Program Management vs. Project Management

project management

Program Management vs. Project Management – Is there any difference?

Is there any real difference between PROGRAM Management and PROJECT Management? This is a question I hear time after time.

Although there are several unique differences in these two roles, one might say the short answer is ‘it depends’. In smaller sized businesses the distinction between program management and project management is usually based on organizational structure, company goals and the complexity of the business. In larger or more mature organizations, these roles will be much more clearly defined, aligned with the business and the unique characteristics of each will be observed.

Many organizations still struggle to answer the question of why there would be a need for both project management and program management. To the layman, there is a myth that a program manager simply “wears a bigger and wider hat”.

Key Characteristics with Program Management and Project Management

program managementAt the high level, and simplest understanding, there are two key characteristic differences that distinguish program management from project management:

  1. Programs encompass a series of progressive projects with an overarching set of objectives based on scope and scale. Projects have specific and more singular objectives and outcomes.
  2. Program management involves more than simply the oversight of a set of projects. It includes application of common standards, processes, governance and annual budgets that oversee the successful execution of all projects.

Even though there may appear to be many similarities between the two roles, being able to tell what sets apart program management from project management helps companies be more productive and deliver better results.

                         Program Management                       Project Management


Program management is a long-term initiative that top executives implement to improve an organization’s strategic vision, mission, and competitive status in an industry or economic sector.

Project management is centralized management by an individual to plan, organize, control and deploy key milestones, deliverables and resources from conception through completion.


Programs are ongoing in nature. Programs usually span a far greater duration than a project

Projects run on project time and have a agreed upon end date.

Financial Impacts

Responsible for revenue and costs that are critical and tied to the financial calendar and results. Budget planning, management and control is significantly more complex in the context of a program.

Not responsible for quarterly or annual results. Responsible to manage a, typically, straight-forward budget meeting specifications on time and within budget.


Programs are governance intensive. They typically have a senior level board that provides direction, oversight and control. The Program Manager facilitates the resolving of disagreements and must be able to influence at the executive level.

Projects may have a similar governance structure but tend to be less governance intensive.

Change Management

Executive leadership capability that is more difficult to manage because programs are driven by an organizations strategy and are subject to market conditions and changing business goals.

Uses a formal change management process.

Functional Focus

Context, people, politics and negotiating- role is more strategic and focused on the big picture – how the projects within the program result in business benefits. Focus is beyond the end date of the individual projects to the transitional and operational elements.

Content, scope, schedules, resources – role is more tactical, narrower and deeper, centred on completing tasks, deliverables and outputs of the project and completing on time and on budget.

People Interaction

Facilitators and coaches who can inspire and guide project managers and their teams to achieve the strategic goals of the programs.

Team player who may contribute to deliverables and motivate others through use knowledge, skills, tools and techniques.

Success Factors

Leadership and vision is measured by the implementation and fulfillment of strategy and realization of benefits like growth, productivity or bottom line results – maximizing ROI and value delivery.

Projects deliver outputs, discrete parcels or “chunks” of change on time, to budget and to specification.

As stated by Dr. James T. Brown in his book “The Handbook of Program Management a Program Manager is first and foremost a leader with their primary leadership duty being to turn chaos into clarity for the team.

Program managers should never micromanage and should leave project management to the project managers. Project managers need clear direction and circumstances. This allows them to be successful fulfilling the immediate tasks, timelines and goals of the project.

fill shoesMany project managers look up to program managers and aspire to be in their shoes one day although that is not every project manager’s career path. Business today employs a new level of thinking and management approach at the program level. The person who is good as a project manager may not be proficient as a program manager. Program management may not be for everyone.

In summary – the key differentiators

  1. Program Managers manage a portfolio of projects. Project Managers manage projects.
  2. Programs are Ongoing. Projects End

“One of the true tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes an emergency.” 
~ Arnold H. Glasgow, American businessman and humorist

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