Program Manager vs. Project Manager: Job Description & Key Differences

in Research   Posted on July 16, 2021  Author: Imed Bouchrika,

There has been a lot of confusion with regards to what a project manager is vs. what a program manager is. Some think they mean the same thing, while others use them interchangeably. Given the importance of these roles, it is important to clear the confusion immediately.

In the area of project management, there is no project manager vs. program manager conflict as to which role is more crucial. On the contrary, both roles play an important part in the successful implementation of different initiatives within the organization. They are highly-valued positions within the organization, both entailing a sense of distinction for the individual who fills any of these roles, as well as a huge burden of responsibility for that individual to at least fulfill the responsibilities either position entails.

The first step to ensuring the success of a project manager or program manager is knowing what each position is about and learning the differences and similarities that will help individuals make an informed decision when tackling any of these roles and be able to grow in either role as well.

program manager vs project manager

Project Manager vs. Program Manager Table of Contents

  1. Project vs. Program – The Key Differences
  2. The Role of the Program Manager
  3. The Role of the Project Manager
  4. Differences in Roles
  5. Similarities and Common Challenges

Project vs. Program – The Key Differences

In order to understand the distinction between a project manager and a program manager, it is important to first learn the difference between a project and a program, which by itself is another source of confusion and misappropriation, among many.

The Project Management Institute (PMI) has defined a project as “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique project service or result.” (Weaver, 2010) Typically, working on a project is much longer than doing a simple task but it is meant to be completed in a short timeframe and is not expected to be done on a more frequent basis.

Meanwhile, the PMI has defined the program as “a group of related projects managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits and control not available from managing them individually. Programs may contain elements of work outside of the scope of the discrete projects in the program.” The program is more long-term in nature, which can run for months or even years before it can be concluded.

A program can be likened to the process of building a house, which in turn consists of different projects, such as building the structure, installing the electricity, setting up plumbing and waterworks, and painting the house, among many others. Just as these works help ensure that the house is constructed to the highest quality standards, the success of any program lies in the success of the projects that need to be undertaken within that program.

The Project Group

The Role of the Project Manager

The project manager job description is more focused in nature, limited mostly to one or a few projects they are chosen to oversee. But depending on the project in question, there are various tasks involved under their purview. However, the key functions of the project manager boils down to the following responsibilities:

  • Define the tasks needed to be done for the project.
  • Develop specific policies and guidelines on specific project processes.
  • Oversee project operations, including planning, progress monitoring, and, if necessary, resolution of issues that may affect the timely delivery of the project.
  • Coordinate project timeframes.
  • Report to the program manager on the project’s progress.
  • Secure and monitor the utilization of budget and resources (including technologies and people) needed for the project.

Much like the head contractor or head electrician in the house project example discussed in the previous section, the project manager ensures that the “architectural plan” prepared by the program manager is implemented within the project that the project manager is in charge of and that such work is completed in a timely and proper manner. Another way of differentiating project managers from program managers, albeit indirectly, is that the former may be more technology-dependent, as seen in the last item on the list of responsibilities.

This is a tangent insight one gets from a Heliyon study “Opportunities and threats presented by social media in project management.” Hysa and Spalek (2019) reported that “social media usually supports project managers and team members in such areas as communication, cooperation, engagement, knowledge management, work productivity, promotion of the project and employee development.” In this scenario, it can be gleaned how technology is organically integrated into assisting project managers to meet their deliverables.

project managers and micromanaging

The Role of the Program Manager

The core program manager job description is that they are responsible for defining the program to be implemented in the organization and ensure its accomplishment. As they oversee the progress of different projects under the program, the program manager’s tasks are quite extensive in nature. These include:

  • Define program objectives and implement program strategies.
  • Identifies the projects to be implemented.
  • Define the metrics for the program’s success.
  • Coordinate and track the progress of projects within the program.
  • Oversee collaboration across project teams.
  • Evaluate and review overall program and project success.
  • Serve as an overall source of information.

As was touched upon in the previous section, the program manager is similar to the architect who creates the detailed blueprint of the house. In a similar fashion, the program manager serves as the architect of the program itself, who looks at things in a strategic manner in order to ensure the success of the program. This also underscores the importance of the program manager within the organization. This is especially the case for project-driven organizations, where program management is considered a significant cornerstone.

Differences in Roles

From the information shared in the previous sections with regards to the responsibilities of the project manager and the program manager, one may have an idea of the differences between each role. Nevertheless, it is important to go into these differences in greater detail in order to have a better understanding of the nature of these roles. These differences can be found in the following aspects:

Approach

The project manager is described as a tactical manager (Hansen, 2018) as he or she has more oversight over specific tasks and the people involved in those tasks. As such, the focus is to ensure the delivery of the project in an efficient and timely manner.

On the other hand, program managers are strategic managers. They are responsible for the different aspects of the project and set the output or target for the project but lets the project managers take care of the execution. They also make sure that all the projects within the program are proceeding in accordance with the plans they have set beforehand..

Focus

The project manager is focused on internal matters as they often work with team members within the project, as well as with program managers and other stakeholders within the organization to ensure prompt and quality project delivery.

The program manager, on the other hand, is focused on both internal and external matters. Internally, they define the project and the strategies and processes that project managers and their respective teams must comply with. Externally, the program manager coordinates with customers and partners if necessary to ensure the success of the project and addresses whatever concerns that may be raised.

Output

Owing to the typical shorter timeframe of projects, the program manager is expected to produce short-term and concrete deliverables. Therefore, it is easy to determine the quality of the output as the results can be known within a short timeframe.

Meanwhile, given the project scope and the different tasks and activities attached to a program, program managers tend to produce long-term deliverables which could not be determined in a short timeframe.

project manager roles job growth

Similarities and Common Challenges

Even though a project manager and a program manager’s work differs significantly, both roles require similar skills and experience. In general, a program manager does the tasks that a project manager does, but on a larger scale. (Instagantt, n.d.) The program manager makes sure that the project managers are performing as expected of them and provides the needed support, in the same vein that a project manager makes sure that the project members are doing their assigned tasks and offers needed support as well.

To be considered for either role, one needs to have good management skills and proven organizational skills, alongside having the efficiency in accomplishing work and the leadership to handle people under their supervision. Both roles also require a great deal of strategic thinking, decisiveness to make crucial decisions, and the innovativeness to think of new ideas to advance the goals of the program and the projects under it.

And while the project manager and program manager may have different goals in mind, their objectives coincide with the overall company objectives in the long term. As such, they tend to face similar challenges, some of them including:

  • Communication – there is a possibility of a breakdown of communication between team members or between managers and subordinates
  • Planning – some scenarios may not have been planned out beforehand, which can result in delays or unexpected resource allocation, which would affect the completion of the project and the overall program
  • Resource management – lack of funding, equipment, or other resources may hinder the accomplishment of a project, overall affecting the program timeline that may be in place.
  • Expectations of senior management – senior managers may have a desired output that does not align with what the managers have in mind, more often because they are unrealistic to attain

It is important for the project manager and program manager to coordinate with one another in order to address whatever challenges they face in their respective purviews and ensure greater efficiency, which will help bring about a more productive output and, ultimately, the success of the overall program.

Options for Career Development

The project manager and the program manager are both considered as great roles for natural leaders. (Simplilearn, 2020) As noted earlier, both roles require common critical traits and experiences making both positions equally attractive to similar candidates.

For those seeking a leadership role or a greater involvement in the project management activities of the organization, the project manager role would be the career path to go. This requires not only experience in being part of a project, especially as a team leader, but also a great deal of knowledge that is earned with a business administration or project management degree.

For project managers seeking advancement, transitioning into program management and being a program manager is the way forward. Becoming a program manager entails advanced training and experience in the role. In some instances, a project management certification can also boost chances of advancement. Program managers have a greater chance of becoming part of the organization’s senior management, with the possibility of leading the organization itself in the future.

 

References:

  1. Academy for International Modern Studies. (n.d.). Project Manager vs Program Manager – 7 Major Differences. AIMS. https://aims.education/project-manager-vs-program-manager-7-major-differences
  2. Cote, A. (2020, August 19). How to Become a Project Manager – A Complete Guide for 2021. Paymo. https://www.paymoapp.com/blog/the-complete-project-manager-guide
  3. de Haaff, B. (2020, February 19). The Program Manager vs. the Project Manager. Aha! https://www.aha.io/blog/the-program-manager-vs-the-project-manager
  4. Hansen, B. (2018, October 7). What Is a Program Manager vs. a Project Manager? Wrike. https://www.wrike.com/blog/program-manager-vs-project-manager
  5. Louisiana State University. (2021, March 3). What is the difference between a program manager and a project manager? LSU Online. https://online.lsu.edu/newsroom/articles/what-difference-between-program-manager-and-project-manager
  6. Hysa, B. and Spalek, S. “Opportunities and threats presented by social media in project management.” 2019. Heliyon. 10.1016/j.heliyon.2019.e01488
  7. Program Manager vs. Project Manager. (n.d.). Instagantt. https://instagantt.com/program-manager-vs-project-manager
  8. Project Manager vs. Program Manager: A Side-by-Side Comparison. (2021, March 30). LiquidPlanner. https://www.liquidplanner.com/blog/project-manager-vs-program-manager
  9. Simplilearn. (2020, November 23). Program Manager vs. Project Manager: Know the Differences and How to Become Either One. Simplilearn.Com. https://www.simplilearn.com/program-manager-vs-project-manager-article
  10. Smith, M. (2021, March 25). Program Manager Vs Project Manager. Quickscrum. https://guide.quickscrum.com/program-manager-vs-project-manager
  11. Stone, K. (2020, July 9). The State of Project Management in 2020 [42 Statistics] | SaasList. SaasList. https://saaslist.com/blog/project-management-statistics
  12. Strasser, J. (2021, May 27). 8 Tips for Successful Program Management. The Project Group. https://www.theprojectgroup.com/blog/en/successful-program-management
  13. Viter, I. (2020, July 17). 280+ Project Managers Name Their Biggest Challenges of 2020. Forecast. https://www.forecast.app/blog/challenges-of-project-management
  14. Weaver, P. (2010). Understanding programs and projects–oh, there’s a difference! PMI Global Congress 2010—Asia Pacific, Melbourne, Australia. https://www.pmi.org/learning/library/understanding-difference-programs-versus-projects-6896