Project Manager vs. Program Manager: Is There a Difference?

Although the titles sound similar, the job functions of project managers and program managers vary in important ways. The degree of difference depends in part on the organization for which the project/program manager works, since job titles can be rather non-specific at times. Keep in mind, many people do not have the titles “project manager” or “program manager” and yet they perform those functions. For example, an HR Manager who manages one or more ongoing aspects of the HR program; or a marketing coordinator who manages several projects within the marketing plan. The crux of the difference hinges on the definition of what is a project, and what is a program.

Project Manager

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A project manager manages one or more projects, each of which has a specific begin and end date. Projects may be related, or they may be very different. For example, as a telecommunications product manager I led many projects related to launching new products, or enhancing existing ones. I also led portions of very large projects such as a project to explore a merger or acquisition of a smaller telephone company, and the marketing portion of a rate case brought before the Illinois Commerce Commission. In each of these projects there was a specific begin and end date.

The Project Management Institute (PMI) is the global association for project, program, and portfolio management professionals. PMI (www.pmi.org) provides the following definition of a project:

A project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result.

Since the project is temporary and focuses on a unique product, service, or desired result, the project team is often comprised of individuals who do not regularly work together. This means the Project Manager must coordinate work between diverse individuals, departments, and functions. The role requires a good understanding of how work gets done across multiple departments or functions, as well as adaptability and attention to detail. 

Roles and Responsibilities of the Project Manager

A project manager has a narrow span of control—the specific project. S/he must have a deep understanding of the project. A project manager manages and controls for numerous details in the four phases of the project—initiating, planning, executing, and closing. Details include management of scope, time schedules, costs, quality, procurement, the project team, communications, stakeholders, risks, and integration of all details into a dynamic project plan. As new information is obtained, change management is employed to ensure project plans are updated and changes are communicated to all stakeholders.

A project manager must have deep technical knowledge as successful project completion often relies on strict attention to technical details. The role of a project manager is very tactical, whereas the role of a program manager is strategic as discussed in the next section.

Program Manager

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Whereas a project is temporary and consists of a unique product, service, or result, a program is ongoing. PMI provides the following definition of a program (PMBOK guide, p. 368):

A program is a group of related projects managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits and control not available from managing them individually. Programs may include elements of related work outside scope of the discrete projects in the program.

A program manager manages one or more ongoing programs. An ongoing program may have several projects within it, each with a specific begin and end date. The projects within the program may be dependent on one another, or could be fairly independent although related. For example, a program manager may be tasked with managing outsourced training and coaching services for a non-profit organization. Consider three projects within the program:

  • Training Project A is an Instructor-Led Leadership Development Workshop for top executives within the non-profit organization.
  • Coaching Project B is follow-up coaching throughout the year for participants of Training Project A.
  • Training Project C is a Conflict-Resolution Workshop for front-line supervisors.

Projects A, B, and C are related—they consist of training and/or coaching services to be provided to employees of the non-profit client. Project B is dependent on Project A—executives who attend the workshop receive coaching. Project C is independent of projects A and B. Projects A, B, and C have specific begin and end dates. The Program manager’s role is ongoing as s/he receives requests, clarifies the requests, and provides the planning and management to meet the client’s needs.

Roles and Responsibilities of the Program Manager

The program manager has responsibility for the overall goal and objective of the program. S/he delegates individual projects to project managers. The program manager focuses on strategy and implementation, looking beyond the outcome of individual projects to the long-term benefits of the entire program. The program manager role requires skills such as leadership and facilitation, financial management and budgeting, procurement and contract negotiations, and a solid understanding of the program’s governance/regulations framework.

Because programs are ongoing, process improvement and change management are integral to program management. Key metrics are monitored, reported on, and plans are put in place to improve upon the metrics. As processes are changed, change management principles are followed and program management documents are updated to reflect new policies and procedures.

Summary of Similarities and Key Differences

Sound project management principles apply to both project and program management. Both project and program manager roles require a business results orientation, an ability to build and manage teams, and excellent communication and interpersonal skills.

Key differences between project and program managers include:

  • Time orientation--Projects have a specific begin and end date and are focused on a unique product, service or outcome. Programs are ongoing and often include multiple projects.
  • Projects are tactical in nature, whereas programs are strategic in nature.
  • Project managers have a narrow focus on a product, service, or result and manage on a micro level. Program managers have a broad systems orientation and manage on a macro level.

Forecast for Project and Program Manager Positions

Project and program management skills are valued and in high demand. Anderson Economic Group in a 2012 study co-sponsored by PMI (pmi.org) predicted global demand for 1.5 million project management jobs every year over the next decade. Therefore, companies needing project management expertise will likely need to augment their direct-hire activities with contract personnel to ensure successful completion of projects.

ABOUT CATMEDIA:

CATMEDIA is a certified Woman-Owned Small Business (WOSB) firm based in Atlanta, Georgia. The firm’s trademarked communications process, CATVANTAGE™, enables the team to deliver customized solutions to meet client needs in creative services, strategic communications, training and eLearning programs, and program management. For more information about CATMEDIA, visit CATMEDIA.com.

Gloria F. Pobst, Ph.D., MBA

About Gloria F. Pobst, Ph.D., MBA

Gloria Pobst helps organizations and work groups drive performance through change management, leadership development, and action learning. She has expertise in both quantitative and qualitative research, including ethnographic methods. You can connect with Gloria via Twitter @GloriaPobst or LinkedIn.

View all posts by Gloria F. Pobst, Ph.D., MBA

Change Management, eLearning, Leadership, Program and Project Management, Training, Training

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