Are You a Program or Project Manager?

Posted by David Montour

According to a consultant at Cambria Consulting, many organizations are asking themselves what the difference is between a project manager and a program manager. “The answer often varies significantly, even within the same organization. In some circumstances, the titles denote a difference in seniority or compensation. In others, it implies a significant difference in scope of responsibilities and organizational impact. And sometimes, there is no meaningful difference at all outside of traditional naming conventions within an organization.”

The question of what is a program manager and what makes him different from a project manager has often been asked by students in my Project Management Principles and Practices course. My initial response to them is that the question is a good one and one that is asked among many people in those industries desiring to establish these types of roles to successfully manage and deliver products and services to customers. I asked the “difference” question to a senior executive at my company and his response was “A Program Manager’s primary focus is being an integrator” whereas a “Project Manager’s primary focus is facilitating a project to completion.” I believe the answer may be in identifying the differences between a program and a project.

A program is a series of coordinated, related, multiple projects that continue over an extended time and are intended to achieve a goal. Therefore, a Program Manager provides clear goals and expected results to program/project team members and challenges them to determine how best to accomplish them. He also makes difficult program/project decisions based on objective business analysis of the situation. He understands the key business and financial issues in the project and quickly calculates the financial implications of program/project decisions and actions. He keeps project managers focused on the program vision and goals as they deal with problems, obstacles, or changes. He delivers the organization’s strategy and emphasizes the coordination and prioritization of resources across projects, managing links between the projects and the overall costs and risks of the program. Finally, the program manager is a layer above the management of projects and focuses on selecting the best group of projects, defining them in terms of their objectives and providing an environment where projects can be run successfully. The program manager should leave project management to the project managers.

A project is a complex, non-routine, one-time effort limited by time, budget, resources, and performance specifications designed to meet customer needs. Thus, a Project Manager manages these temporary, non-repetitive activities, frequently acts independently of the formal organization, assembles resources for the project, provides direction, coordination, and integration to the project team, manages a diverse set of project stakeholders, is dependent upon others for technical answers, is responsible for performance and success of the project, and must induce the right people at the right time to address the right issues and make the right decisions.

Whether you are a program or project manager, each of the roles discussed above are required for any industry that relies on project work. The fundamental differences are that a project manager works cross-functionally while a program manager works with stakeholders across the entire organization focused on strategic business objectives.

So the question remains: Are you a Program Manager or Project Manager? Perhaps you are both; perhaps your company is similar to mine where there are clear distinguishing roles and responsibilities for each. Either way, a company’s approach to managing projects of any size, complexity, and technology must address these differences. After all, success is evaluated based on whether the product or service was provided to the customer on time, within budget, and in meeting all of the project specifications/requirements.

As the Project Management Institute (PMI)® standard for Program Management states:

“During a program’s life cycle, projects are initiated and the program manager oversees and provides direction to the project managers. The integrative nature of program management processes involves coordinating the processes for each of the projects or program packages. This applies through all the process groups of Initiating, Planning, Executing, Monitoring and Controlling, and Closing, and involves managing the processes at a higher level than those pertaining to a project.”

So Are You a Program or Project Manager?

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