You can arrive at your destination only when the course is correctly set, and all participants know where and why they are going. The project and the program are management categories, where special attention is paid to competent planning. How to understand the difference between them and what these differences affect?

  • The project is an interrelated set of activities and processes the main goal of which is the implementation of a large-scale task. Projects main attributes are the availability of deadlines, resources, and mission. The project implementation can be calculated quantitatively as well as qualitatively.
  • A program is a group of projects united by a single goal, management, resources, mission. Their result is a qualitative state change caused by the implementation of planned tasks.




How the Projects and Programs are Different?

The most important difference between these concepts is their scale. A program is several projects united by one goal. It is measured not quantitatively, but qualitatively and implies a change of state. Terms of project implementation, as a rule, are rigidly defined, and their transfer will inevitably affect the implementation of the program. There are also differences in the complexity of the implementation of the tasks. The implementation of the project seems to be simpler since for success it is enough to achieve goals by a certain period. The program is only a hypothesis, which must be confirmed in practice.



  • A project is well-defined, with a project charter that spells out exactly what the scope and objectives are for the project. A program tends to have greater levels of uncertainty. The team is also bigger. The program team is supervising and coordinating the work on several projects so while the core team may not have that many people in, the wider team includes the project managers and all the project team members.


  • This is the most significant difference between projects and programs. A project represents a single effort. It is a group of people forming a team working towards a common goal. A program is different; it is a collection of projects. Together all the projects form a cohesive package of work.


  • Some projects do go on for several years, but most of the projects you’ll work on will be shorter than that. On the other hand, programs are longer. As they set out to deliver more stuff, they take longer. Programs tend to be split into tranches or phases. Some projects are also split like this, but not all projects last long enough to be delivered in multiple phases.


  • A project team works towards achieving certain outputs, that is, what you get at the end. For example, this could be a set of deliverables that form a software package, or a new retail branch, or whatever it is that you are working on. The benefits of a project tend to be tangible: you get a ‘thing’ at the end of it. A program team works towards delivering outcomes. Outcomes can be tangible but are often not. The benefits of a program are the sum of the benefits of all the different projects, and this could amount to a policy or cultural change, or a shift in the way an organization works.


Program Manager and Project Manager – What’s the Difference?


Usually, both programs and projects are aimed at achieving one common goal and business result. For example, a program for launching a new marketing campaign consists of several projects, including creating content, working on social networks, promoting and preparing all the necessary materials for the campaign. This is an example of a situation where both a program manager and a project manager are involved in the work. But what are the responsibilities of each of them?



What Does the Program Manager Do?


A program manager can be called a strategic leader. It is he who defines the objectives of the program and its importance for business. The task of the program manager is to outline a plan and make a list of interdependent projects that must be completed to achieve a common goal. As for the program itself, its manager is engaged in the development and implementation of the strategy, as well as the appointment of staff responsible for individual projects. For example, if a program involves a marketing campaign, then a manager may include attracting potential customers, increasing brand awareness and expanding the target market to the list of goals. The role of the program manager goes beyond the implementation of individual projects and addresses the long-term benefits of the program as a whole.



What Does a Project Manager do?


The project manager manages the implementation of a separate project within the program. He coordinates the timeline, budget, and use of resources and distributes tasks between team members. The project manager reports to the program manager on the progress of work and changes to the original project plan. The role of the project manager is rather tactical: he deals mainly with practical issues, such as meeting deadlines and budget frameworks, completing work on reporting materials. In general, the role of the project manager ends with the completion of the project, although it may be useful to analyze the progress of work once again to understand what turned out to be useful and what did not.


Projects and Programs in Use


The table below highlights the key differences between projects vs. programs in use:




The success is measured regarding the business benefit, ROI, or new capabilities. The outcome is managed using a benefit-plan. Project success is measured regarding producing specific deliverables regarding time, quality, and cost.
Programs are concerned with “doing the right things” because they aim at benefits, not deliverables. They are more strategic than projects. Projects are about “doing things right” because they are more concerned with deliverables than benefits. They are concerned with tactics, not strategy.
Have a wide scope, focusing on benefits, and may have to change scope dramatically during the execution to meet the changing needs of the organization. The scope of projects is tight – they are limited to producing deliverables.
Programs will span multiple functional units within an organization Projects are typically confined to a single functional unit within an organization.
Usually executed over a much longer timeframe than projects, often several years. Projects by definition have a finite duration and are typical of a shorter timeframe than programs, often just a few weeks.


The diagram shows a simplified view of how projects and programs fit within the hierarchy of a business.



Think of diagram as showing the people running the business at the top of the triangle – the CEO and board. At the bottom of the triangle, we have the individual specialists who are working as part of a project. At the top of the diagram, we have the Business Level where the board run the business. People at this level are concerned with, amongst other things, setting strategic direction to realize the vision, and managing a portfolio of programs to move towards the vision.


The next level in the diagram is the Program Level. Here a program can initiate and control multiple projects to realize benefits. The program could also cancel projects if they weren’t the best way to realize the needed benefits due to a change in the business environment. Finally, we reach the Project Level. Here projects are initiated by the Program Level (or in smaller organizations without a program level, directly by the business level). Projects have a defined scope (set of deliverables) and must work efficiently to deliver these to time, budget, and quality constraints.


This diagram also highlights the difference between the project and the program and portfolio levels of management. The Business Level is responsible for managing a change portfolio, essentially several programs. Within the portfolio, each program is responsible for managing several projects.


Let’s look at a practical example of building a mobile phone. A software project exists for the operating system of the device to make sure it’s updated so that it works with the new hardware (as well as updating key applications). The project will aim to deliver the operating system and applications on time, on the budget, and to the required quality level. The program that sits above this project will be much broader in scope. It’s targeted with delivering a mobile phone that maximizes profit for the business. Our software projects will be just one of the projects controlled by the program. Other projects could include: Go To Market, Hardware, Tooling, Legal, Business Affairs, Support… In fact, some of these projects may be so large and complex that they may be programs.


One of the key jobs of the program is to manage dependencies between projects, for example, the program must coordinate between the Tooling project and the Go To Market project to ensure alignment around the number of devices that the factory must produce to meet market demand. This will change over time and requires careful coordination so there isn’t over or undersupply, both of which would result in a reduced return on investment.

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