Program Management vs Project Management Explained
So you’ve heard the terms “program management” and “project management” bandied about, and you’re wondering if these terms are more-or-less synonymous. The short answer is no, they’re not.
So program management vs project management, what is the difference? In this article we’ll do a deep point-by-point comparison of the two, covering everything from scope and goals to tools and methods. By the end, you’ll be an expert on which is which.
What is the difference between program and project management?
The main difference between project and program management is that project management deals with specific projects with defined budgets, timeframes, scopes and stakeholders. At the program level, a program manager oversees a group of related projects, or a portfolio of projects along with all other company initiatives.
So, what is a program in project management?
Paraphrasing a bit from the PMI, or the Project Management Institute, a program is a company’s set of strategic goals as they determine the management of a number of related projects and initiatives.
A program is the combination of all ongoing projects, past projects that still require analysis, future projects that are yet to be initiated, and everything else a company or organization might want their employees to work on, like training programs, team building, or a system-wide repurposing and pivoting to new endeavors.
Program management vs project management comparison chart
Individual projects, individual teams
Multiple or all projects, several teams
More detailed, narrow scope, plans projects
Big picture, broad scope, plans strategy
Short-term, clear deadlines
Specific project budgets and expenses
Balance sheet for all operations and projects
Triple constraints: scope, time, money
Holistically interconnected constraints
Risk planning and QC
Audits and QA
Answers to their needs and requests
Communicates with them about need, requests and possibilities
Tools and methods
Specific methodologies and apps per project
Overall work philosophy
Project success against metrics and milestones
Coaching, head of their team
Mentorship, head of other managers
‘HOW’ the team will achieve its aims
‘WHAT’ the team or company is aiming for
A deeper look at project management vs program management
Here we will dig deeper into the project vs program comparisons made in the above table. We’ll go over each of the comparison points above individually, from both the perspective of project management and program management, and note the key differences between the two.
It’s always a good idea to begin with the quotidian. On the day-to-day level of work, the project manager oversees their project team’s task and activity workflows as they apply to the current project, and will often have their eyes glued to various dashboards and Kanbans.
The project managers will hold regular daily meetings with the team and one-on-ones with each team member perhaps on a weekly basis.
The day-to-day responsibilities that are part of the program management process are more about managing all ongoing projects in a larger portfolio.
Included in this wider project portfolio management might be retrospectives on past related projects and thinking about future projects. The overall program manager’s role also includes other company initiatives that must be managed alongside current projects.
The project scope refers to the project plan as it relates to the end product or other deliverables as well as the functionalities the results of the project promise to serve. The project management role here is to work on a narrow scope for a single project with very clearly detailed deliverables and functions.
One of the key differences for program management is that the scope is very broad and includes more than strategic planning for achieving specific deliverables. It also includes having a business strategy that is big picture and understands the relationship between the scopes of related products and projects with other organizational initiatives.
In project management, the constraint of time or scheduling is all about having very clear timeframes and deadlines which are focused on the specific project goals, milestones and deliverables. Timeframes in project management are therefore short.
In program management, there are no clear deadlines or end-dates, as the strategic goals of a program manager are more about continuously guiding workflows and projects.
Project managers must concern themselves with the budgets and expense tracking of their project team’s activities on individual or related projects. In performing the role of resource management, project managers must organize allocation according to cost constraints.
Program managers are less concerned with staying on budget for certain projects, and more concerned with maintaining balanced books between assets and liabilities as they apply across an entire portfolio of projects and operations.
The project manager must always be mindful of the triple constraints of project management that are time, money and scope, knowing that if one changes, they should be agile enough in applying change management techniques to compensate with the other constraints to keep things moving.
If you’re wondering, well what is agile project management?— it’s a mode of working that stresses flexibility, iteration, and regular phases of planning.
The program manager, on the other hand, must have a more everything-is-connected view of the entire portfolio, and they should include more constraints in their considerations, from resource planning, to quality, to employee satisfaction levels.
In order to maintain the quality of a project, a good project manager should apply the twin strategy of regular QC, or quality control, and testing. Also, having a solid risk management strategy can help ensure quality even among unexpected problems.
When you move from the project to the program or portfolio level, it’s wise to shift from regular quality control check ups to a more constant QA, or quality assurance system. To help with this, the program manager might be in charge of more occasional audits of the process or product.
The project manager will have less of an overall relationship with all the stakeholders than the program manager will have. It is the role of project management to understand the stakeholders’ needs and produce deliverables to meet them.
The program manager should have a closer relationship with all the stakeholders involved at various levels of the organization. Here, the program manager does not merely respond and react to what stakeholders want, but should have a more back-and-forth exchange to establish with them what they want, why, how to deliver it, and other factors.
Tools and methods
In project management, there is a lot of decision-making at the outset of many projects as to what tools and software everyone should use for that project. This goes for defining things like what dashboards or project templates, as well other tools to measure timelines and track things like task dependencies.
The project lead also decides on what methodologies to use, like agile, the waterfall model, or critical path.
In program management, you decide less about specific tools, apps and methods, and more about overall work philosophy, determining things like priorities, as in speedy delivery, cheapest product, or top quality, as well as how teams and departments should relate to one another.
The project manager is concerned with specific business goals in individual projects. To manage this, they should have clear metrics as to how to measure project success in real time, and to use milestones throughout the project lifecycle to assess project progress.
Program management is about overall goals and long-term company vision. Such business objectives are less about deliverables and more about imagining where the team or company can be in the future, new markets to open up, new technologies to help develop, and new areas of industry to penetrate.
The project manager leads a team or department, and they are the head of their team. There should be a lot of meetings where the team is encouraged to contribute creatively to planning. The project manager should see themselves as coaches who want to help their individual team members learn new skills and grow as workers.
The program manager might be less of a coach and more of a mentor. They cannot find the time to work intimately with every individual, and will therefore exhibit their leadership by managing other managers like project managers and product managers.
From greatly executed projects to fully successful programs, staying focused is core to meeting milestones and crushing goals. When it comes to project management, the focus is generally, how do we achieve what we planned, and how do we deliver what the end user needs or wants.
When you scale up to the program management level, the question changes from “how” to “what,” or from specific questions to an open-ended journey: What do we want to achieve? What kind of team do we want to be? What kind of world do we want to create? That’s the program manager speaking, and then the project manager says, OK, how can I help?
How managers operate in the project vs program management landscape
So that’s the story of project manager vs program manager from a definitional standpoint. But what is the difference between project management and program management when actual managers are concerned?
First of all, you can get certification to be a program manager from the PMI. The PgMP, or program manager professional, often requires a number of months as a project manager first, or for the applicant to be a certified PMP, which stands for being a project management professional.
This shows us that there is a hierarchy of management professionals with program managers having a higher degree of professional certification than project managers have.
Many managers operate in the project management arena and the program management landscape by making use of project management software.
These digital business tools help with project planning by offering templates, and staying on top of costs, timeframes and scope. If you look at our project and program management software comparison article, you will notice how some of these apps include more robust project portfolio management features for the program manager too.
Our takeaways on program vs project management
We can see that program management is like the meta-level, mega version of project management. It’s the way to lasso various projects into a cohesive business plan and articulate a sense of vision. Project management is for practical execution of individual projects, so as big as such projects can be, program management is always going to be bigger.
So now when someone strolls up and asks you “what is the difference between program management and project management?” we hope you can confidently answer. After all, you are a freshly minted expert on the subject. Now go forth and manage your project.. er, or program.