Project Management versus Program Management

Sometimes when words and their meanings are similar, it can be hard for people to effectively distinguish between the two.  Because project management and program management are similar, some might not fully understand the differences, so we are here to help clear up any confusion in the terms. Starting with the very definition of the words Project and Program.

What is a project

A project is a planned set of tasks that can either be carried out individually or collectively with the primary aim of accomplishing specific goals as a whole or in several stages.

What is a program

A program is a variety of smaller related projects that are managed in a coordinated way and are accomplished simultaneously, sharing activities, aids, and shareholders.

Project Management

Project Management is the skillful leadership of a group of people with diverse qualifications that constitute a team to oversee, handle, plan, organize and execute a specific project to meet the desired objective of the project, while time, budget, and value are considered. Project management seeks to optimize the workload of individual team members and other resources, thereby ensuring effective progress of the project in order to complete the scope within the allotted time.

Project management is all about executing and delivering a unique project that meets the requirements of the project sponsors, or the “scope” of the project. The main aim of project management is to ensure that the goals and objectives of the project are achieved within a defined time and budget.

Project management has specific stages project managers use to guide their team from start to finish.  Terminology can vary, but the basic stages of a project include:

  • Project initiation
  • Project planning
  • Project execution
  • Project controlling and monitoring
  • Project conclusion

Program Management

Program management, on the other hand, is the process of overseeing and managing multiple related projects to improve the performance of an organization. Program management focuses on the interdependencies of these related projects, with their multiple deliverables, and seeks to provide efficient and reliable results for the organization’s strategic goals.

It helps develop standard quality in delivering projects. The main objective of program management is to oversee numerous projects, especially with efficient project management systems as opposed to individual management.

Similarities between project management and program management

Since project management and program management are both aimed at achieving desired outcomes, there are some similarities. These similarities are:

  • Both project management and program management have a start date.
  • They both perform a service, which is to execute a project or numerous projects.
  • They both have a budget.
  • Both project and program management are managed by an individual – the project manager for project management and the program manager for program management.
  • They are both typically controlled by the Program Management Office (PMO).
  • Effective program and project management are the reasons many organizations and businesses run smoothly and effectively today.

Key differences between program management and project management

Although, the goal of both project management and program management is to effectively oversee a project from initiation to closing, still, they differ in a lot of ways. The major differences between program management and project management are:

Time Frame

Time frame is an essential difference between project management and program management. In project management, the project is expected to have a specific time frame which is usually short, while program management has a time frame that is longer and can last up to many years. Project management is a one-time (usually) short-term project, while program management is normally a long-term project that can repeat.


A major difference between project management and program management is their work description.

Project managers typically have a clearly defined set of requirements, or scope, with a set of deliverables, such as tests to be completed, reports to be generated, a meeting schedule that will require actions and outputs.  Work is measured in specific units, or tasks to be completed by the team, and the completion of these tasks is measured as progress on the project.  The project also has a specific due date, which used for calculating the project’s schedule.

This is a very different case in program management, as it entails the management of multiple related projects and ensuring they all result in success  The schedule for a program may be more fluid, with shifting dependencies as time progresses, but it will typically be presented as an integrated master schedule that captures all the tasks for the projects included in the program.  Deliverables may also be inter-related or dependent, such as a Program Design Reviews or Implementation Status Reviews.  Program management also offers the benefit of consistency and standardization for the projects that are within the program that might not otherwise exist if the project were delivered individually.

KPI and Areas of Focus

The focus of a program manager is broad because they focus on several projects, while that of a project manager is more narrowly defined because they manage each project separately.

Program management works to an integrated master schedule that accounts for all the tasks in the related projects within the program, while project management has a specified schedule for the individual project.

Program management typically will have a more customer focused set of KPIs, including Customer Satisfaction, Success Rate, and Customer Retention.  Other common KPIs for program management include Return on Investment (ROI) and Earned Value (EV).

Project management, on the other hand, has some very specific KPIs that are easily measured and may include percent of milestones complete, Cost Variance (CV), Schedule Variance (SV), and Estimate to Complete (ETC).

Taking advantage of those with knowledge of project management and program management can make a significant impact on a company’s future growth. These business tools help businesses succeed when they are rightly used. At Thurman Co, we help businesses manage their projects and programs properly. With their projects in the hands of a trusted source, there is no cause for alarm or worry. Contact us for more information to get your projects managed by a professional.

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