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Project Manager vs. Program Manager: A Comparison | LiquidPlanner

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Project Manager vs. Program Manager: A Side-by-Side Comparison

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Project Manager . . . Program Manager. Most of us have met one or the other, and many of us have wondered: What’s the difference?  It’s easy to get confused because in some organizations program managers do work that looks a lot like what program managers do. Also, the names are so similar it’s hard to separate their meaning. And then there’s the question—does it matter? Yes, it does!

If you’ve ever been curious as a project team member to know what the program manager down the hall is doing; or you’re someone who wants the next challenge in your project management career, I’m going to lay out the differences here. For starters, the fundamentals of good project management build the foundation for making a successful transition into program management. So, let’s start with the basics.

What exactly is a program?

I’ve seen this word misused many times. This happens when a team member is offered the title of “program manager” where the scope is only confined to one project. If I dust off my PMI standard, we know that a project is a “temporary endeavor used to create a unique product or service.” A program is “a collection of related projects managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits and controls not available from managing them individually.” It might seem like running a program is similar to running a bunch of projects, but there are several key differences between how a project and program moves through the project lifecycle.

Here, I’ve categorized some of these differences across the initiation, planning, execution and close lifecycle steps.

Project vs. Program Initiation

Here are a few key tasks that distinguish programs from projects. Project and program sponsors are critical, although the funding cycle, organization structure, and sponsorship can take longer.

Project Tasks – Initiation

Program Tasks – Initiation

● Identify the project sponsor.

● Allocate budget.

● Identify key stakeholders.

● Assign a project manager.

● Validate the program business case.

● Identify the program management structure.

● Identity the program sponsors.

● Review funding sources.

● Assign a program manager.

Projects can be funded and initiated faster than most programs primarily since the budget, sponsorship, and stakeholders are smaller than most programs. A project typically exists within one team or an organizational boundary. A program will often cross multiple organizations, and this has an impact on stakeholders, sponsors, funding sources and even assigning the right program manager.

In a project, the project manager is primarily responsible for the scope, cost, and timeline. In a program, the program manager will also staff a project management office (PMO) to help manage program scope, costs, and overall timeline. Since it can take longer to initiate a program after its conception, the organization might have to validate the business case to ensure the program goals are still worth pursuing.

Project vs Program Management Planning

Every effort has a planning phase. A program will rely more on a rolling plan, as multi-year programs will need to adjust their plans as the business changes. Scope, schedule, and resources all apply to both programs and projects although the planning is conducted at different levels. Project managers are used to tracking tasks against a project schedule. Program managers need to track milestones against a program level schedule.

Project Tasks – Planning

Program Tasks – Planning

● Develop the project management plan.

● Define project scope.

● Define the schedule.

● Define the resources.

● Define the detailed budget.

● Develop the program management plan.

● Define the program scope.

● Define the program schedule.

● Define the detailed program budget.

I’ve been on other programs where teams struggled with developing integrated project schedules, mainly due to the tool they’re using (or aren’t). The end result involved team members trying to make the project schedule mechanics work when they should’ve been focused on the milestones. In a program, communication across teams and milestone management are more important than tracking individual project tasks. Let the project managers manage their work and let the program management team manage across the work streams.

Project vs. Program Execution

Successful execution is all in the details! Both projects and programs have a lot of details to manage, including the deliverables, schedules, and issues and risks. Below are a few of the key distinctions.

Project Tasks – Execution

Program Tasks – Execution

● Manage the project schedule.

● Manage the project budget.

● Manage issues and risks.

● Manage communication.

● Manage scope and change.

● Manage the team.

● Manage quality.

● Manage project procurement.

● Manage the program milestones.

● Manage the program budget.

● Manage program issues and risks.

● Manage program communication.

● Manage program scope and change.

● Manage human resources.

● Manage quality.

● Manage program procurement.

● Apply stakeholder management.

● Apply program governance.




In the PMBOK, integration management is the set of project management processes used to make sure that projects are properly coordinated. Project plans, project execution, and change control techniques are all used to steer each project in the right direction.

One of the key roles of the program manager is to ensure that all the work streams connect together. Project teams have a more focused view on the work that comprises a project; the program manager has a broad view of all the work streams. This role needs to see how all the “gives and gets” integrate across the timelines. As a program manager, it’s also important to understand the major dependencies across project teams. You don’t necessarily need to integrate every project schedule and every task as a program manager, but you should develop a program-level plan that integrates the major milestones.

I was once involved in a digital marketing program, where the IT team was delivering a content management system with different components. The global marketing team would develop different sites based on the components delivered. As the program unfolded, both European and U.S. marketing teams needed to know when specific components would be delivered by the IT team. If IT was late, the site development was impacted.

Every project has issues and risks. As the program manager, you don’t need to manage or even know about all of them. The program manager needs to know about the program-level issues and risks but doesn’t need to know about every risk with each project. The guideline I use is to focus on issues that impact a milestone. Otherwise, you’ll be reviewing every issue and risk during program status meetings, and that would take hours.

All project-level issues and risks should be available for the program manager to review. Have a log for common risks and issues, so they can be categorized.

Project vs. Program Closure

The closure phase is the last phase where the project or program manager formally closes the project.

Project Tasks – Closure

Program Tasks – Closure

● Conduct project conclusion and lessons learned.

● Transition solution to operations team.

● Confirm project success or failure.

● Provide performance feedback.

● Disperse resources.

● Close financial contracts.

● Archive project documents.

● Conduct program conclusion and lessons learned meeting with the PMO or project lead.

● Transition solution to multiple operations teams.

● Provide performance feedback on PMO/project lead resources.

● Disperse PMO/project lead.

● Close any financial contracts.

● Archive program documents.

Each project in a program will have its own set of lessons learned; however, the program PMO or project lead will also a set of lessons learned. Project managers will provide performance feedback to respective resource managers; the program manager might also provide feedback on the team that formed the PMO. In an IT program, there can be multiple operational groups that need to support the systems delivered—and more teams requires more communication. Financial close out and the archiving of documents is similar across both efforts, except the size could differ in a program.

Program management is an important role in a project-driven organization. It’s also an exciting challenge in a project manager’s career. As you familiarize yourself with the difference between project management and program management, and even consider program manager as the next step in your career, it’s important to identify exactly how these roles differ. Programs are more complex and require more political awareness than the average project. However, the satisfaction from delivering across complex organizations is a rewarding one!

Here’s something project and program managers have in common: the need for a reliable project management tool! Is yours up to snuff? Take our Project Management Health Check, a 9-question multiple-choice assessment of your project management process.  

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