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If you are frustrated with trying to clearly understand the differences between project management vs. program management, then be assured you are not alone. There are a couple of reasons for this ongoing confusion. The first is that many professionals work on both projects and programs – if not necessarily simultaneously, then concurrently (e.g. after completing a project, they apply their talents to a program). The second is that there is a significant amount of overlap in project management and program management.

Project Management vs. Program Management

Let us start unpacking project management vs. program management by highlighting these core similarities, and then we can focus on the key differences.

Project Management vs. Program Management: Similarities

Essentially, there are four fundamental areas that are common to project management and program management:

    1. They are aligned with strategic organizational priorities, such as increase brand awareness in the marketplace, increase the speed of software development, improve customer experience, reduce customer churn, etc. Projects or programs that fail to clearly and convincingly answer the questions “why are we doing this?” and “what meaningful results will we get from this investment and activity?” should be revised, re-invented, or shut down.
    2. They are temporary. This may come as a surprise to those who believe that all projects are temporary, and all programs are ongoing (i.e. endless). In fact, programs are composed of multiple projects and managed in a coordinated manner. When these projects come to an end – ideally after having achieved their intended outcome – then the program will also come to end. With this being said, many programs do indeed last for years (or even decades). However, this is because the underlying projects continue in one form or another.
    3. They involve a degree of uncertainty. This is another overlapping aspect that may come as a surprise, as some people believe that projects are uncertain (and become more certain through iteration and progressive elaboration), and programs are established and known initiatives. While it is true that projects can— and often do – involve a heightened degree of uncertainty compared to programs, the fact is that both are inherently risky. This is why articles, videos, courses and books on project management best practices and program management best practices wisely spend a considerable amount of time focusing on risk management.
    4. They rely on technology-led tools, such as Portfolio and Project Management (PPM) software and task management software. Most organizations have adopted, or are in the process of adopting, cloud-based solutions so that they can increase visibility, transparency, accessibility and integrations, and take advantage of cost-saving, scalability, business continuity and security benefits.
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Project Management vs. Program Management: Differences

Now that we have looked at the common aspects shared by both project management and program management, we can shift our focus and look at the differences. The core areas of distinction are: scope, duration, objective, change management, and stakeholder management.

Scope
As noted above in the section about similarities in project management vs. program management similarities, projects are singular in the sense that they have a definitive scope: there is a clear start date, an anticipated end date, and specific deliverables that should be achieved by following a series of plans (the word “should” here is used, because most projects deviate from initial expectations – and as discussed by the Project Management Institute, quite a number of them fail to some degree). Alternatively, program management is an approach to managing multiple projects that are part of a cohesive, connected strategy. If a project is an airplane, then a program is a transportation hub.

Duration
Also as noted above in the section on similarities in project management vs. program management, both types of initiatives are temporary. However, typically projects are shorter-term endeavors, while programs are typically longer-term endeavors. For this reason, many people view programs as ongoing, when in fact their existence and duration is determined by a set of connected projects (which usually have different start/end dates and durations, and are each led by a designated project manager).

Objective
The fundamental objective of project management — and basically, the end-all-and-be-all of what is project management all about – is to complete all tasks on time and within budget. The fundamental objective of program management is to realize business outcomes. Another way to look at this is that projects focus on deliverables, while programs focus on benefits. However, as noted earlier both project deliverables and program benefits must be aligned with strategic organizational priorities.

Change Management
Since projects focus on achieving specific deliverables, the goal is typically to minimize change and adhere to the plan (with this in mind, some projects can go off-the-rails and significant change is unavoidable). In program management, there is generally more tolerance and flexibility with respect to change, since the aim is to realize business benefits. For example, an organization may implement a program that is designed to measurably and sustainably increase Net Promoter Score (NPS). In pursuit of this strategic benefit, the program manager and other decision-makers may significantly adjust resources, tactics, budgets and targets on an ongoing basis due to changing variables and factors.

Stakeholder Management
While both project management and program management involve stakeholder management, there is typically a significant difference between them that is, unfortunately, not lost on program managers who sometimes wish they were a project manager (or anything else for that matter!). Simply put, stakeholder management in a program management context is generally much more difficult than it is in project management, because many — and sometimes all – of the business benefits will be realized in the future. Project managers also have this challenge, but they can point to progress per the project plan as a way to demonstrate ongoing success (i.e. as long as things are being done on time and in budget, then there is no reason for stakeholders to be unduly alarmed). Program managers do not often have this leverage or luxury, since they are usually dealing with several projects that are unfolding in different stages with a lag between when the work is complete and the business impact becomes clear. Because of this, it is easy to grasp why effective and consistent stakeholder management is seen as a crucially important program management process.

The Bottom Line
The above discussion on project management vs. program management provides a solid foundation of the similarities and differences. As for the question “which one is better?”, there is no correct answer. They both have their place and purpose, and are important to helping organizations perform, achieve and succeed.


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