What’s the *real* difference between Program and Project management?

One of my colleagues was in your PMO roundtable earlier this month and suggested that you might be able to provide some insight. I’m getting pressured to move from Project to Program Management, but I don’t really understand the difference. I already manage multiple projects and it doesn’t seem like our Program Managers do anything different. I know that we don’t always have the same view of job roles and titles that the rest of the world does. What should a Program Manager do and how are they different?

Name withheld – via email

There’s a lot of confusion around Project, Program, Project Portfolio and IT Portfolio management. The terms get tossed around loosely and they’re often (incorrectly) thrown together as part of a single career path. This leads to a lot of confusion as people get “promoted” into jobs that they aren’t equipped to handle. This leads to frustration, ineffective PMOs and a bad rep for the various disciplines.

Let’s start at the beginning. Bear with me. You probably know a lot of this already, but it helps to build this from the bottom up.

A “Project”, according to PMI, is “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service.”  This definition leads to a lot of work efforts being called “projects” when they really don’t warrant formal project management oversight or aren’t defined well enough to treat them as projects. I prefer my own definition:

“A Project is a scoped work effort with clearly defined acceptance/exit criteria, budget and schedule.”

This gives you the holy trinity of Quality, Cost and Time and prevents the expectation that a PM should manage undefined and unscoped work as a project. If you don’t have a clear idea of what your deliverables/goals are, you simply don’t have a project. This doesn’t mean that you have to know the minute details up-front. But, you do need a clear agreement of what your customer expects and what success looks like. The requirements, budget and schedule may evolve as the project progresses. But, you need some sort of starting point to manage the work as a project. The difference in the definition of “Project” doesn’t really impact the rest of these definitions, but it’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine.

PMI’s definition of a “Program” is “a group of related projects managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits and control not available from managing them individually”. This is a good theoretical definition, but can be a bit vague for people looking for practical guidance. The most common use of Program Management is to manage projects that have dependencies between them. Shared deliverables, risks, predecessor/successor tasks or even shared resources or assets need to be coordinated between interdependent projects. It’s the responsibility of the Program Manager to ensure that projects supporting common or related business goals are kept in sync and don’t end up in conflict. Individual Projects have a responsibility to their stakeholders. Program Management ensures that those stakeholder needs are balanced with realizing the common business benefits. A program may be temporary or may be perpetual (eg: a Program may be formed to address a new regulatory issue or an acquisition. In these cases, the Program would likely close out when the goal was acheived. A Program may also be formed around an ongoing function like Marketing or supporting a specific customer. In these examples, the component projects would be temporary, but the program would be continually updated with new demand or projects.)

For our final PMI reference, a “Project Portfolio” is “a collection of projects and/or programs and other work that are grouped together to facilitate the effective management of that work to meet strategic business objectives”. These objectives may be the support of a particular business unit or function, a common budget or a specific pool of talent or resources. More simply stated, a ‘Portfolio’ is the collection of all demand that needs to be balanced against limited resources. The “management” of the work is usually limited to grouping, organizing and prioritizing your demand to ensure that you get the optimal value out of finite resources. This includes a certain amount of project and program oversight  (not management) to identify risk, potential benefits realization and resource issues in order to continually reassess and optimize the Portfolio.

The “IT Portfolio” is the collection of projects, infrastructure, people, applications and knowledge assets (including data and processes) of the IT organization. IT Portfolio Management usually includes the IT Project Portfolio Management function, but it also encompasses all of the assets that may be impacted by or created as a part of these projects. Due to the nature of IT projects, the infrastructure and asset management of IT is closely tied to IT projects through the IT and Project Change Control and Change Management functions. I’m not going to go into any depth on IT Portfolio management. I only bring it up because there’s often confusion around “IT Porfolio Management” and “Project Portfolio Management” in IT groups. For more detailed discussion, check out ITIL (the IT Infrastructure Library) and ISACA’s CobIT (Control Objectives for IT)

With those basic definitions out of the way, I’ll move on to the roles. For each role, I’ve indicated where they fit into the *enterprise* view. Keep in mind that this view changes as the perspective changes. What may be an “Operational” function from the Enterprise perspective becomes “Strategic” to the person responsible for that function.

Task/Work managers
Key Phrase: “Get the job done”

The primary job skill here is an intimate knowledge of the technology, business or area where the work is being performed. The Work Manager needs to have the ability to manage time, estimate work and react to changing situations is key. In many cases, the people managing the work are also the ones performing it.  A “lead” can mentor other people in the team and develop or supply these skills where they’re lacking in other team members. The focus is on simply performing the work. When a project is poorly scoped or defined, “Project Managers” can easily fall into the reactive mode of functioning as “Work Managers”. Instead of managing the project, they end up managing the people and the work.

Staff Managers
Key Phrase: “Develop Talent”

The primary job skill is managing people. The Staff Manager needs to have the ability to manage conflict, identify individual strengths and weaknesses and to get the maximum value out of each staff member. The focus is developing existing resources and ensuring that their staff is able to address current and future needs. They’re an escalation point for issues with work management, but their primary focus in on ensuring that the relationship between the company and the individual provides the maximum mutual benefit.

Project Managers
Key Phrase: “Deliver the project”

The primary job skills are change control and risk management. The Project Manager needs to evaluate proposed changes to determine the impact/value to the overall project, appropriate course of action, escalation and renegotiation. The Project Manager needs to have the ability to perceive and mitigate risk, intelligently apply and manage defined project management processes and to maintain the alignment of team members to deliver on commitments. These commitments include the specified deliverables with the appropriate level of quality using the agreed-to schedule and budget. The primary focus and responsibility of the project manager is to the health and success of the project. All other skills and responsibilities are in support of this focus.

Program Manager
Key Phrase: “Deliver Business Outcomes”

The primary job skills of a Program Manager are change management, communication and negotiation. The Program Manager needs to ensure that related and interdependent projects are coordinated to deliver the expected business outcomes. Changes in individual projects need to be understood and the expectations and needs of the related projects may need to be renegotiated. The primary focus is not on the specific deliverables of the component projects, but on the overall delivery of value to the business. Project Managers are accountable to the individual Project Sponsors and are focused on delivering the optimal value for that sponsor. A Program Manager is responsible for maintaining balance between the projects within the program to deliver value for the Program sponsor or the business as a whole.

Project Portfolio Manager
Key Phrase: “Maximize Strategic Value”

The primary job skills of a Portfolio Manager are Strategic Planning and Benefits Realization. The Portfolio Manager needs to optimize scarce resources (financial resources, people, skillsets, assets, etc.) to optimize the value of the project portfolio to the business. Existing projects and new demand need to be continually balanced to ensure the highest possible benefit realization. The Portfolio Manager needs to negotiate and renegotiate the prioritization of projects and resources in the context of the overall business strategy. Challenges to Programs and Projects need to be considered in the context of the overall portfolio and resources may need to be reallocated across programs/projects to maximize business value. The focus and responsibility of the Portfolio manager is to get the maximum strategic business value out of a constrained pool of resources.

As you can see, these are very different functions and skillsets. While there’s considerable benefit in having experience in the connected disciplines, they aren’t part of a continuous career path. A Project Manager may develop the skills to be a good Program or Portfolio Manager, but that’s not a given. An Engineer may develop strong finance skills and become a CFO. Those engineering skills may provide insight and understanding that would be complementary to controlling the finances of an Engineering organization. But, CFO is not a logical progression from Engineer. Similarly, being a good Project Manager will provide insight that’s valuable to a Program or Portfolio manager, but it’s not a requirement or an indicator of future success in the role.

With all of that said, Project Managers in most organizations end up developing a broad range of skills in order to survive. We end up working as analysts, change managers, financial reporting staff, HR, strategic planners, trainers, etc. If you’ve exercised your Change Control, Risk Management and Negotiation skills, you may be in a position to be a strong Program Manager. That has very little to do with your formal Project Management career path and everything to do with your own personal experiences. I know some excellent PMs that simply aren’t wired for Program management. I also know some people that are phenomenal Program Managers who’ve never managed a project.

I hope that this helps.