product/service provided
    by the program. Program planners’ thoughts about the processes
    needed to reach each of the program objectives (above) often culminate
    in the overall program process as well. After documenting the
    planned general process for the program, take time to reflect
    on whether that process will really accomplish the results/outcomes
    you set out to accomplish for your customers (internal or external).

    Program Resources and Budget

    Examine the program’s process to the extent that you can associate
    what resources are needed to carry out that process. Consider:
    personnel costs (salaries and wages, fringe benefits, consultants),
    training, space, equipment purchase or rental, travel, copier,
    telephone, general office supplies, etc.

    Develop a program budget by estimating the cost for each resource
    identified above. Note that this budgeting activity is almost
    always required in a proposal if the organization wants to find
    an investor for the new program.


    Programs should be evaluated on
    at least a yearly basis to discern if the programs are reaching
    their goals, achieving their outcomes and if they are doing so
    in an efficient manner. Small businesses seldom have the resources
    to conduct evaluations of a program’s goals, outcomes and process.
    However, they can think about where they have the most concerns
    about a program and then gear an evaluation to look at that aspect
    of the program.

    Program evaluation holds numerous
    advantages. It can verify or increase the results/outcomes on
    customers (internal or external). It can fine tune delivery of
    program services, which, in turn, saves costs and time. Evaluations
    often provide wonderful testimonials that can be used for public
    relations and credibility of the program. In fact, evaluations
    are often used by program planners to ensure that the program
    is indeed carrying out the original process planned for the program
    in the first place. Often, the program plan ends up changing dramatically
    over time as program employees are overcome by events. Program
    processes can naturally deviate from the original plan because
    program plans were flawed in the first place, the program’s environment
    changed a great deal or program employees simply found a much
    better way to deliver products/services to customers (internal
    or external). For more information about program evaluations,
    their planning and how to carry them out, see Program
    , including the Program
    Evaluation Planning Checklist

    Additional Resources

    Concept Mapping as a Program Planning Tool
    Program Planning for Organizations

    For the Category of Program Management:

    To round out your knowledge of this Library topic, you may want to review some related topics, available from the link below. Each of the related topics includes free, online resources.

    Also, scan the Recommended Books listed below. They have been selected for their relevance and highly practical nature.

    Related Library Topics

    Recommended Books