Project management vs program management: Mastering the differences
Last updated on: July 25, 2022
If you aren’t sure what the differences between project management and program management are, don’t worry — you’re not the only one.
And it’s not like we can blame anyone who mixes the two terms up when some of the most famous programs are called projects!
However, if you’re a project manager, understanding the difference between the two is crucial as attempting to use a project management methodology to manage a program (and vice-versa) can easily backfire.
In this article, we’ll teach you everything you need to know to distinguish between project management and program management by:
- Exploring and simplifying their definitions,
- Elaborating on the roles and requirements of project managers and program managers, and
- Highlighting the major differences between the two.
What is a project?
According to the Association for Project Management (APM), a project is “a unique, transient endeavor undertaken to achieve planned objectives, which could be defined in terms of outputs, outcomes or benefits.”
In layman’s terms, the goal of a project is to create a deliverable.
For example, if the project is to create a website, then your final deliverable is the finished website.
Once you’ve created it, the project is finished.
💡 Plaky Pro Tip
Another characteristic of projects is that they are carried out by project teams — temporary teams that need to learn how to work together as quickly as possible. To facilitate project team development, project managers should read the following:
What is project management?
“Project management is the application of processes, methods, skills, knowledge and experience to achieve specific project objectives according to the project acceptance criteria within agreed parameters. Project management has final deliverables that are constrained to a finite timescale and budget.”
So says the APM definition of project management, which we can simplify like this:
If the goal of a project is to create a deliverable, then project management is how you go about creating said deliverable within the predefined project budget and timeline.
To this end, many project management methodologies have been developed.
If we were to liken the final deliverable to a destination, then PM methodologies would be the routes that project managers use to steer the project towards this destination.
💡 Plaky Pro Tip
To help you choose the best PM methodology, we’ve compiled this list of 15 methodologies where we highlighted the pros and cons of each one:
The role of a project manager in project management
The job of a project manager is to focus and organize all efforts on completing the project within its:
Project managers are in charge of the project from its initiation phase to its closing phase.
These are some activities that project managers can expect to perform day-to-day:
- Defining scope,
- Planning and organizing tasks,
- Managing resources,
- Negotiating with contractors and suppliers,
- Assessing and managing risks,
- Communicating with the team and with stakeholders,
- Managing changes,
- Documenting progress,
- Collecting signatures,
- Motivating people, and
- Working on improving employee engagement.
Fun fact: While all project management skills are important, communication is the most used PM skill, accounting for 90% of what project managers do.
💡 Plaky Pro Tip
The above is a summary overview of activities that project managers do — you can read more about each responsibility we’ve listed in this guide:
What is a program?
According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), a program is “a group of related projects managed in a coordinated manner to obtain benefits not available from managing them individually.”
The goal of a program isn’t to create a deliverable, but to reach a business objective.
For example, let’s say you’re a SaaS company whose products require the use and storing of personal and/or sensitive information. To stamp out any security concerns your customers may have, you apply for SOC 2 auditing — the American Institute of CPA’s compliance standard for managing customer data.
This would be a program.
The goal is to make your products SOC 2 compliant, which would require coordination of all ongoing projects as well as making some changes to regular day-to-day procedures.
There is no set budget or deadline for this. It is a long-term goal that the program manager works towards for the strategic benefit of the company.
What is program management?
According to APM, program management is “the coordinated management of projects and business-as-usual activities to achieve beneficial change. A program is a unique and transient strategic endeavor undertaken to achieve a beneficial change and incorporating a group of related projects and business-as-usual activities.”
Again, let’s try to simplify this definition.
An organization can run a single project. Alternatively, they can also run multiple projects at once. And then, there’s the day-to-day operations that need to be performed.
The goal of program management is to coordinate all of these disparate endeavors — i.e. multiple projects and regular day-to-day operations — so they contribute towards the organization’s strategic goals.
The role of a program manager in program management
The simplest way to describe a program manager is by calling them a super project manager.
Program managers work to ensure that all projects and operations within an organization align with the program’s goal.
According to Western Governors University’s Program Manager Career Guide, a program manager’s day-to-day tasks include:
- Planning and monitoring program execution,
- Project coordination and managing project interdependencies,
- Creating and managing a budget,
- Cross-project resource management,
- Identifying and addressing problems and risks,
- Program documentation,
- Stakeholder communications, negotiations, and problem-solving, and
- Aligning or realigning deliverables with program outcomes.
What are the key differences between project management and program management?
The differences between project management and program management are many — and likely already somewhat clear now that you’ve read what projects and programs entail.
But, just in case, let’s list out some of the more prominent differences.
|Project management||Program management|
|Focused on creating deliverables||Focused on achieving strategic goals|
|Has a defined scope||Has a long-term goal (fluid scope)|
|Has a limited budget||Doesn’t have a limited budget|
|Has a set deadline||Has a loose and flexible timeline|
|Focused on output||Focused on outcome|
|Deals with technical tasks||Deals with strategic tasks|
|Success defined by finishing the project on time and on budget||Success defined by delivering value|
|Limited stakeholder interaction||Complex stakeholder interaction|
|Aims to minimize undefined risks through risk management||Expects undefined risks|
|Requires a detailed schedule||Interfaces between multiple projects using their schedules|
|Avoids change||Embraces change|
|Seeks certainty||Expects ambiguity|
Project management answers pretty much all Wh-questions you could ask about the project:
- What (scope),
- When (deadline),
- Who (project team), and
- How (PM methodology).
Program management is primarily concerned with the:
- Why (strategic goal).
This isn’t all too surprising when you consider the fact that program management methodologies don’t exist — there are no trodden paths for program managers to take.
Their job is ambiguous and amorphous, the scope of their programs shifts with the times, and, so long as the business objectives are reached, the program is a success.
Not all projects are simple and not all programs are ambitious
Looking at the list of key differences, you might come to the conclusion that programs are all complex and ambitious whereas projects are all simple and mundane.
This isn’t necessarily true.
For example, the Chunnel Project was indeed a project — with the initial scope of creating a fixed transportation link between England and France.
However, it was anything but simple and mundane, having involved:
- 700,000 shareholders,
- 220 international lending banks,
- 2 national governments, and
- Many construction companies and supplies.
The circumstances around the Chunnel made it extremely complex and ambitious, but they did not make it a program.
The project still had a clearly defined final deliverable — i.e. the underground channel — as well as a set budget and timeline.
Sure, the project was late and went over budget — but that’s beside the point.
The initial estimated budget of the project was 5 billion USD (adjusted for inflation, that’s more than 13.5 billion USD in 2022), far surpassing the budgets of most modern programs.
Meanwhile, something as relatively simple (compared to the Chunnel at least) as a company deciding to go paperless is a program and should be treated as such.
For something more exciting, we can turn to the movie industry.
The filming of any movie is a project by all definitions — but, to major film studios, blockbuster movies are programs that coordinate filming and theatrical releases with promotional campaigns, merchandising, and more.
And, the success of such programs is not determined only by box office success, as some might expect.
For example, compared to most other Pixar movies, “Cars” had a disappointing box office run — but the studio made a sequel because the merchandise from the first “Cars” made 10 billion USD. In an alternate universe where this animated movie was a project and not just part of a program, the sequel never happens.
The most famous programs misnamed as projects
We mentioned in the introduction how some of the most famous programs are known as projects.
Here are a couple of the examples to back this claim.
The Manhattan Project
According to Patrick Weaver, author of Understanding Programs and Projects — Oh, There’s a Difference!, the Manhattan Project was a program by all modern definitions, requiring:
- The construction and operation of several factories, and
- The development and creation of two types of atomic bombs.
Managing this type of workload goes way above the scope of any individual project.
But, everyone called it a project — so the name stuck.
The New Administrative Capital Project
In 2016, the Egyptian Government launched the Egypt Vision 2030 agenda which outlines “77 programs and projects for economic development”.
2nd in this long list is the construction of Egypt’s New Administrative Capital, which is planned to have:
- 21 residential districts and 25 dedicated districts,
- 2,000 educational institutions,
- 663 hospitals and clinics,
- 1,250 mosques and churches,
- 90 square kilometers (surface area of approximately 5,000 miles) of solar energy farms, and
- A theme park four times larger than Disneyland, among other things.
And did we mention this new city is being built in the desert?
Now, to be clear, Egypt Vision 2030 agenda never states the New Administrative Capital is a project.
However, this is how you’ll find the program referred to everywhere on the Internet, including Wikipedia.
Useful software for project management and program management
When managing projects, all you need is a piece of software that covers the needs of the project team — something to:
- Handle task scheduling,
- Facilitate communication, and
- Keep everyone up to date.
However, for program management, having insight into all projects and operations that are part of the program on a centralized platform is also key.
To this end, using a powerful, customizable, and SOC 2 compliant management tool like Plaky is essential.
With Plaky, organizations can create a different workspace for each project and each team within the organization.
With no imposed limit on the number of workspaces, tasks, or users, even large organizations can scale Plaky to support their entire workforce.
This allows program managers to keep track of all moving parts that comprise their program.
As for project managers and team leaders, they can use Plaky’s powerful and extensive task management features to streamline day-to-day operations.
Every team can customize their workspace from scratch to fit its needs, or use premade templates, such as:
- Strategy Plan Template,
- Recruitment Template,
- Product Launch Template,
- Employee Onboarding Template, or
- Bug Tracking Template.
💡 Plaky Pro Tip
Choosing the right project management software is essential to project success. You can use these tool lists to find the software that best fits your project:
Conclusion: Correctly identifying an endeavor as a project or a program increases your chances of success
As we’ve seen, projects and programs are different in both scope and nature.
Projects have a defined scope, a set timeline, and a limited budget.
Programs have a wide, amorphous scope, and typically operate without strict timelines and budgetary constraints.
If an organization decides to classify a project as a program because they can’t define the scope, this won’t make it a project. It will just increase the chances of failure.
Likewise, if something that should be a program gets treated like a project by throwing a set amount of money at it and expecting to meet the goals on a strict deadline, you can’t expect to get a good ROI.
This is why being able to identify what should be treated as a project and what as a program is important for overall business success.
✉️ Have you encountered any issues before by mixing project management and program management? Have these examples helped you draw the line between them? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org and we may include your answers in this or future posts.