Program Management Vs. Project Management: What’s the difference?

Here’s an explanation of program management vs. project management.
Program Management Vs. Project Management: What’s the difference?
Here’s an explanation of program management vs. project management.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term “program management” (or aren’t sure how it’s different from project management), you’re not alone. The term “program management” isn’t as commonly used as project management, and many organizations either aren’t practicing it or don’t realize they are. But just because your organization isn’t talking about it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not doing it (as we’ll explain!).

The concepts of program management vs. project management are worth understanding, as both have specific benefits that play into the success of your strategy execution efforts. In this article, we’ll explain the difference between program and project management, how they are helpful to reaching your organizational goals, and how you can use ClearPoint to better manage both.

Program Management Vs. Project Management: What’s the difference?

Project management is about managing the details around executing a specific set of tasks with a defined purpose. An example of a project is constructing a new storefront. One program often includes several projects. Some characteristics of projects are:

  • The budget is clearly defined at the outset.
  • They have a specific deliverable, such as building a new bridge or creating a database.
  • Their completion should occur within a designated time frame.
  • They are temporary in that they have a defined beginning and end.

Projects are a subset of programs. Program management is about managing longer-term endeavors that are accomplished through multiple projects. An example of a program might be stormwater management; some projects under that program might be to 1) repair storm drains and 2) install new backflow valves.

Some characteristics of programs are:

  • They align with the organization’s larger strategic goals.
  • They typically don’t have a set end date; the benefits they deliver are ongoing, as is their time frame.
  • Their budget is defined by the organization’s financial calendar, with new funding being supplied periodically.
  • They are managed at a higher level with regard to the organization's goals; program managers are closely tied to strategy.

To see the difference between program and project management more clearly, take this example:

A local government may have an overall goal to advance safe and efficient transportation choices. This is a broad goal and can be tackled in multiple ways. Leaders might decide to prioritize two things in relation to this goal which they believe would be most valuable to their residents: bicycle transportation and the highway system.

In this case, a program would be formed around advancing bicycle transportation, and another around improving the highway system. A program manager would determine the objectives of the program and define the projects needed to accomplish those objectives. The bicycle program might include three projects that the program manager sees as crucial to reaching the organization’s goals: upgrading and expanding bicycle lanes, creating a public relations campaign to promote more frequent bicycling, and starting a bike share program.

Once the programs and projects have been determined, program management involves assigning the appropriate resources to projects, and coordinating the completion of a program’s portfolio of projects. Project management involves managing the tasks for each project individually, and ensuring they are completed on time and on budget.

As you can see, programs encompass a big-picture perspective with regard to strategy execution, while projects are the smaller, immediate tasks involved in realizing the larger vision.

Which are you working on: a program or project?

Admittedly, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between programs and projects. The next time you’re wondering what a specific undertaking qualifies as, ask yourself these questions:.

If you answer yes to more of the above questions than no, then you’re working on a program, not a project.

Does it matter whether or not you make this distinction? The scenario outlined above illustrates a logical path to achieving strategic goals, and your organization may follow this process naturally—without necessarily thinking about it as “program management.” If you’re choosing projects strategically, then you’re practicing the basics of program management already. That means you’re more likely to make real progress toward reaching your organization’s goals.

On the other hand, if you’re not thinking about projects from a big-picture perspective, it’s well worth your time to learn more about program management, and how you can implement it at your organization. Keep reading to find out why.

The Important Roles Of Project Management and Program Management

Project management and program management are both important to strategy execution. Project management is about doing the work that’s required to meet goals. It is a priority at nearly every organization because of its effectiveness at setting expectations around what can be delivered, by when, and for how much money. It unites teams and coordinates efforts to achieve results—without it, projects can veer off deadlines and out of scope.

Program management may seem like it’s just managing multiple projects, but there’s more to it than that. Program managers:

  1. Ensure programs and projects are linked to the larger strategy—Program managers pay specific attention to how programs and the projects that comprise them will contribute to the larger organizational goals. Rather than completing one project after another in the dark, program management ensures the right projects are pursued to further the organization’s long-term goals.
  2. Address business risk—Program managers consider the risks that could potentially affect all projects an organization is planning. This is an important task, and useful for minimizing the impact of certain risks should they occur.
  3. Maintain communication with all stakeholders—They make sure all stakeholders are kept in the loop about project statuses and updates.
  4. Prioritize resources effectively—Program managers allocate resources among all projects in a way that best supports the organization’s overall goals. Not only does their involvement encourage efficient use of resources, but it also helps generate realistic project timelines and proper sequencing of projects.
  5. Ensure continuous improvement—The natural structure of programming offers a clear way to tell if progress is being made on organizational goals. Thus, program managers are in a good position to track progress on a large scale and make changes where necessary.

Using ClearPoint For Program Management

There’s no shortage of project management software available, but it’s helpful if you can use the same software for both project and program management. Using the same tool for both activities reduces the work involved because it uses a single data set for reporting and analysis; it also makes it easy to see the linkage between programs, projects, and organizational goals, and track progress on everything.

ClearPoint is capable of helping you track hundreds of projects. It’s also an excellent tool for program management. Built specifically to help organizations transform strategy ideas into action, it helps tackle a number of key activities associated with program management. For instance, you can:

  • Link programs and projects to your organization’s strategic goals.
  • Roll up projects into a program, so program managers can view progress toward strategic goals, and track all projects related to the program in one place.
  • Evaluate a program’s real-time status automatically with red-amber-green (RAG) indicators based on the status of linked goals, KPIs, or projects.
  • Create reports and dashboards to keep your team on the same page with program needs and program status.
  • Prioritize programs and projects according to organizational goals.
  • Organize potential projects according to level of effort, impact, risks, and budget, honing in on those that will be most beneficial to the organization.

With ClearPoint it’s not about program management vs. project management; our software was designed to encompass both—and make managing, tracking, and reporting a whole lot easier than you might expect. To learn more about managing projects and programs in ClearPoint, schedule time with our team. We’ll give you a quick tour and figure out if it’s the right solution for your program management.

Program Management Vs. Project Management: What’s the difference?

Sean Callison

Vice President of Sales & BBQ Master

Sean is the Vice President of Sales at ClearPoint. He leads the Sales department and focuses on developing impactful, consultative sales teams.

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