Project manager vs. program manager. What’s the difference?

Two similar-sounding job titles; two very different roles. And while there is some overlap between the two, they are fundamentally unique, each with their own set of challenges and goals.

First, let’s begin by defining projects and programs.

Simply put, a project is an enclosed task with a finite duration, and a program is a collection of projects that contribute to a long-term goal. Sounds simple, right? Sort of. But there’s actually a little more to these two than meets the eye. Let’s start at the beginning.

Project vs Program. What’s the difference?

To untangle the two terms, it’s helpful to think of programs as being the long-term bigger picture, and projects as being shorter phases that all feed into it.

So while projects could potentially go on for days, months, or even years, they do have a defined end-point, and they consist of a combined effort towards a single output. They’re usually built around constraints such as time, budget and resources. A program, on the other hand, is a collection of related projects all working together to feed into a bigger overarching goal.

Another difference between the two is the outcome. At the end of a project, you should have a tangible thing. For example, a new website, an app, a product, an event, or a store.

Programs are a little different, insofar as the outcome is usually a benefit. It could be an overarching company goal, such as growth, a change in policy, or a new way of doing things within the business. They’re also longer-term and may be continual without a defined end date.

It may be helpful to think about the two in terms of the words ‘what’ and ‘why’. A project is a technical action, such as ‘open a new store’. That’s the ‘what.’ And the why? To strategically grow the business.

To use another analogy, a program manager is a little like a movie director. They’ll take charge of the overall story, delivery and look of the film. But they’ll also have a team of makeup artists, set designers, lighting technicians, cinematographers, caterers, gaffers, and runners all dealing with their own unique set of highly specific tasks that all contribute to the director’s overall vision.

So what exactly does a project manager do?

A project manager takes care of an individual project within the program. Things such as budgets, resources, stocks, and schedules all fall under their remit. They also manage issues, risks, scopes, changes, and members of the team.

They make their decisions based on the program guidelines, then report their progress to the program manager. And when the project is complete, it’s their job to confirm it a success or failure, provide feedback, and archive project documents.

Keeping on top of time and budget while updating the program manager and managing your team of workers is no easy ask. So as you’ve probably guessed, a good project manager is highly organized, and very flexible.

A little like spinning plates, project managers need to give each element of their task their close attention. Let one thing slip, and the whole lot comes tumbling down.

What does a program manager do?

Program management is all about strategy. One of a program manager’s key roles is to make sure all of the different project work streams are all working together towards the overarching goal. And while they also have to manage things such as budgets, scopes, and resources, they do it from a much broader perspective.

They manage the overall budget and divvy it up between the individual projects. They also define the overall program’s schedule, which includes defining the program’s milestones.

While a program manager will want to know about project risks and budget, they won’t need to every minute detail. They just need to know those that impact each milestone.

And when the job’s done? They’ll also need to provide feedback to the project leads, as well as archive program documents and close financial contracts.

A good program manager is a strategic thinker. They’re also a good delegator, communicator, and they know a thing or two about prioritization; they don’t have time to get hung up on the granular details. Above all, their organization skills need to be razor-sharp.

The right tools for the job

A bad workman may blame his tools, but bad tools can make or break a project (or program.) A bad product means your team will waste time compensating for its flaws, rather than focusing on the task at hand.

There’s no denying a good project management system is the backbone of a neater, more organized project. And the better the organization, the more efficient the project or program.

Program managers are more focused on cross-team communication and milestone management, so they’ll want broad big-picture data — whereas project managers will need to zoom in and track individual tasks. Version control, issue logs, and bug tracking functionalities are all must-haves.

It’s also a good idea to choose a project management tool that allows a high level of customization. Each project, program, organization, and individual is different. So rather than forcing everyone and everything into a format that’s not quite right, choose software that adapts around you.

And finally, a word on collaboration

It’s a word that gets thrown around like confetti in the business world. But time and time again, it crops up as the number-one issue to productivity. And nowhere is effective communication more important than in project and program management.

The secret sauce to great communication is flexibility. Understanding that everyone has their own way of working not only shows your team you appreciate them as an individual, but it will help everyone work to their full potential. Remember: take care of your team, and they’ll take care of the work.

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