Program Management Skills for Work and Life



“You can only elevate individual performance by elevating that of the entire system.” – W. Edwards Deming

PM is short for Program Manager. At Microsoft, the Program Manager role is a fairly common role, and it can mean a lot of things, so I’ll explain a bit about what a Program Manager does down below before we dive in.

To bottom line it, you can think of a Program Manager as a technical leader that orchestrates a product or service through the planning, the design, the execution, and the release.

As you can imagine, this requires a variety of skills  from communication and interpersonal skills to strategic thinking and execution.

These are valuable skills for more than just executing projects and making things happen.

These are skills that can help you in everyday life.

In this post, I’ll share some of the skills and how I apply them for skilled living.

What is a Program Manager

Before we begin, I’ll set some context by giving you a rough idea what a program manager is.

I’ll generalize a bit, but a program manager includes basic project management responsibilities, as well as “program” responsibilities.

A program is really a set of related projects towards a bigger outcome.

Program Manager at Microsoft

At Microsoft, a Program Manager tends to be a technical leader that creates a value prop based on customer needs, competitive landscape, technical trends, and business priorities.

The Program Manager uses the value prop as a frame for key decisions about features, designs, timelines, and priorities.

The Program Manager brings the team together and drives the product or service through the planning, design, and execution.

In the early stages of the project, the Program Manager gathers information, makes sense of the space, and helps get the team up to speed.

Influencing, Orchestrating, and Making Things Happen

Throughout the project, the Program Manager influences to get things done, champions the customers needs, and balances perspectives, including the user, business, and technical views.

One of the most important qualities of a PM is strong communication skills, to communicate up and down the chain effectively, as well as across cross-functional teams to make things happen.

As an example, as a PM on the patterns & practices team at Microsoft, what I do is, take on a significant problem, pitch a project, along with a business case, to stakeholders, assemble a team, and drive the project from cradle to grave, while coordinating across test, UE, and dev, and managing schedule, budget, and scope.

It’s a lot of orchestration and it’s both an art and science.

Program Manager Skills for Life

Here is a quick map of some of the key Program Manager skills you can apply to life:

1. Vision.

A vision is simply a view of the future.   As a Program, Manager, I need to be able to create and share a vision effectively.

The vision has to be a compelling future that the team believes in.  I also need to sell the vision to the stakeholders.

In life, you can imagine the power of creating a compelling vision.  The more effectively you can share your vision, the more you can get people on board to help you with that vision.

You can also improve your own clarity.

A simple test is, can you draw your vision?  If you can’t draw it, then good luck getting other people on board.  You might find when you draw your vision, it’s no longer that compelling.

You can test your vision early to see what sticks.

When you have clarity on your vision and it’s compelling, you’ll find ways to make it happen.

It’s a catalyst for creativity.

2. Make it a project.

As simple as it sounds, making something a project really changes things.  It implies that there is a start and a finish.

It means that by putting a box around it, you can think more deeply about the investment.

This includes even thinking about whether it’s even worth it.

When you think of the work as a project, it means you can think in terms of budget, time, and scope.

This helps you make trade-offs.

In life, I turn things I work on into projects so that I have a nice wrapper around them.  It helps make sure I don’t juggle too many projects at once. I can shelve projects and put them on the backburner.

The real beauty though is when a project is done.  It’s a clean finish.

3. Teamwork.

Teams are how things get done.  The beauty of a well-designed team is you’re the sum of the strengths.

As a Program Manager, one of the most important things I do is find the right people for the job.

Finding the right people is critical both for the success of the work, and for the success of the team.

When you go on an epic adventure, you want the right collection of skills to make it back alive.

In life, building teams and effective teamwork is crucial for surviving the changing landscape.

4. Influence without authority.

As a PM, I need to get a lot of things done through other people, that don’t report to me and I have no authority over.

That means a lot of negotiation.

It means understanding what people value and connecting with them at their values.

It means winning their hearts and minds.  People have a lot of choices and they can vote with their feet.

In life, this is an extremely valuable lesson.

We’re in a world where people have a lot more choices and it’s really about getting people on board and building a coalition of the willing.

5. Work Breakdown Structure.

A Work Breakdown Structure, or WBS, is effectively a map of the work.  Imagine going to Antarctica and trying to make it back alive, without a map.

Trust me, you want the map.

Basically, you make a list of the jobs to be done.

You keep listing the jobs, as much as you know, to help reduce ambiguity and get clarity on the actual work.

You involve the people that will do the work.  You review it with people that have paved the path before you.

The more clarity you get on the work, the more effective you will be at getting the right people on board, knowing your risks, and having ballparks for time.

I’m a fan of using Mind Maps to build Work Breakdown Structures, and I make it a team exercise.

I also like to do outcome-driven Work Breakdown Structures, which simply means identify the result and break it down from there.

In life, I use Work Breakdown Structures for any project, whether it’s fixing the house or writing a book.

It helps me map out the work and get my head around the problem.

Whether I think on paper or use a whiteboard, the most important outcome is an outline of the work.

6. Budget.

If the project value doesn’t match the cost, you’ve got a problem.  When the project runs out of money, it stops.

As a Program Manager, managing budget really taught me to value the cost of making things happen.

It really taught me to pay attention to flowing value and knowing when to cut my losses.

Monthly burn rates are my friend.

I try to keep it really simple and I always know the ballpark of how much each month costs, so that I can do quick math, projections, and trade-offs.

In life, one of the things I keep in mind is my monthly burn.   It’s sobering to know how much flows out.  Just being mindful here can make a big difference.

Budget can be limiting or enabling, so it’s definitely something to master as a basic skill.

7. Scope.

A simple way to think about scope is it’s a box.  It’s a box that sets the boundaries for the work for the project, meaning what’s in and what’s out.

When something is out of scope, it’s not included.

In life, scoping is a key skill I use to avoid taking on too much, as well as identifying what a baseline result should look like.

8. Schedule.

If you schedule things, they happen.  If you don’t, they won’t.

As a Program Manager, one of the most important things I learned is the value of a timeline and making time for things.

Early on, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.  What happened was I ended up reacting to a lot of things I didn’t anticipate or make time for.

I also had a hard time imaging the impact of things in the future.

It always seemed so far away.

Over time, I learned to better anticipate downstream events, and I very directly see the impact of the choices I make and how I allocate time for things.

I’ve also learned to treat time as a first-class citizen.

I’ve found it’s way better to setup a rhythm for results and bite off manageable chunks of scope, then to be scope-driven.

In life, your schedule is your friend, as well.  For example, if you’re not getting enough free-time, chances are you aren’t allocating enough free time.

If you’re spending too much time at work, chances are you aren’t setting limits in your schedule.

If you keep missing holidays and other events, chances are you haven’t made a simple timeline to help you anticipate what’s going on your life.

9. Milestones.

Milestones are simply key events in your timeline.  As a PM, I use milestones to help chunk down progress.

In life, I use milestones to help me make progress on projects or goals.

They help take something spread out over time and bite off something smaller for the immediate horizon.

10. Versioning.

It’s a lot easier to make something good enough for now, if you know there is a next train to catch.

As a Program, Manager, I need to make trade-offs between what to ship now versus what to ship in the next version.

Basically, I need to find a way to flow value.  Versioning provides a way to make something available as good enough for now, while improving with each version.

In life, versioning is a way to create a clean slate in your life, as well as version your work over time.

You can think of this even on the personal level, as you improve yourself from version 1.0, to version 2.0 and beyond.

11. Prioritization.

You can’t do it all and when everything is equally important, nothing is important.

As a Program Manager, I have to be able to make trade-offs and choose some things over others, against the objectives and goals for the project.

In life, there are constant trade-offs and more things than time in the day.

This is where priorities help me focus on the vital few each day, to improve my results.

12. Feedback.

One of the most important things I do is test ideas against reality.  Timely and relevant feedback helps drive real-time course-corrections.

In life, you can use feedback from various experts to help you make better choices from your healthcare to your finances or just about anything.

Feedback can help you continuously improve as you make your journey.

The simplest approach I use is I ask for 3 things going well and 3 things to improve.

13. Scorecard.

A scorecard is simply a set of metrics and measures against objectives.

As a Program Manager, I need to make sure the scorecard helps evaluate the project results and impact.

In life, I use a simple scorecard as a periodic checkpoint on whether I’m on track.

I find that what I measure is what I get, so I’m careful about what I choose to focus on.

14. Post Mortems.

Post mortems (or retrospectives) are a chance to reflect on your results.

It’s taking a look back on how things went, including the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The key is to carry the lesson forward.

In life, I use post mortems to find the lessons and improve.

15. Life Cycles.

A life cycle is the progression or cycle of something from start to finish.

As a Program Manager, I need to know the life cycle of both the project and the product so that I can make sure the right things happen at the right time.

In life, by knowing the cycles of things, I can anticipate the ups and downs, or growth and decline.

It’s a simple way to improve my anticipation skills.

16. Systems.

As a PM, I think of the work in the context of a system.  There are inputs, outputs, and workflows.

By mapping this out, I get a sense of the key levers in the system, and who does what.

If I know the levers in the system, I can improve my results.

The key here is knowing the system.

In life, I dramatically improve my results by knowing how the system works, whether it’s dealing with customer service or dealing with healthcare or just about any system.

17. Ecosystems.

This is about knowing the bigger context for the project.  This is about knowing the relationships of one system with another and who the key players are.

By mapping out the ecosystem, I get a simple view of interdependencies, potential collaboration, and potential threats.

In life, when you know the ecosystems, you can find better leverage points as well as design for more sustainable results.

18. Execution.

Nothing teaches execution like managing projects.  The heart of execution is managing time, energy, and action.

Breaking work down into manageable action items is a key skill.

The key here is really about establishing a rhythm and getting the team in the habit of shipping.

It’s about driving things to closure, then biting off more, rather than spinning up a bunch of open work that spirals out of control.

In life, I’ve learned to reduce my open work.

I bite off a manageable chunk of work and close it, before biting off the next chunk.

It’s an iterative and incremental approach.

19. Balancing perspectives.

As a PM, I need to balance the perspectives across the team, across the stakeholders, and across the various customers.

You can imagine how many people have very different ways of seeing the world.

I like to think of it as a big pie and each person has a slice of the pie.

One of my jobs is to show this pie and how the various pieces fit together.

One  of the constant challenges here is helping people see more than just their perspective, so they can understand the decisions and trade-offs.

In life, the ability to see and share multiple perspectives helps me understand where different people are coming from, what they care about, and how to make the most of situations.

I’m a fan of lenses and the right lenses really can be game changers.

20. Status.

It’s easy to get lost in the weeds.  Status is simply a check on where things are at, which also helps you know how things are going.

Reporting status is a good forcing function to check the health of the project and look at the key indicators.

This is where you’re really tested on whether value is flowing in a visible way that stakeholders buy into.

In life, I use status checks to know the state of my various projects and whether things are on track.

21. Risks.

A risk is something bad that can potentially happen.  An issue is when something bad has happened.

Managing a project means managing risk.  It’s about having fallback plans as well as mitigations for potential risks.

In life, I practice risk management, by figuring out potential risks and then figuring out potential mitigations.

Insurance is a simple example of risk management.

22. Impact.

As a PM,  I’ve gradually learned to increase the scope of my impact.  The biggest lesson I learned here is to be the platform.

When you’re the platform, people build on you.

Another key lesson here though is that improving your influence amplifies your impact.  In life, you can improve your impact by improving your influence.  The same effort can go a much further way.

And That’s a Wrap…

Well, there you have it.  I could add more and elaborate, but this 20 minute post, turned into a 40 minute post, so this is where I’m going to exercise my versioning skills and call this good enough for now.

Hopefully, this gives you some food for thought and you can start to see how the PM discipline is incredibly interesting in terms of life skills and can really improve your effectiveness in everyday things.

If you have any Program Management stories or lessons to share, I’d love to hear them.

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  1. Awesome stuff!
    Loved “be the platform” a lot.
    Resonates a lot with what consultants do in the field, especially “influence w/o authority”.

  2. I was a product manager for many years but I like the way program manager sounds within the context of what actually gets done. Does Microsoft differentiate titles based on whether a program is internal vs something that will move to market or be visible to consumers?

  3. […] Creativity is messy when it comes to collaborative projects. There are committees, layers of approval, regulations, stakeholders. Run well with inspiration collaboration can take us beyond ourselves, creating something no single individual could have come up with alone. Run poorly and, well, you’ve probably already run into that so no need to go into it here. Leading even the simplest of ideas through an organization can be a challenge for even the most talented program manager. […]

  4. You know, JD, that post should be distributed to all PMs regardless of the profession. The reason I say that is because I have dealt with so many PM’s in my professional life and nothing is worse than dealing with someone who does not enjoy what they are doing. I think your phrase about taking those skills and applying them to life is an excellent point.

    All the people that I admire some how blend their professional and private lives in such a way that you really cannot tell the difference. Meaning they are the same regardless of where they are. I really respect that trait because they are truly so happy and never stressed.

  5. Hey JD,
    Now I know what my last job description was PM Parenting – Mother! This was a great post and I could see that we have similar approaches to our work and ethics.

    As the State is taking away my Counseling License with new definitions and not Grandfathering most of us oldsters into the system, I now have a new title to latch onto! and 30 years experience!

    These were my three favorite statements you made in your list, which by the way I am copying to put up on my wall for reference…particularly when the kids get noisy about my life and outcomes.

    “The real beauty though is when a project is done. It’s a clean finish.” Not so much with kids or the housecleaning, but a specific project within can be clean finished.

    “In life, building teams and effective teamwork is crucial for surviving the changing landscape.” I kept telling my husband it was team building and he needed to change the diapers and watch some of the soccer and tennis matches too…

    “In life, by knowing the cycles of things, I can anticipate the ups and downs, or growth and decline. it’s a simple way to improve my anticipation skills.” When the kids are little they make changes about every two weeks…old about every two years…leave home – they are on their own.

    “In life, I practice risk management, by figuring out potential risks and then figuring out potential mitigation s.” I am a huge risk taker, but I can still change my mind in record time and I do not loan money to my children.

  6. “It’s sobering to know how much flows out.” Indeed. I think many people find it more comfortable to avoid the entire issue, but as you say, a budget doesn’t have to be limiting – it can be enabling.

  7. A lot of good stuff in here. Having been a PM at Microsoft, I can certainly appreciate what you’ve listed here. I’ll have to go back and continually read this to absorb it.

    Only one thing popped out at me in relationship to feedback. “One of the most important things I do is test ideas against reality”. I would probably replace reality with perception.

    People’s perceptions are often their realities, but I make a distinction myself since I know they are different and to remind myself of what to concentrate on.

    Knowing this also helps you as a PM as you’ve mentioned in other points. Shift people’s perceptions and you shift the reality and the feedback you get without making any changes in the actual events that have occurred.

    Now time to get ready for my post-mortem on my current project. 🙂

  8. I love it, this is so true. A great PM orchestrates.
    All too often I see project’s budget got out of control or vision got lost in the process.
    Great tools to use and think about for any PM.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Giovanna Garcia
    Imperfect Action is better than No Action

  9. @ Alik

    Thank you. I think a lot of the skills resonate for any job where you need to orchestrate, whether it’s consultant or family guy. I think consultants and PMs share a lot of common ground, especially influence without authority.

    @ Fred

    We have product managers too, which tend to be more on the marketing side of the product. Internal vs. external doesn’t change the title, and some people work on both internal and external projects. For example, while I mostly work on external, I sometimes work on internal projects too. If you’re curiuos, my last book is the App Arch Guide 2.0 at

    @ Nadia

    Thank you. I think the line between work and life has blurred more and more in today’s ever-connected world. It’s about living your values and blending them in your career. What I like about the job I do is it gives me some wicked skills for life.

    @ Patricia

    Thank you. I like the way you called out your favorites and added your personal twist.

    @ Vered

    It really is like to sides of the same coin, and it just depends on which you focus on. Perspective and insight change everything.

    @ Rob

    Thank you. Great point on perception. In fact, I think in a future post, I should actually talk more about our “perception engineering.” I bet it would resonate for a lot of people and it would definitely resonate, and I’m sure folks would have plenty of stories to share.

    I used to think that if you do great work it just sells itself. That’s not true. The “build it and they will come” is a great movie line, but falls short in practice. Shifting or even creating perception can make or break success. Network perception is increasingly important.

    Good luck with your post mortem.

    @ Giovanna

    Thank you. I know what you mean. Budget and vision are so core. It’s easy to lose track along the way, but a great PM can remind folks of the compelling future as well as stay on top of the burn rates and make the calls that help keep the project on track.

  10. “People can vote with their feet,” boy can they — just walk away, that’s a choice in some situations.

    Pretty cool post, to write all by yourself and in only 40 minutes. But of course you have a lot of experience behind you to draw on and obviusy know what you’re talking about.

  11. I’ve been a follower of sources of insight for a while now and love it more every day.

    But this post just takes the cake in my opinion. One that I’ll print and pin it to my office wall. Thanks JD.

  12. @Jannie
    You can whip these posts out in your field in minutes too – you Funster – you have a lot of experience behind you to draw on and obviously know what you’re talking about!..Just imagine the power behind a JD and Jannie expertise team- up post….drive us all to the limit of our imaginations and creativity, Laughing all the way. Power tools for life.

  13. @ Jannie

    Thank you. Sadly it should have been 20 and more impactful, but some dental stuff knocked me off kilter. I’m hoping I’m back on my horse next week.

    @ Vimal

    Thank you. I tried to really highlight some of the most important skills. They really do make a difference in skilled living. In fact, I think they give you an unfair advantage and we all know life’s not fair, so any tools I can share to help you level the playing field, the better!

    @ Patricia

    I like that. Power tools and dynamic duo.

  14. Interesting how a 20 minute post bloated into a 40 minute one. Sound familiar with regards to Microsoft. LOL

    That said, I like the breakdownof PM duties. Gives clear definition and direction. Wait that’s your job. I work with people (lifeskills counsellor) and I lay out the ‘plan’ start to finish. They know where we are heading and how it CAN work. My life is the basis to inspire success in others.

    The only thing I would say is if it’s to be a 20 minute post and this is 40 minutes you have not delivered within the program parameters. Refine it and deliver what the customer requested on time.

    “Budgeting can be limiting or enabling.” I like to think of ALL budgeting as enabling. By budgeting today, we enable future plans…similar to not putting all your eggs in one basket. When working on lifeskills not only do I cover budgeting money but also time. After all Time is Money is more true now than ever.

    Great post, thank you.

  15. @ Christine

    Budgeting is definitely enabling when it’s right-sized. I’ve found one of the best guidelines and balance points to be “quality over scope.”

  16. Hey J.D.,

    What tools do you use to document the various skills for a project? Do you have any templates you can share with us please?

  17. @ Jordan — I know it sounds simple, but lists are your friend. I’m a fan of keeping very simple lists. I’ve used spreadsheets, documents, Microsoft Project, etc., and at the end of the day, what helped me the most was simple lists — because I could “glance and go” and because it’s easy to update. Also, it forces me to put just the essentials, without over-engineering.

  18. i’m mohamed koroma program manager for ONE GIRL Sierra Leone an organization working with girls and women to help them create change in their respective communities around the a PM i am working on the educational aspects and i want to know more about program management work.

  19. Thank you for the post. I have recently started as program manager after a few yeara of project management.
    What is particularly difficult for me is to keep myself away from falling back to project management – especiallY considering to be project manager of one stream at interim.

    Any further differentiation and comparision of program vs project management would be appreciated. Best

  20. @ DeryA — Great question on the distinction between program and project management.

    Wikipedia has a pretty good description:

    “On one view, projects deliver outputs, discrete parcels or ‘chunks’ of change; programs create outcomes.

    On this view, a project might deliver a new factory, hospital or IT system. By combining these projects with other deliverables and changes, their programs might deliver increased income from a new product, shorter waiting lists at the hospital or reduced operating costs due to improved technology.

    The other view is that a program is nothing more than either a large project or a set (or portfolio) of projects.”

  21. @ Jack — I think the most important thing is for the project manager to have experience in the domain, so they understand the work.

    Out of knowing the work, flows better estimates, better understanding of risk, better understanding of dependencies, better clarity of roles, etc.

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