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Project manager vs. program manager. What’s the difference?

PostsProject management
Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

June 24, 2020

This post was originally published on November 6, 2018, and updated most recently on June 24, 2020.

Two similar-sounding job titles; two very different roles. And while there is some overlap between the two, they are fundamentally unique, each with their own set of challenges and goals.

First, let’s begin by defining projects and programs.

Simply put, a project is an enclosed task with a finite duration, and a program is a collection of projects that contribute to a long-term goal. Sounds simple, right? Sort of. But there’s actually a little more to these two than meets the eye. Let’s start at the beginning.

Program manager vs. project manager: What’s the difference?

To untangle the two terms, it’s helpful to think of programs as being the long-term bigger picture, and projects as being shorter phases that all feed into it.

So while projects could potentially go on for days, months, or even years, they do have a defined end point, and they consist of a combined effort towards a single output. They’re usually built around constraints such as time, budget and resources. A program, on the other hand, is a collection of related projects all working together to feed into a bigger overarching goal.

Another difference between the two is the outcome. At the end of a project, you should have a tangible thing. For example, a new website, an app, a product, an event, or a store.

Programs are a little different, insofar as the outcome is usually a benefit. It could be an overarching company goal, such as growth, a change in policy, or a new way of doing things within the business. They’re also longer-term and may be continual without a defined end date.

It may be helpful to think about the two in terms of the words ‘what’ and ‘why’. A project is a technical action, such as ‘open a new store’. That’s the ‘what.’ And the why? To strategically grow the business.

Following that logic, the program manager is in charge of managing and tracking the big picture items. Is each project moving forward on time? Are all projects in alignment with the over-arching goal or mission? What could each project manager be doing to make the project go more smoothly?

A project manager, on the other hand, is focused on the minutia of the project(s) they are managing. They should know every detail of how that project is moving forward and how the team members are doing. They may not know as much about other projects going on at the same time or how they all ladder up together.

To use another analogy, a program manager is a little like a movie director. They’ll take charge of the overall story, delivery and look of the film. But they’ll also have a team of makeup artists, set designers, lighting technicians, cinematographers, caterers, gaffers, and runners all dealing with their own unique set of highly specific tasks that all contribute to the director’s overall vision.

So what exactly does a project manager do?

A project manager takes care of an individual project within the program. Things such as budgets, resources, stocks, and schedules all fall under their remit. They also manage issues, risks, scopes, changes, and members of the team. A project manager has a lot of responsibilities to keep track of.

They make their decisions based on the program guidelines, then report their progress to the program manager. And when the project is complete, it’s their job to confirm it a success or failure, provide feedback, and archive project documents.

Keeping on top of time and budget while updating the program manager and managing your team of workers is no easy ask. So as you’ve probably guessed, a good project manager is highly organized, and very flexible.

A little like spinning plates, project managers need to give each element of their task their close attention. Let one thing slip, and the whole lot comes tumbling down.

What does a program manager do?

Program management is all about strategy. One of a program manager’s key roles is to make sure all of the different project work streams are all working together towards the overarching goal. And while they also have to manage things such as budgets, scopes, and resources, they do it from a much broader perspective.

They manage the overall budget and divvy it up between the individual projects. They also define the overall program’s schedule, which includes defining the program’s milestones.

While a program manager will want to know about project risks and budget, they won’t need to manage every minute detail. They just need to know those that impact each milestone.

And when the job’s done? They’ll also need to provide feedback to the project leads, as well as archive program documents and close financial contracts.

A good program manager is a strategic thinker. They’re also a good delegator, communicator, and they know a thing or two about prioritization; they don’t have time to get hung up on the granular details. Above all, their organization skills need to be razor-sharp.

What’s a program manager vs. a product manager?

Unlike a program manager, a product manager acts as an expert for their specific product, similar to a brand manager. The product manager works cross-functionally between all the different teams working on the product, for it’s ideation and engineering all the way through to its marketing and placement.

The product manager should be able to answer just about any question someone might have about the product they’re in charge of manager. You could think of them as a chef. They help come up with recipes, cook the dish, teach others to cook the dish, and often help with the presentation and branding of their foods. Just don’t expect them to know how to do the wiring in the restaurant, that’s someone else’s expertise.

The right tools for the job

A bad workman may blame his tools, but bad tools can make or break a project (or program). A bad product means your team will waste time compensating for its flaws, rather than focusing on the task at hand.

There’s no denying a good project management system is the backbone of a neater, more organized project. And the better the organization, the more efficient the project or program.

Program managers are more focused on cross-team communication and milestone management, so they’ll want broad big-picture data — whereas project managers will need to zoom in and track individual tasks. Version control, issue logs, and bug tracking functionalities are all must-haves.

It’s also a good idea to choose a project management tool that allows a high level of customization. Each project, program, organization, and individual is different. So rather than forcing everyone and everything into a format that’s not quite right, choose software that adapts around you.

And finally, a word on collaboration

It’s a word that gets thrown around like confetti in the business world. But time and time again, it crops up as the number one issue to productivity. Nowhere is effective communication more important than in project and program management.

The secret sauce to great communication is flexibility. Understanding that everyone has their own way of working not only shows your team members you appreciate them as individuals, but it will help everyone work to their full potential. Remember: Take care of your team, and they’ll take care of the work.



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