The roles of a program manager and a project manager sound alike, and they are not without their similarities in terms of responsibilities and day-to-day activities. However, it is important to understand that programs and projects differ from one another in terms of scale, governance, financing, and objectives.
It stands to reason, therefore, that the roles of a program manager and a project manager would also have substantial differences, and that program management courses would have different focuses to project management courses. In this article, we will take a closer look at the ways the two roles differ from one another.
Understanding Programs and Projects
First, it is important to establish the differences between programs and projects. Put simply, programs are concerned with long-term business strategy and operations, and have multiple components. By contrast, a project is more of an individual undertaking, with a clear start point and an objective that signifies completion when achieved.
“Projects have clear end dates and short-term goals that give way to tangible outcomes or deliverables," says Brianna Hansen, writing for Wrike. “Programs are composed of several underlying, interconnected projects. A successful program drives strategic benefits and organizational growth, rather than a single, tangible deliverable."
One way to think of this difference is that programs tend to be broad and made up of several different projects, which are managed collectively and coherently. Meanwhile, PM training courses tend to emphasize the fact that projects are much more individual, focused entities, with a clear objective and a deadline to be met.
Exploring the Nature of the Two Roles
Aside from programs and projects having clear differences, it is also important to understand that the roles of a program manager and project manager differ in their very nature. These differences mean program management courses and project management courses teach fundamentally different approaches to day-to-day work tasks.
It is generally fair to say that a program manager has a broader range of responsibilities, while a project manager’s responsibilities are more focused. This is because program managers often need to oversee multiple projects and project teams, while project managers oversee their project, and their project team.
“Project managers are more like engineers, who plan in detail and provide ways to enable the vision," Wright1 Consulting explain in a blog post for Workfront, Inc. “Program managers are more like architects…they think about the structure of the program, organizing the projects within the program, to achieve success."
It is also sometimes said that program managers engage in day-to-day activities that are more strategic in nature, taking into account the bigger picture, as their results tend to have wider implications for the business. By comparison, project managers engage in activities that are more technical in nature, as they are primarily concerned with completing the tasks they need to, in order to deliver their project on time and meet the specification.
Additional Areas of Comparison
One of the most interesting areas of comparison between program managers and project managers is centered around tangible benefits Vs. the collective benefits. More specifically, there is a difference in the way success is measured in either a project or a program for professionals working in the two roles. Again, this is largely linked to the differences between programs and projects.
For example, with a program, success metrics tend to be less rigid, clear-cut or easy to quantify. This is because the outcome of a program is typically a much broader company benefit. Measuring success can be more nuanced because it depends on the benefit that was intended to be delivered, and the extent to which the program actually delivered it. Programs also have less obvious end dates, so the benefits may need to be measured continually.
On the other hand, the outcome of a project tends to be a ‘thing’, which is either delivered or not. Success can be measured based on whether the project was delivered on time, completed within the agreed budget, product quality, or end users satisfaction with the outcome.
Finally, the issue of funding is also a critical difference for program and project managers. Program managers tend to have more financial responsibility because a program can have wider implications for the company’s financial results. This means their budget may not be static, and finances need to be continually managed.
In contrast, PM training courses may not place such an emphasis on financial management for project managers. This is because a project will usually have a clear budget allocated to it, which the project manager will be aware of from the outset. From there, their financial management largely amounts to staying within the budget.
Ultimately, while there is plenty of cross-over, the roles of program managers and project managers are markedly different from one another. These differences can largely be explained by the differences between programs and projects, in terms of scope, financial management, objectives, and output, among other things.
Put simply, the role of a program manager tends to include a broader range of responsibilities, as well as more continual financial management, while there is less emphasis on tangible output. The role of a project manager tends to be more focused, with more definitive budgets to work with, and judgments are based on the finished product.
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