Program Managers vs Project Managers

There is a common misconception about project management and program management being in essence two names for the one role; however, there are a number of fundamental differences that differentiate between both roles, which we aim to explain in detail in the following post.

Firstly, it is important to determine what is meant by a project and a program, which will then help to determine what the difference is between each.

What is a project?
The Project Management Institute define a project as being temporary with a defined start and end date, having a specific goal that must be achieved during the duration. They also state that a project is usually unique as opposed to an ongoing routine, where it is finished once the task is complete.

What is a program?
A program is defined by Janis Strathearn as a long-term initiative that is often implemented by management to improve the overall position of an organisation in terms of the strategic status, the overall mission and the competitive standing of that particular organisation.

Programs tend to be an ongoing process with a greater time span than any individual project. They tend to include a number of projects that are all focused within the one strategic direction.

What is the difference between managing each role?

The Project Management Institute state that a program manager is a “senior level practitioner on the forefront of advancing” the strategic goals of the organisation. Their role is to manage a number of related projects in a “coordinated” manner to attain strategic results that could not be achieved at individual project level.

A project manager on the other hand is responsible for managing one particular project within the program. They are focused on the goals of the project and managing the project team. The project manager will be responsible for managing time, resources and tasks within the project as well as ensuring they are delivered on time and on budget.

The handbook of program management
James T Brown talked about the difference between program and project management in his book, “The Handbook of Program Management: How to Facilitate Project Success with Optimal Program Management”. One compelling point that he made is that a program manager is “first and foremost a leader”.

Brown goes on to state that the overall difference between a program manager and a project manager can be summed up using two simple words: create and comply. He believes that a program manager is responsible for creating the culture for projects within the organisation, which the project manager must then comply with.

The decisions of the program manager are strategic to the organisation, which by its nature includes all aspects of any particular project that is directly related to the overall program while the project manager will have autonomy to make decisions that will effect that particular project.

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