Project Planning

What’s the Difference Between a Program Manager and a Project Manager?

While being a project manager isn’t less significant or prestigious than being a program manager, you will find those who manage projects are often working toward a goal of reaching the latter option as they progress in their career. In many industries, these professions are frequently overlapping due to common misunderstandings of the differences between the two.

To help clear up any uncertainty people may have, we’ve put together some facts detailing both the similarities and the ways they differ from one another. You will find they are more alike than not, but some key differences clearly separate the skill sets individuals must have to fill each role.

Let’s compare the responsibilities of program managers and project managers and settle any lingering misconceptions once and for all.

Programs vs. Projects

To clarify the concepts that separate a program manager from a project manager, we first need to determine the difference between a program and a project. These two terms are often misinterpreted within the project management industry, causing a confusion of duties and obligations. Sometimes people will even get hired on as a program manager, but end up performing tasks suited for a project manager.

A project is defined as a temporary venture to plan, design, and create a product or service. Projects tend to be on a smaller scale than programs, but with a more specialized group or team working on it. They are accomplished by following a set list of tasks in order to achieve one specific goal.

On the opposite side, we have a program, which is a compilation of projects that are arranged around a similar objective, but separated enough to ensure each piece is completed accurately. While it may sound like this is simply a handful of random projects, the standards of program management have a few key details that make it unique. Programs are on a much grander scale, meaning higher budgets, multiple organization involvement, and the need for a more connected workflow.

program manager

Program Manager Differences

By reading the definition above, it’s pretty easy to assume that a program manager will end up managing numerous projects at a time. They will handle the program’s budget, organize the program management plans, and coordinate the efforts of all involved parties. This larger workload means they will be leading a bigger team and, in some cases, multiple teams.

Once the program scope has been set and the tasks have been scheduled, it is up to the program coordinator to keep all team members on track. They handle many of the human resource functions to ensure all members of the group are being effective. A difference program managers may enjoy is that they don’t have to stay updated on all project risks, but instead only focus on risks that affect milestones.

Program managers are most often found in industries that surround engineering fields. This includes industrial engineering, systems engineering, and business transformation to name a few.

Since a program includes more than one project, the manager is tasked with the responsibility of making sure everyone in the program is aware of the most vital milestones they are all working toward. As an example, all employees may need to complete a specific training as part of their project preparation. Even if different projects required unique training, a program manager can set a milestone for everyone to complete it by a set date.

Project Manager Differences

Unlike a program coordinator, a project manager is assigned a single project to lead at any given time. While they also play a role in maintaining the project’s budget, these managers aren’t usually involved until the project has begun. Many of the plans and details are already decided once they take over management.

The project manager only manages one team that is dedicated specifically to their only project. They are more specialized in the management of their project’s scope, resources, schedule, and risks. Whereas program managers only need to be concerned with major risks, project managers are keenly aware of all risks to the project, both positive and negative.

Project managers are most commonly found in the construction field. But they are also prevalent in healthcare, IT, finance, and energy industries.  

Although they generally have less people to manage, project leaders must preserve a high level of organization within their group to avoid unnecessary issues. If they focus on wielding useful tools that will help them improve team communication, have effective meetings, and analyze their workflow, it will make their job easier during the day-to-day grind. Once the project is completed, the project manager’s position will be over, but these can lead to additional opportunities which may even include program management.

How are They Similar?

Although these two roles are highly unique in numerous aspects, they still have their fair share of similarities. Both sides tend to follow the same guidelines for project management phases and processes. Though they each have different roles throughout these stages, both are involved during the initiation, planning, execution, and monitoring.

As projects come to a close, these two managers observe similar procedures to report on the work, handle the necessary documents, and distribute feedback to all parties who were involved during the process. This also includes finalizing the budget and other financial operations used in the project.

Summary

Each of these career paths offer great opportunities for professionals who enjoy managing a highly efficient team as they work together to achieve a shared goal. Let’s do a quick review to determine the key differences between a program manager and a project manager.

  • Program managers leads multiple projects and teams at one time. Project coordinators specialize in a single project with one focused group.
  • Program managers stay up-to-date on the big picture, not concerning themselves with the smaller risks of each project. Project managers must be aware of each risk surrounding their project and make adjustments as needed in response to those issues.
  • A program manager is tasked with keeping their teams advised of major milestone changes or updates. Project managers focus on every goal and every milestone, no matter how small, to ensure nothing falls through the cracks during their project.

Whether you are managing a program or a project, there are plenty of tools out there to give you an edge and enhance your daily operations. Be sure to sign up for our free newsletter for managers, below, to get weekly tips to help you manage your time, programs, and team more effectively.

September 18, 2018