Difference Between a Program and Project Manager

Program Management vs. Project Management — What Is The Difference?

14-Jan 2021
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Kit Lewis CONTENT MANAGER

Programs and projects are at the core of many company goals and business strategies, and while they sound similar, the process to achieve them requires unique and separate tasks. Even so, too many businesses do not have differentiated positions for the two roles. 

Explore the key differences between program management and project management and dive into the two separate, well-defined roles for both a project manager and program manager to learn the ways that each function can contribute to your business.

What Is Project Management?

Projects, defined by the Project Management Institute (PMI) as temporary endeavors that create unique products, services or processes, are completed over a certain period of time to solve a problem or support a larger initiative. 

In turn, project management is the practice of supporting and achieving these projects through specific phases of the project lifecycle — project initiation, project planning and project execution. Projects are made up of various project tasks, activities and deliverables that are organized and structured to support a larger goal. 

One important differentiator for projects is that a project lifecycle is finite, and each project will have a definite beginning and end.

What Does The Role of a Project Manager Include?

Project managers are professionals who support a project through the project lifecycle, ensuring that the project reaches its intended goal while staying on track with budget and deadlines. 

Project managers play an essential role in the management of projects, including the planning stages of individual projects. This includes creating project schedules, assigning tasks, monitoring, managing and closing a project. These managers are responsible for the personnel working on the project, the resources dedicated to the project and the overall scope of the project. The project manager’s decisions should be made with the individual project in mind.

The tactical responsibilities of project managers included coordinating with other project teams and other budgetary resources. They facilitate the delivery of the project within a set amount of time. This includes assigning tasks, setting a schedule and developing a definitive roadmap. 

They may also define the budget and choose members of their team. Project managers must carefully track resources, risks and any looming issues with their projects. With the help of their team, project managers must initiate, plan, execute, monitor and close their individual projects. 

Though they focus mainly on their individual projects, a project manager must be familiar with the overall organization and its processes. Those interested in a career in project management should be equipped with skills such as leadership, communication, prioritization and adaptability. 

What Is Program Management?

Programs, on the other hand, are a group of related projects that are linked through a shared goal or initiative. 

Program management is the strategic application of knowledge, tools and techniques to coordinate those projects and provide consistency in the outcomes, facilitate better visibility across an organization and ensure that individual projects are meeting program goals and the company’s overarching goals.

What Does The Role of a Program Manager Include?

A program manager’s overall responsibility is to think of the big picture. A program manager may decide on overarching factors such as the budget, schedule and goals for overall success. Their decisions should always support the long-term development of the business.  

In terms of program planning, the program manager sets an expansive roadmap of the planned work within a developing program. They must consider and organize individual projects within the larger context of their company’s strategies. 

Those in program management positions may also be responsible for defining best practices within the company and streamlining organization-wide processes and policies. Because they drive the strategic direction of the organization, they are often customer-facing when customers need to discuss or negotiate the nature of the work. Program manager responsibilities also include budget tracking, resource allocation and risk management. 

Essentially, program managers oversee clusters of projects, long-term business objectives, strategy and overall business development. Project managers, meanwhile, oversee short-term goals and individual or single projects. You can define a program as a collection of projects, whereas a project can be described as a more concrete deliverable. 

Portfolio Management and the Role of Portfolio Managers

Portfolio management is a strategic function to support the selection, prioritization and execution of projects for an organization. PMI defines it as the “centralized management of one or more project portfolios to achieve strategic objectives.”

A portfolio manager will consider how projects align with company goals and assess risk factors to make educated decisions about which projects should be prioritized and which should be altered or potentially eliminated. Ultimately, project portfolio management and portfolio managers are the bridge between a company’s strategic goals and its portfolio of projects.

Key Differences Between Project vs. Program Management 

Though they seem similar, there are key differences between the positions of project managers and program managers. Both program management professionals and project managers provide immense value to an organization by fulfilling their respective duties — with program managers focusing on goals and project managers focusing on delivering a tangible body of work. 

Project managers focus their full attention on individual projects and the teams working on them. Meanwhile, program managers should serve the overall success of the company. Project managers can support program managers by efficiently managing individual projects that contribute to the overall well-being of the organization. Likewise, program managers support project managers by successfully allocating resources and creating clear company-wide roadmaps which the individual project managers can follow.  

While program managers can provide project management services, it is beneficial for your organization to have the personnel to fill both roles separately. If you only have a program manager, that may be too much stress and organizational pressure on one individual. 

Even organizations with well-defined positions for their program and project managers face challenges with communication and transparency, both within their own teams and with clients. To overcome breakdowns in communication, your organization can make use of project management tools to develop cohesive strategies and easily share progress. 

Stay In Control of Project Scope With Smart Technology

An important part of project management and the project manager role is defining the project scope. Project scope is a detailed outline of all aspects of a project, including timelines, deliverables and project boundaries like budget or time.

But even with clear plans in place, external or internal factors can disrupt a project’s timeline or budget — leading to scope creep. Scope creep is the continuous unplanned expansion of a project’s scope after it’s begun. 

The role of a project manager is to prevent this from happening, but without proper tools to keep a project plan organized and on track, scope creep can be a common issue.

Use smart technology to create structured, automated workflows to help prevent human error and quickly identify scope creep risks like missed deadlines. This added support and project insight can help guide a project manager to adjust timelines or shift priorities to achieve the original project goals.

Improve Risk Management With Digital Tools

Project risk management is the process of identifying and responding to any risks that appear during a project lifecycle. Risk management should be considered during all phases of a project, from the initial planning phase through to project execution. 

As risks are identified, project managers are responsible for identifying ways to control the risk to limit its impact and keep a project on track to meet its original goals. Some risks that commonly appear during a project include cost changes, inaccurate time estimation or even project outcomes that underperform original expectations.

In order to identify and correct these risks, project managers need an accurate look at their project performance throughout the entire project lifecycle. This can be achieved through smart technology like a client work management platform. Ideally, it will provide robust reporting and forecasting, giving project managers the data they need to quickly adjust and prevent further impact to their project outcomes. 

Using Project Management Software to Support Your Business

No matter the industry or the business strategy you’re aiming to achieve, project management software can be a tremendous asset to your project manager, program manager and the project’s contributing team members.

By incorporating automated tools like time tracking, your team will gain access to important details that can guide your project manager to make more informed decisions — ultimately leading to better project delivery. 

Accelo’s client work management platform offers time tracking, automated workflows and visibility tools like the Activity Stream, which offers users a full history of activities and communication between project contributors and their clients. With this information, the whole team has a clearer picture of the project's progress and a better understanding of the project as a whole and how their contributions fit into the overall outcome.

Learn more about how Accelo’s client work management platform can help your project and program managers work more efficiently and see Accelo in action by requesting a demo today.

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