Damian Fessey


Masters in Major Programme Management




Management Consulting



By Damian Fessey

To the Oxford MSc MPM Class of 2020…

My thanks to Brandon de Leon who provided the inspiration for this post via the simple question as to tips and tricks to maximise the Oxford Major Programme Management experience. In true Oxford style (courtesy of having been on Cohort 1 in 2009), I’ve set my answer out in 1,310 neatly presented words, but (also an Oxford tenet) I’ve then gone on to pose – and answer – the question behind the question.

1)     Enjoy your classmates.

I remember on Day One sitting in the lecture theatre debating ‘something’ – I think it might have been the causes of programme failure – and thinking that I was never going to be on the same wavelength as my classmates. There was such diversity of opinion in the room, and delivered with such passion, that I wondered whether I was ever going to find any common ground, much less learn anything from the group.

How wrong I was. Of all of the assets I took with me from my graduation, my co-alumni remain the most precious. I can still describe the individual lesson I learned from every single one of them: Paul Gilford for his ability to relate the conceptual to the practical; Tom Denwood for his masterclass ability to present and think on his feet; Tim Flanigan for his ability to deliver balanced but clear analysis; Bob Jeffs for his ability to characterise a Doomsday piece of military hardware as ‘a Tonka-toy with a big gun’; Steve Powell for his quiet reflections on morality in programme delivery; and Earle Johnson for his ability to do a really convincing impression of Barack Obama and find angles and arguments that no-one else had thought of – all at the same time.

My experience was that everyone on the course has something special to offer. So yes, study your subject, but take pleasure in studying your classmates too. There’s an old adage that respect has to be earned, but for me, it was actually that respect has to be discovered. So discover it.

2)     Let yourself think academically (again).

Another Day One experience occurred in the midst of a morning discussion about the difference between projects and programmes. After thirty minutes of passionate debate, the module leader, Eamonn Molloy, decided to call time and move on to the next discussion topic. He was met with howls of ‘No – wait: We need to bottom this out.’

What had actually happened was that a bunch of hot-seat programme practitioners had somehow wondered into an academic environment still wearing all of their management behaviours, ingrained with the instinctive need to decide, to agree actions and all of the other reflexes that are vital to the day job. We’d all overlooked the notion that there was no one right answer, or that education was about informed reflection leading to your own conclusion in your own time. Our professional experience had caused us to lose sight of the learning objective within moments of arriving at school.

So, put down your management behaviours at the front door and let yourself be truly academic again. It’s a luxury you may never have again, so make the most of it. You have a team of professional educators who genuinely do rank amongst the world’s finest. They know how to challenge their students, and how to provoke real learning. Place yourself in their hands and trust to them.

3)     …But leverage your professional experience.

Nope, I’m not contradicting myself. In 2009, we were the first cohort; the guinea pigs. Our lecturers were highly experienced educators, sure, but delivering a course for the first time, and not programme delivery professionals. One of the absolute best aspects of the course was seeing Eamonn Molloy, Paul Chapman, Janet Smart et al setting out pieces of research and asking about its relevance to programme delivery. What an eye-opener! There were so many things that demonstrated in concrete terms what many of us in the room already intuitively felt about programme delivery, but could never prove. And here it all was, set out in clear, logical, evidenced terms. Gold!

Over the three years, everyone found their own bits of gold. That’s what happens when classmates have such diversity of experience. But the field of programme management is so rich and so varied, there’s one thing for sure: There’s still gold in them there hills. So, draw on your professional experience and go discover it.

4)     Be a heretic.

There’s an old saying in the trainee pilot community: If you come out of the meteorology course thinking that you ‘understand the weather’, you’ve missed the point of the course. Similarly, if you are expecting the ‘MSc MPM’ (just trips off the tongue, doesn’t it?) to be a ‘how to do programme management course’ on steroids, you’re in for a rude surprise.

It would be more accurate to term it as ‘all the things that you thought you knew about programme management – that are wrong.’ It’s almost a course in programme heresy. And that is essential in making you a better programme professional: You first need to understand all the flaws in ingrained conventional wisdom, so that you can comfortably discard them. Then, and only then, are you in a position to go out and find new, better, different ways to deliver, in the knowledge that a better approach will lead to a better outcome.

5)     Find a new way.

…which leads nicely into the penultimate tip: The MSc MPM is a big commitment; an investment in time, money and focus that will keep you from your loved ones, your friends and even your passions for two and a half years. You therefore need to be clear about what you want to get out of it. When I applied, my motivation (being very honest here) was certainly at least partly about the prestige of the qualification, the network, and what you might term ‘the trappings’ of a new course at a global top ten university.

What I didn’t do at the time was reflect on what I really wanted out of the course for myself. But as I sat in the lecture theatre, module after module, I became more and more convinced that there was a better way to do programme management, and that the course was my opportunity to find, in very personal terms, that better way.

In June 2019, seven years after graduating, I finally left the hot-seat: I had delivered my last programme, and set off to a new career in advisory (in partnership with Nick, one of my course-mates). My leaving drinks were a very boozy mid-summer affair at a country pub. But in the midst of all of the reminiscing and the anecdotes and the teasing, I received one very consistent compliment from my team: “Thanks. I learned a lot.” That feedback single-handedly validated my original decision to go to Oxford. Without even realising it, I had transformed into a programme professional whose key leadership attribute was the ability to develop the potential of his team by feeding them new concepts, new ideas, new approaches. I never realised it at the time, but with the benefit of the rear view mirror, Oxford wasn’t just about what I learned (and un-learned) about programme management, but also what I learned about myself, and how it shaped me as a programme management leader.

Hopefully I’ve given you a flavour of what might be ahead and I only hope the experience proves as enriching for you as it did for me. There is so much to be gained from it. But I promised you the question-behind-the-question, so to mis-quote John F Kennedy, it isn’t just about what the MSc MPM can do for it, but what you can do for it. In the context of a 800-year-old university, the course is an absolute infant. And like an infant it needs nurturing and developing. So go parent – and don’t forget to enjoy it!

This blog post was originally published by Damian on LinkedIn and can be accessed here. Our thanks go to him for allowing us to share it.

For more information about the MSc in Major Programme Management visit the programme homepage.

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