What Is a Program?

What Is a Program?

A (socially responsible) program is an intentional collection of goals, learning objectives, content, activities and repeatable processes that when implemented together are used to produce a desired outcome.

Bon Education
Bon Education

By Anna Batchelder, CEO of Bon Education

Think back to the programs that you attended as a child or young adult, or a program you are currently attending - a school program, sports program, music program, camp, professional training program or other. Which program or programs have had the most impact on who you are as a person or professional today?

I’ve attended countless programs over the last four decades of my life (Yes! This year I turn the big four zero). But, if I had to name one that really sticks out to me, I would say the creative problem-solving program that I participated in for years as a child called Odyssey of the Mind (“OM”).

My OM team competed for four years in a row together. Each year we had to compete in a long-term challenge (we always chose the “build a car” or “build a machine” challenges that took six months to complete) and several spontaneous challenges (short, creative problem-solving challenges where you give kids anywhere from 10-30 minutes to complete). At each weekly meeting, we spent 75 percent of our time working on the long-term challenge and 25 percent of our time practicing mock spontaneous challenges so that when we got to the annual competition phase of the program, we had several strategies for solving spontaneous problems on the spot.

My team spent hours together in garages building prototypes, visiting junk shops to find just the right inexpensive piece for our inventions and laughing at the bizarre ideas that we came up with during spontaneous drills and practices. This program created a tremendous amount of social capital between our families that otherwise would not necessarily have much in common. Our parents (from very different careers, countries and backgrounds) became good friends because we teammates always wanted to hang out together.

Without really knowing it, OM seeped into my identity as a child. I developed confidence in my abilities (“I am a creative problem solver. I can solve problems creatively on the spot.”) and a deep appreciation for what it means to be on a team (“We all have a role. We must show up and support each other through the wins and the losses.”). Looking back, I am grateful for the skills, attitudes and perceptions that OM imparted to me during really formative years of identity. I may not be in OM anymore, but effects are felt decades after.

So, what exactly is a program?

I get asked this question a lot (as the co-founder of a company that creates programs for clients across a wide array of industries). To me:

A (socially responsible) program is an intentional collection of goals, learning objectives, content, activities and repeatable processes that when implemented together are used to produce a desired outcome.

When done well, programs can lead to systematic, positive change, addressing the world’s most pressing challenges and opportunities (from hunger, to education, to food and water security and more). When done poorly (without a clear strategy, proper planning, continuous improvement and ongoing reporting), they can be a royal waste of funds.

Programs come in many different formats:

  • In the realm of children… We see programs most often take the format of programs of studies at school, after school activity programs or camps.
  • In the realm of professionals… We see programs most often take the format of skills training programs, programs to encourage a specific set of workplace behaviors or culture and programs to develop the leadership and talent pipeline of an organization.
  • In communities… We see programs take a diversity of formats depending on the desired outcome at hand - anything from public health programs that encourage vaccine adoption, to community development programs that enable underemployed individuals to find jobs, to programs aimed at achieving a nation’s desired cultural, social, political or economic agendas.

How does one create a program?

While I stand by my aforementioned definition of a program, programs are not merely a formulaic sum of goals + learning objectives + content + activities + processes. There is a bit more nuance to creating and implementing programs in practice.

When we design a program for a client, we consider many factors. To give you a taste of what goes through our minds when we start working with a new client, here are just a few questions that we contemplate when kicking off a new program:

  • Initiation: What is this really about? What are the stated and unstated goals? Who are the stakeholders (program sponsors, program staff, primary and secondary beneficiaries, etc.)? What are the incentives of all stakeholders? How do we align those incentives? What are the learning objectives? What content will address those learning objectives? What program format works for this group of stakeholders? How will technology play or not play a role in the solution? What is the strategy? What is the project plan? What is the timeline? What are the milestones? How are we going to make this super awesome?!
  • Development: What ideas are coming up for us? What other ideas are coming up? Where can we get inspired with more ideas? How will we filter those ideas? What will we prototype? How will we judge whether a prototype is ready to move forward to production? What is the curriculum? How will that curriculum get created? What is the comms strategy? How will we tell the story of this program?
  • Implementation: What is the implementation plan? How can we make this easy to deliver? What structures and systems need to be in place to deliver a great program? Who will deliver this program? How will we find, train and support these people through program delivery? How will we recruit participants? How will we train and delight all program participants? How will we monitor, measure and evaluate progress? How will we modify and continually make improvements along the way?
  • Wrap-up: What do stakeholders need to know in a final report? How do we show return on investment? How will we hand over this program to the client? How will we harvest the learnings from this program? What recommendations will we make for the future? What else?

As you can see from the questions above, when creating programs, we wear many simultaneous hats as consultants, coaches, designers, teachers and more.

One thing that I’ve learned from nearly two decades of working in the realm of programs is that programs are multifaceted and require many approaches to thinking and doing. One must love continuous learning to be in the business of programs! Program professionals need to understand sociology, psychology, the science of how people learn and change, culture, stakeholder management, technology, funding, measurement and evaluation and have a strong sense of what’s cool and what the moment is calling for to create programs that are both sustainable and that genuinely make a difference.

Great programs are…

Great programs take participants on a journey. They move hearts, minds and hands. Great programs acknowledge and respect the past, address today’s challenges and opportunities and empower people to create a better future. The Odyssey of the Mind program I participated in as a child did all of these things!

So, getting back to my original question: What programs have had a huge impact on who you are today? Drop us a note below and tell us your program story.