Project Management VS Program Management

Jeffrey Kagan, June 7, 2021
project management vs program management

If you’re looking for a thorough comparison of project management vs program management, you have come to the right place. Though the two have nearly identical definitions, how they are applied is what sets them apart. 

Project vs Program

First, take a look at the difference between a project and a program. A project is temporary and has an evident beginning and projected end. This also means that the scope and resources for a project also have to be clearly defined. Unlike a program, projects are not for the daily operation of a workplace. Projects are executed with a particular goal in mind and have a specific process that will help to map out how to achieve that goal. 

Meanwhile, programs are initiated for the success of an organization itself. Meaning that programs are made to last. It has also been found that organizations with established program management are typically much more successful than those without. Beyond project and program management, there is also product management.

Project Management vs Program Management 

Program management can be viewed as a large project in itself or a set of projects and is meant to be integrated into the day-to-day life of an organization as a long-term goal. Meanwhile, project management is short-term and follows a specific process and has an end goal focused on the output of the project.

A project can be equated to playing checkers while a program is more like playing chess. 

Though a program can follow the same processes of project management, it is meant to have long-term effects and outcomes.  Programs are ongoing and don’t require an end date as projects do. Programs are meant to be integrated into your organization and used for further work. Program management can be seen as an overarching management of projects made to improve the overall performance of an organization. This improvement is typically measured by the benefits and outcomes that it brings to your organization.

The benefits of program integrations include, but are not limited to:

  • increased income 
  • increased profits
  • decreased costs
  • improved market position
  • reduced wastage or environmental damage
  • customer satisfaction

Programs can continually evolve based on the benefits and outcomes that they are producing. Meanwhile, projects are more straightforward and more focused on the output that they create. 

The Difference Between Project Management and Program Management: Breakdown

Project management draws on your existing knowledge to help better plan and execute the work being done at a given time. These areas of knowledge are:

  • integration
  • scope
  • time
  • cost
  • quality
  • procurement
  • human resources
  • communications
  • risk management
  • stakeholder management.

These areas of knowledge are important to draw on in order to be fully prepared and to smoothly run through a project. Everyone involved with a project needs to be aware of all these aspects prior to the project execution. This allows for clear roles and responsibilities that each member of your team will need to be involved with. Careful planning is necessary for any successful project.

Project management follows a process whether everyone is aware of it or not. The steps are typically:

  • Initiating
  • Planning
  • Execution
  • Monitoring
  • Closing

Initiating is the base of any project and begins with an idea, suggesting it and acting on it. From there, begins the planning or project portfolio process, which is necessary to identify the goal, the resources available and the timeline of the project.

The planning process will assist in setting milestones so your team doesn’t get sidetracked or spend too much time on one part of your project.

Next is execution and is the main part of any project. In the executing process, your team may work together or separately towards a common goal. Different team members may work on different aspects simultaneously to help a project come together quicker.

Execution is closely followed by monitoring and controlling the project to ensure that each part of the project is completed and seamlessly integrated into the next aspect. After all these processes are followed comes the closing of the project.

The closing of a project is not just a conclusion but also a reflection of the project management process where one can determine the best practices to use again for the next project.

Program management sometimes can serve as where budget management occurs. As program management maps out the use of resources and can also cut down on costs while bringing in more revenue, it’s no question that your budget will be evolving with your program. 

This ensures that all funding is correctly allocated where it needs to be without taking away from other areas or leaving projects short of the proper funding. Typically, program management is overseen by a project manager or an office of the project manager. This creates a centralized point of contact for overseeing and managing the ongoing projects. It also can provide templates, best practices and standard operating procedures. 

Creating this role helps to bring an equal level of quality to every project that your organization creates as it sets guidelines rather than leaving it up to individuals to decide. Project managers can also provide regular status updates regarding program management or the overall program. 

Project management has become increasingly virtual especially in the past year due to the pandemic sending many workspaces remote. With this, many project management applications have risen in popularity. The market seems saturated with all the different applications that are currently available, which can make it difficult to determine which one is correct for your organization. As project management applications are used to oversee multiple projects at a given time, they can be described as programs. 

There are task-based applications that allow you to track projects, such as Asana and more. For some organizations, they may use multiple different applications to utilize all these features at a given time. There are some applications that integrate both the project tracking and the communication features, such as Nifty. Another useful application may be a time tracking one such as Everhour. Use of these programs is incredibly beneficial for the streamlining of projects and keeping team members in contact. 

Any good program management comes with these traits: consensus building, risk assessment and attention to detail. Consensus building is necessary to ensure all team members working on a project or program are headed in the right direction and have a complete understanding of the goal trying to be achieved. Risk assessment is typically done by program managers and is done to track or spot risks before they occur. By staying ahead of potential issues, your program will continue to run smoothly and without interruption if done correctly. Attention to detail is necessary for the success of any organization but is especially relevant to your program management as you track progress and stay connected to budgets and deadlines. 

Program Managers vs Project Managers

Though the jobs of program managers and project managers may seem similar, they have their key differences. Project managers are professionals that are tasked with the position of planning and organizing resources and personnel for individual projects. Project managers can be found in any industry whether it may be contractors, managers, employees or possibly independent consultants. Typically, project managers will report to the program manager on the status of projects. 

Program Manager Responsibilities

Program managers have the duty of communicating a program strategy and its objectives while also assessing how it will impact a business. They set the framework that all other employees should follow for success in their projects. Project managers will then follow this set framework and report back to program managers on projects. This allows program managers to monitor the “bigger picture” of the business as a whole rather than being specifically focused on certain projects that have their own managers. 

Project Manager Responsibilities

Project managers, alternatively, oversee the operation of individual projects within their programs. These managers may determine time, budget, resources, and other aspects to complete a project within the set program guidelines. They have most of their focus on execution and management of projects which they then report on.

Program Manager Responsibilities vs. Project Manager Responsibilities  

Program managers are more of architects to the framework of the day to day life while project managers are the hands on workers that pull individual projects together. Project managers need to manage specific work so that they can report on it to the program manager. The program manager can then supervise multiple projects at any given time to ensure the program guidelines are being fulfilled. Program managers tend to need a focus on strategy as that is the whole point of integrating a program. Project managers are more focused on tact to complete projects within their assigned deadlines. 

The Bottom Line

Overall, many of the components of project management and program management overlap. They have more similarities than they do differences but the main idea that sets them apart when comparing project management vs. program management is that program management is the “bigger picture” and can include project management and its parts under it.

The differences are primarily in the length of time they last and their end goals. Projects are finite and focus on output while programs are meant to be integrated and evolve with your organization. A program is made to focus on the outcomes and increase benefits, whether it be cost reduction, more customer satisfaction or improving the quality of work. 

Jeffrey Kagan

Jeffrey Kagan

Jeffrey has been helping enterprises streamline their workflows for more than 3 years and innovation and creativity is the backbone of every decision he makes.