How Project and Program Management Compare

In my Project Management career I’ve been asked, why don’t I become a Program Manager? You could say it’s the same thing, just bigger. Let’s spend a little time defining and illustrating the difference.

By the Project Management Institute’s standards, a project is:

  • Temporary, in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources.
  • Unique, in that it is not a routine operation, but a specific set of operations designed to accomplish a singular goal. So a project team often includes people who don’t usually work together — sometimes from different organizations and across multiple geographic areas.

Business projects can cross all industries and countries. They can include software development, business processes, construction of homes or other structures, process development and other things. All projects have one set of things in common: the need to deliver on-time with on-budget results while providing learning and integration that organizations require.

The application of knowledge, skills and techniques to execute projects effectively and efficiently is the heart of project management. It’s a strategic competency for organizations, enabling them to tie project results to business goals — and thus, better compete in their markets.

Project management knowledge draws on nine areas: integration, cost, scope, time, quality, procurement, communications, HR and risk management. These areas are used to maintain the “project management triangle” — time, scope and budget — while solving the project’s challenges with an overriding theme of quality.

So, Programs Are…?

In contrast, programs are typically several related projects being run together as one whole cohesive project, typically with the intention of improving an organization’s performance and strategy. Programs may include elements of related work outside of the scope of the discreet projects in the program.

According to PMI, a program is “a group of related projects managed in a coordinated manner to obtain benefits and control not available from managing them individually.” Program management also emphasizes the coordinating and prioritizing of resources across projects, managing links between the projects and the overall costs and risks of the program. It also provides a layer above project management, 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.

So which do you want to do: Run the program or get down into the weeds and run the projects? That’s the question to ask yourself to decide which track is more appealing.

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