What is Program Management?

Well this is one of those terms that often gets misunderstood.  Most people can quickly grasp the concept of a project.  If not check out what is a project?

However, when it comes to program management it becomes muddier.  So let’s start with arguably the most accessed source of information within this discipline; PMI’s Standard for Program Management, where they define a program as “a group of related projects, subprograms, and program activities that are managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits not available from managing them individually”.

Well if that is now crystal clear, then my work is done and I thank the Project Management Institute for bailing me out.

A lot of people will still be reading as for them it really hasn’t delineated a program from a project.  You could easily argue that the above definition fits your current project; basically it’s made up of categories (Taking the WBS) approach, which may actually be individually big enough to call projects by themselves. So are we all managing programs and not projects?

Whilst there is a large inconsistency and a lot of “grey” in the definition of a program I have made my own definition which works- well for me anyway.

Whilst a project aims to deliver a single product, service or result a program aims to coordinate multiple projects to improve the overall benefit to the organisation.

You may also define project management as the management activities required for project management.  Such as: creating vision, defining the frameworks, the approvals, developing processes and policy and all the things to make sure the project manager has a nice box to play in.

At the end of the day it doesn’t matter, use which ever definition fits best for your situation.  Some points which may suggest you are managing a program and not a project:

  • If you are managing multiple project managers
  • If you are directing multiple large and inter-related projects
  • If you spend a lot of time in the concept stage of the project and less in the implementation
  • If you are more concerned with meeting organisaitonal objectives than project objectives
  • If your work involves strategising and leading
  • If you are more concerned with benefits than implementation

So whilst we can really use these terms interchangeably, the skill set required for success is what will in most cases will differentiate the two.  Project Management calls for a set of skills to deliver on agreed outcomes, typically the management of scope, time, cost, quality, communication, human resources, communication and risk at a project level.  And face it as a project manager you may be selfish; solely focussed on your project.

However, as a Program Manager you will have to employ a much more strategic set of skills; vision, diplomacy and leadership and rather than focus on the technical aspects of the individual projects you will be more concerned on the impact to the project organisation; such as how does it fit with the strategic plan, what are the risks to the organisation and so on.  You may also need to make sacrifices in one project to benefit another- so the view becomes much more holistic.

I hope this has assisted in creating a bit of a gap between the two terms, but remember each organisation may have its own unique definition on the differences between a project and a program.

Leave your thoughts on what you believe the differences are between the two- there’s no wrong answer: it’s just what works in your environment.

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