Project Management Vs Program Management, 4 Key Differences

Project managers manage projects, while program managers manage a number of projects. While program management is the next level of project management, there are some other telling differences between the two.

Definitions of Project Management and Program Management

  • Project:

    A project can be defined as a set of activities performed in a concerted effort to achieve a singular goal.
    Projects are temporary; they have a specific beginning and an end. They are unique, in the sense that a project is not a day-to-day business activity. A project has its own specified outcomes. Projects are cross-functional and involve individuals from different departments across the organization and also from different organizations across geographies.

A project consists of the following components:

    • A sequence of activities
    • Defined start, schedule and end
    • Defined deliverables
    • Planned budget and resources
  • Project management:

    PMI defines project management as the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to meet the project requirements. A project manager is accountable for the success of the project, and is responsible for the project team and the outcome of the project.

  • Program:

    A program is a set of related projects which will deliver a common functionality. The group of related projects each have a set of specific deliverables. When all these projects are completed, these deliverables will create functionality or serve to create a final product.

A program will include the following:

    • A single product or deliverable
    • Delivering value to achieve organizational goals
    • Change and benefits management
  • Program management:

    PMI defines program management as a group of related projects managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits and control not available from managing them individually. Programs may include elements of related work outside the scope of discrete projects in the program.

Outlined below are the four key differences between project management and program management.

Project Management vs. Program Management

  1. Projects are temporary whereas Programs are on-going:

    A project has a defined beginning and end. The project plan details the schedule of each stage of the project and the completion date. There might be certain delays for various reasons. However, the project still gets over within a specified time once the deliverables are delivered.
    A program, on the other hand, is tied to the strategic objective of the organization. A program’s objective is to deliver a higher level product or functionality and this depends upon the completion of a set of related projects. Therefore, though a program will have an end, it is more long term than a project.

  1. Project Management is technical and Program Management is strategic:

    The project manager only focuses on the delivery of the outcomes of the project. This outcome could be a part of a product or a product or a service in itself. His or her objective is to complete the project and deliver the outcomes within the allocated time, budget and resources. Apart from a bit of people management, a project manager’s tasks are predominantly technical.
    The program manager’s role is strategic. It involves people, governance and negotiations. A program manager is answerable to the top management on the on-going developments of the underlying projects. The job involves intense negotiations with the board in terms of the objectives set for the projects and how they are delivered.

  1. Projects focus on time and budget and Programs focus on ROI and value:

    The primary objective of a project manager is to complete the project within the allocated time and budget. Therefore, the project manager strives hard to complete the project and keep the internal customers happy. What the application of a deliverable is and what value it creates for the organization in the bigger picture is not the worry of the project manager.
    However, the program manager needs to focus on what value the projects create and what returns they will generate for the company. ROI is a critical aspect of the program manager’s responsibilities. Program managers negotiate with the board to allocate budgets to projects and it becomes their responsibility to establish ROI and generate value for the customer. Their objectives are tied to the quarterly financial results of the organization. The scope of financial management of a program manager is far higher than that of a project manager.

  1. Projects handle risk management and Programs handle change management:

    Individual projects entail their own levels of associated risks. It is in the inherent nature of projects to be faced with risks because of the very fact that they bring about something new. Project managers try to forecast risks, plan on how to negotiate them and allocate a certain risk budget for them.
    Programs, on the other hand, focus on change management on an organizational level. Risks associated with individual projects are not the concern of a program manager. The program with its set of related projects is aimed at bringing a change in the organization. This is a more complex process since it involves the coordinated functioning of several projects, people, external entities, government organizations and the board. It is a more difficult and complicated task compared to that of project risk management.

In conclusion, every project manager’s aspiration is to become a program manager. While there are certain similarities in the two roles, it is important to be aware of critical differences. The key differences lie in the hierarchy of management, strategic implications of the deliverables and the level of financial impact to the organization.

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Lucy Brown has many years of experience in the project management domain and has helped many organizations across the Asia Pacific region. Her excellent coordinating capabilities, both inside and outside the organization, ensures that all projects are completed on time, adhering to clients' requirements. She possesses extensive expertise in developing project scope, objectives, and coordinating efforts with other teams in completing a project. As a project management practitioner, she also possesses domain proficiency in Project Management best practices in PMP and Change Management. Lucy is involved in creating a robust project plan and keep tabs on the project throughout its lifecycle. She provides unmatched value and customized services to clients and has helped them to achieve tremendous ROI.


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