The project management ecosystem is undergoing significant changes as organizations increasingly adopt new workplace models. This fast-paced adoption has led to the proliferation of cross-functional remote and hybrid teams and the demand for servicing increasingly complex projects. Hence, organizations need program and project managers to oversee these teams. Both program managers and project managers have similar roles but significantly contrasting responsibilities.
This article discusses the differences between a program manager and a project manager, along with their roles and responsibilities in project portfolio management and program management.
Program Manager vs. Project Manager: An Overview
Program managers and project managers play a critical role in an organization’s operational success, but their roles, daily tasks and overarching approaches are strikingly different. However, their responsibilities are often intertwined. The key difference between the two roles is that program managers oversee a group of projects and often have a more strategic role in achieving project deliverables. In contrast, project managers focus more on individual projects within a program.
Understanding Projects and Programs
A program is a set of projects that an organization plans and manages to achieve a strategic objective. For example, a strategic goal could be augmenting business operations, defining a marketing strategy, or performing sales enablement.
A project is a set of tasks that a team completes in a sequence to achieve tangible outcomes. Teams are required to create a project plan and allocate resources effectively to complete a project.
What Is a Program Manager?
A program manager is a professional who plays a key role in managing a program’s complete life cycle, defining its objectives and articulating its strategy. Program managers also work with stakeholders to identify and document program requirements and determine the budget, time and schedule required to complete a project within its program’s guidelines. This close coordination ensures that the program contributes to organizational success.
What Does a Program Manager Do?
A program manager organizes program management plans, delegates projects, manages stakeholders, mentors project teams, and oversees the entire program life cycle. A program manager has greater responsibilities than a project manager because they impact their organization’s longer-term growth, not just short-term or stand-alone projects. Hence program managers have a strategic role and add more value to an organization. Companies with long-term and highly complex project clusters require program managers to manage projects, people, skills, timelines, and budgets.
Roles & Key Responsibilities of a Program Manager
The primary role of a program manager is to manage a group of projects to achieve an overarching strategic goal. While program managers’ roles and responsibilities often differ across organizations, they often share certain typical responsibilities, which are listed below.
Create an Actionable Program Strategy
Program managers think strategically about their organization’s long-term goals and mission, and part of their job is to define the best practices for managing a program plan. In this capacity, they outline plans that define budgets, schedules, tentative dependencies and possible roadblocks. Plus, program managers monitor daily progress, ensuring that individual projects align with program objectives.
Oversee and Manage a Program
Program managers collectively oversee the life cycle of a program and projects by collaborating with project managers, portfolio managers, teams, and stakeholders. They coordinate between various teams and programs and oversee projects’ interdependencies.
Coordinate Between Teams
Part of a program manager’s job is to make communication between cross-functional teams seamless. To that end, they host kick-off meetings at the start of each project to align teams, stakeholders, and project managers. They also maintain an open line of communication with teams to track the progress of interrelated projects, identify gaps and determine effective solutions.
Identify and Mitigate Program Risks
Program managers are excellent problem-solvers who identify and mitigate potentially disruptive risks. Most program managers begin with a well-defined program plan, scope, budget, timeline, and detailed project charter. As a result, they are less likely to encounter risks or unexpected events. Moreover, program managers organize regular team meetings to monitor potential problem areas, ensuring that teams stay aligned with the program plan.
Define Success Metrics
From the start of a program, a program manager analyzes and measures Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), productivity and ROI metrics. A program manager also ensures that projects achieve their initial goals. Then, they compile the key metrics and measure a program’s quantifiable results to identify improvement areas before planning the next program.
Essential Skills of a Program Manager
1. Communication Skills
Communication has assumed much greater significance in post-pandemic workplaces. The lack of in-person meetings means program managers must make an effort to regularly reach out to stakeholders, address their concerns and update them on the progress of ongoing projects. In fact, communication is vital for collaboration. Therefore, program managers should be efficient communicators so they can manage and explain data to resources and stakeholders.
2. Leadership and Management Skills
Program managers should possess strong leadership skills so they can manage conflicts and disagreements that may arise while creating a program strategy. They should be good motivators who can help team members contribute toward organizational success. A program manager should be skilled in managing resources, risk, time, and stakeholders to ensure favorable program outcomes. In addition, a program manager should know how to manage culturally diverse and remote teams and how to promote diversity, equality, and inclusion.
3. Budgeting Skills
Beyond leadership skills, a program manager must possess expense and cost management skills to manage bills and other utilization effectively. Efficient budgeting skills help program managers identify areas where their organizations could potentially overspend. A program manager should also track costs and expenses throughout a program’s life cycle to ensure that the actual cost doesn’t exceed the budget.
4. Organizational and Analytical Skills
Program managers are responsible for identifying, interpreting, and translating program data into actionable business insights to help them make informed financial and operational decisions. Therefore, they must be familiar with project management tools and software packages that allow them to execute projects successfully.
In the wake of rapid technology changes, program managers must adopt emerging technologies and learn them as they go. They can future-proof their teams and programs by keeping up to date with trends that could impact their organization. Therefore, they must champion technology and digitization and embrace these things proactively while inspiring their teams and organization to follow suit.
What Is a Project Manager?
A project manager is responsible for managing all activities and tasks of individual projects. They allocate resources, delegate tasks, and track progress to ensure that all aspects of a project are on track and within budget. Project managers often work alongside program managers or report to the latter.
What Does a Project Manager Do?
From project planning to closure, project managers play a vital role in planning, executing, controlling, monitoring, and completing all project-related tasks. They are accountable for the overall project scope, team, budget, resources, and, thus, the project outcome. A project manager creates a project plan, assigns tasks, sets the project scope, defines schedules and evaluates project deliverables to identify improvement areas.
Roles & Key Responsibilities of a Project Manager
A project manager creates and executes a project plan. We have listed some of their primary responsibilities below.
Plan and Organize the Project
One of the primary roles of project managers is to plan, organize and manage projects. Project managers outline actionable project plans and break down complex projects into tasks. Then, they delegate tasks to the resources after defining them.
Track the Project’s Progress
Project managers are responsible for tracking the progress of the project and its daily operations. They also ensure that the teams work on delegated tasks.
Allocate and Manage Project Resources
After analyzing resource availability and skill levels, project managers allocate tasks to the right resources. Thus, they identify the best-fit resources and ensure optimal resource allocation and utilization.
Coordinate With Stakeholders
A project manager’s foremost priority is to meet stakeholders’ expectations and ensure their satisfaction. Therefore, a project manager should regularly communicate the project’s progress and provide necessary updates to relevant stakeholders. In addition, project managers are expected to document project developments and provide a comprehensive report to program managers and stakeholders.
Essential Skills of a Project Manager
1. Task Management Skills
A project manager is responsible for planning and delegating tasks. They must also inform and update team members and stakeholders about the project plan, timeline, budget and recent developments. Task management directly impacts a project’s success. Therefore, a project manager must understand team members’ innate strengths and weaknesses before delegating tasks to achieve the desired results.
2. Technical Expertise
A project manager is expected to know how to use project management and workforce management tools and project planning and collaboration software. Hence, project managers should constantly upskill and reskill to compete in a technology-driven marketplace.
Technical skills and knowledge can help project managers understand new technologies and gain programming knowledge, creative design skills, and software proficiency that help them oversee product development. While project managers may not need to perform hands-on coding having technical expertise allows them to support their teams and plan for new projects effectively.
3. Project Management Skills
Today, project managers should understand, interpret and leverage the best project management practices so they can execute projects successfully. A project manager should be familiar with the various project management methodologies so they can choose the right approach for various stages of the project. Using the right project management methodologies and implementing tried-and-tested mitigation strategies help project managers keep their projects on time and on budget. A project manager should possess these skills in order to execute projects successfully.
4. Team Management
Many Fortune 500 companies have adopted the use of remote and hybrid workplaces. And as project managers manage increasingly diverse remote and hybrid teams, they must foster a collaborative spirit and make team members feel valued. Hence, project managers must possess team management skills so they can build a nurturing work environment and a culture of openness. In addition, implementing robust team management practices helps safeguard employees from burnout and the stress caused by trends like the Great Resignation and Quiet Quitting.
Project managers should also excel at diplomacy, conflict resolution and maintaining realistic schedules while focusing on broader organizational goals.
5. Communication & Problem-solving Skills
From project kick-offs to stakeholder meetings, a project manager acts as a liaison between stakeholders and project teams. Hence, they must communicate effectively to articulate the project plan and workflows. On the other hand, if their communication is ineffective, it can delay the exchange of information and lead to missed deadlines.
Plus, poor communication can adversely affect an organization’s productivity and work culture, resulting in workplace conflicts and low employee morale. Therefore, improving communication can boost productivity, employee morale, and the bottom line.
Differences Between a Program Manager and a Project Manager
Program managers supervise a group of projects – that are linked through a common business objective – collectively called a program.
Project managers ensure that projects are aligned with the organization’s goals and are carried out on time and within budget.
Program managers collaborate with project managers to plan project budgets, schedules and goals.
Project managers communicate with stakeholders, including program managers and the project team, to ensure alignment with business goals.
Program managers focus on overall business growth and have a more strategic role.
Project managers have a more tactical focus and work toward specific outcomes and pre-defined deliverables.
Program managers are responsible for developing the program plan and coordinating with resources across projects.
Project managers are responsible for planning, executing and monitoring a project.
Program managers are accountable for achieving long-term business objectives.
Project managers work toward short-term and concrete deliverables.
Program managers are responsible for developing programs and portfolios to meet strategic objectives.
Project managers focus on completing tasks in line with the objectives.
Program managers’ success is measured in terms of program strategies, ROI metrics, and company objectives.
Project managers’ success is measured in terms of timelines, budgets and stakeholder satisfaction.
Program Manager vs. Project Manager
Regardless of your organization’s size, you must understand how program managers and project managers contribute to organizational success. Here’s how program managers and project managers compare:
Program Manager vs. Project Manager: Education and Experience
As managing a program requires a more strategic approach, organizations today are looking for program managers who hold an advanced degree, such as a master’s in business administration, business management or leadership. Plus, they need to have more than five years of experience in organizing and strategizing long-term objectives with cross-functional teams.
Since the program manager cannot handle the overall program strategy and various projects, they look for project managers who hold a bachelor’s or master’s degree in business management, project management, technology, or administration. Also, they prioritize project managers with at least two years of experience in managing deliverables, stakeholders, resources and project life cycles without extensive supervision.
Program Manager vs. Project Manager: Certifications
There are millions of master’s degree holders around the world, which makes it difficult for organizations to find the right talents. Therefore, they prefer program managers with Program Management Professional (PgMP) or Managing Successful Programmes (MSP) Practitioner certifications. When hiring a project manager, they prioritize professionals with certifications in Project Management Professional (PMP), PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP), Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM), and Certified ScrumMaster (CSM).
Program Manager vs. Project Manager: In Their Day-To-Day Tasks and Activities
A program manager supervises a group of related projects. They are responsible for developing the program plan, coordinating resources, and ensuring that the program meets its objectives. In contrast, a project manager is responsible for creating a project management plan and executing, monitoring, controlling, and completing a project.
Program Manager vs. Project Manager: In Their Scope and Approach
Project managers have a tactical focus. They work with the project team and stakeholders to achieve tangible results and work on pre-defined deliverables. Unlike project managers, program managers have a more strategic focus; they work toward implementing an effective program strategy while ensuring its alignment with the organization’s objectives.
Program Manager vs. Project Manager: In Their Core Values and Priorities
A program manager oversees how multiple projects align with business objectives. A program manager’s job is to oversee project operations and monitor how they contribute to the bigger picture. They are also accountable for people, policies, business strategy, ROI metrics, financial growth, and organizational goals.
In contrast, project managers have to plan individual projects, manage project resources and track their progress. From project ideation to completion, project managers manage day-to-day operations for their projects. Therefore, they must be proficient in managing the six aspects of a project – that is, scope, timeline, risk, quality, finance, and resources.
Program Manager vs. Project Manager: Defining Success Metrics
Program managers measure the ROI of the entire program. They also track budgets, schedules, resource utilization, risks and risk mitigation plans to meet the project’s objectives. In enterprises, program managers may also track earned value.
In contrast, project managers measure the ROI of their individual projects. They also track the budget, schedule, resource utilization, risks, and issues related to the projects they oversee. The metrics they report roll up to the program level, where they are consolidated by the program manager.
Similarities Between Program Managers and Project Managers
There are several differences between program managers and project managers – primarily in their objectives, scope and the tasks that they execute. But, in many ways, they are quite similar, having similar skill sets and using similar tools. Plus, both must possess strong communication and leadership skills to interact effectively with people at different levels within the organization. In addition to making plans and delegating tasks, both need to think critically and undertake negotiations.
Program Managers vs. Project Managers – Choosing the Right Role for Your Organizations
If you wish to measure performance, you must create a successful strategy. However, the program manager will help you strategize and meet the organizational objectives in a defined time and within budget.
In contrast, project managers will help you manage resources and execute projects successfully. There are several differences between program managers and project managers – primarily in their roles, objectives, scope and the tasks that they execute. But, in many ways, they are quite similar, have similar project management skills and use similar project tools. Both program managers and project managers play a crucial role in the successful execution of projects and strive to achieve the long-term objectives of the organization. Both program managers and project managers enable organizations to execute projects successfully and achieve long-term objectives.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Can a project manager become a program manager?
Program managers and project managers require the same skills and often use similar tools. However, if you want to work as a program manager, you’ll need to develop some additional skills: strong leadership qualities, communication skills, and the ability to multitask.
2. Are program managers more senior than product managers?
Project managers and program managers are both high-level positions that offer abundant professional rewards and perks. However, a program manager is typically the more senior role since program managers oversee multiple projects and have more managerial duties than project managers.
3. Does a project manager report to a program manager?
A project manager oversees the operations of individual projects within a program. Their job is to adhere to program guidelines by overseeing time, budgets, and resources and reporting progress to the program manager.