Program Management vs Project Management

Program Management vs Project Management
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Stop me if you’ve heard this one: ​​”A good Project Manager makes updates. A bad Project Manager makes up dates.” And, just to be fair: “A Program Manager is a person who believes that nine women can deliver a baby in one month.”

All joking aside, many people aren’t super sure what Product Managers do, and how their jobs are different from Program Managers. If that’s you, no worries! In this post we’ll introduce program and project management. Then, we’ll compare program management vs project management. Next, we’ll dive into the roles and responsibilities of Product Managers and Program Managers. Plus, we’ll explain when to use each. Lastly, we’ll cover how to know whether your organization really needs both. 

Let’s get started!

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What are program and project management?

Ultimately, successful programs and projects both deliver long-term benefits for the organization. Most of the time, they both have specific, measurable goals. 

KPIs for both programs and projects can include:

  • Improving quality
  • Increasing efficiency
  • Decreasing costs
  • Improving customer satisfaction
  • Reducing churn
  • Increasing ARR

But the way programs and projects meet their goals differs. 

In sum, a program is a group of projects. But let’s get into the details. 

What is a project?

A project is a standalone effort with a clearly-defined scope and deliverable. Timeline-wise, a project’s goals are usually shorter-term. Projects are finite, meaning they have a discrete start and deadline. The time between a project starting and finishing is usually anywhere from days to months. It’s rare for one project to last more than a year. 

Examples of projects include:

  • Building a new feature, product, or service
  • Creating, updating, or reviewing a document, process, or outcome

Projects are successful if the deliverable meets the project’s requirements/scope and helps meet the program’s goals without going over budget or missing deadlines. 

What is a program?

A program is an interrelated, often interdependent, group of projects. Their goals tend to be longer-term. An organization usually creates a program when the benefits of managing a collection of projects as a program outweigh managing them as individual units. As a bundle of projects, programs are larger and more ambiguous and ambitious than any individual project. Programs necessarily run for longer than any of their individual projects, and can often run for more than a year, or indefinitely. Programs often don’t have a clearly defined end date. Instead, department leaders will often add new projects to their programs as project teams close out completed projects. 

Programs vs projects

What are the roles and responsibilities for program and project managers?

Program Managers and Project Managers have many overlapping roles and responsibilities. For instance, both Program Managers and Project Managers may do any or all of the following as part of their job:

  • Allocate resources
  • Manage risks
  • Communicate with stakeholders
  • Track progress
  • Anticipate, prevent, and ameliorate risks
  • Outline goals and objectives
  • Plan execution
  • Manage operations
  • Report on status

(Pro-tip: Avoid the risk of insufficient Focus Time for your team members by using Clockwise to optimize your work calendar.)

The main difference when it comes to the above responsibilities is scope. Program Managers are allocating resources, managing risks, communicating with stakeholders, etc. for a suite of interconnected projects where Project Managers are only doing it for the project or projects they’re directly managing. Which means a Project Manager should have a much more detailed understanding of a project’s progress, status, resources, etc. than the Program Manager. 

Now let’s dig into program vs project management roles and responsibilities. Note: A Project Manager might do some things listed under program management, and vice versa. But the following activities tend to be more closely associated with each role. 

Program Manager roles and responsibilities

Program Managers lead a program, or a series of interconnected projects. As part of their role, they may do any or all of the following:

  • Articulate how their program will impact the business
  • Define and articulate their program’s goals and objectives
  • Map out and define which projects must be completed to reach an overall goal
  • Prioritize projects
  • Evaluate the state of their portfolio of projects
  • Unblock Project Managers
  • Allocate resources for their projects
  • Manage interdependencies between projects
  • Set and optimize their projects’ operating model
  • Mentor Project Managers
  • Report on program metrics and progress to upper management
  • Assist with agile transformations

Project Manager roles and responsibilities

Project Managers lead a project such as a new feature, product, or service. As part of their role, they may do any or all of the following:

  • Ensure budget is spent correctly and not exceeded
  • Keep projects in-scope 
  • Keep projects on-time
  • Monitor the state of the project and deliverables
  • Unblock project stakeholders
  • Identify and assign new work
  • Monitor existing tasks
  • Work with stakeholders to create plans for reaching milestones
  • Ensure deliverables meet pre-set quality and reliability requirements 
  • Delegate tasks
  • Report progress and changes to Program Manager 

When should I use program and project management?/Do I need both program and project management?

Pretty much every organization needs project management. If you’re creating something on a regular basis, whether it’s a product or service, you’re going to need to run projects that must be managed. 

The question of whether you need a dedicated Project Manager is a tougher call. Many organizations get by with having their people managers and/or individual contributors cover project management responsibilities. 

According to Divvy and ActiveCollab, you should hire a dedicated Project Manager when your team grows beyond ten people. FunctionFox counters that you actually need a dedicated Project Manager at five or more team members. They also offer five other signs you need one: 

1. Slipped deadlines

2. Too much scope creep

3. Unfinished tasks

4. Frequent miscommunications

5. Micro-management

Not every organization needs program management. First, you need to be running enough simultaneous projects that they can be divided into separate programs. Some of them also need to be interdependent with some other projects, but not every other project. If you are running, or want to run, multiple programs made up of interdependent projects then you’ll probably need a Program Manager. 

Basically, when the cost of not grouping projects into programs to be managed outweighs the cost of bringing on a Program Manager, then you bring one on. 

Going forward

Hopefully project management vs program management makes a bit more sense now. Successful programs and projects benefit the organization. A project does so through a standalone effort with a clearly-defined scope and deliverable. A program does so through an interrelated, often interdependent, group of projects. 

While both Project and Program Managers allocate resources, manage risks, communicate with stakeholders, etc. they each also have their own contributions. Program Managers are more likely to articulate how their program will impact the business, define and articulate their program’s goals and objectives, and map out and define which projects must be completed to reach an overall goal, for example. Meanwhile, Project Managers are more likely to be responsible for spending budget correctly, not overspending, and keeping projects in-scope and on-time.

You’ll know you need a Project Manager when your team gets to a certain size, and/or your deadlines, scope, tasks, communication, and micro-management get out of hand. You’ll know you need a Program Manager when you get so many interdependent projects that it makes sense to form separate programs that require management. 

About the author

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz is the former Head of Content at Clockwise. She has covered business software for six years and has been published in Newsweek, Forbes, the Daily Beast, VICE Motherboard, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo and other publications.

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