Program Manager vs Project Manager


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What’s the difference between a project manager and a program manager? That’s the puzzling question many business owners face when looking for the right manager to add to their team. Both managerial positions are rapidly gaining importance and increasing demand because they help fill the void between teams and projects. However, it’s important to understand that these managerial positions aren’t as interchangeable as most people believe. They represent different roles with different responsibilities in the workplace. Therefore, understanding which managerial position you are looking for can be critical for ensuring better development and management of your projects. In this post, we will distinguish one managerial position from the other and help you understand their unique characteristics.

What Is a Program and What Is a Project?

Before discussing the similarities and differences between project managers and program managers, you should understand what distinguishes these managerial positions in an organization. Projects: These are temporary, one-off undertakings in a business. They are bound more by cost, budget, resources, and time constraints. Many projects have clear end dates and specified short-term goals that produce tangible outcomes. Programs: These are generally composed of multiple underlying, interconnected projects in the business. Each project complements and builds off the other to achieve a long-term business objective. All successful programs drive organizational growth and have strategic benefits — rather than single, tangible deliverables. Read more: Creative Projects vs Technical Projects: What They Are, and How to Run Them

What Is a Program Manager?

A program manager crafts a program’s objectives and strategy and assesses how it impacts the business. The program manager’s objective is to define and oversee all dependent projects needed to reach the specific program’s overall goals. The role of a program manager extends beyond simply completing individual projects to ensure the long-term realization of the entire program.

What Is a Project Manager?

A project manager oversees the successful operation of an individual project within a program. These managers coordinate time, resources, and budgets to complete tasks within the specified program guidelines. A project manager also reports the progress of the project and any changes made to the program manager. A project manager’s role is more tactical, because they focus mainly on executing and managing functional elements of projects. These include meeting deadlines, tracking progress, delegating tasks, completing deliverables, and organizing projects.

Program Manager vs Project Manager

How Are They Similar?

For all the ways that project managers and program managers are different, they are often quite similar. Generally, a program manager performs the tasks of a project manager, only the program manager performs these tasks on a larger scale. A program manager makes sure that all project managers perform the tasks assigned to them in the same way as project managers make sure their team members deliver on their tasks. It is a process that allows all parties to perform the tasks as required of them. The skills that the two managerial positions require are also quite similar. Both managers must have excellent leadership skills and great communication skills to communicate with team members at different levels in the organization. Both project managers and program managers should be good at making plans and delegating tasks to their teams. They must also be able to carry out negotiations and think critically in challenging situations. In many ways, you will find that the two managerial roles are quite similar, with just a few main differences that distinguish them from each other. Read more: 10 Must-Have Project Management Skills New PMs Overlook

How Are They Different?

Now that you know the project and program management basics, we will discuss some of the main differences between these two managerial positions. Although both positions involve leading, planning, and monitoring, you will realize they are quite different.
  • Structure: Project managers have everything well defined and can specify the scope and objectives of their projects. On the other hand, program managers deal with a higher degree of uncertainty because they work with a much larger team. Program managers supervise and coordinate several projects simultaneously — including project teams — making their jobs more difficult.
  • Effort: Project managers work on one-off tasks that can sometimes last for several months. Project teams also strive to achieve a common goal, which gives them a clear and defined objective. On the other hand, project managers often handle a collection of projects at a time. The combined efforts of different programs are what constitute the effort of the program. Therefore, if one project underperforms, it will likely pull the other intertwined projects down.
  • Duration: While a few projects can last for several years, most take relatively less time to complete. In contrast, programs can last for much longer periods because program managers have to deliver more.
  • Success: The success of a project manager is measured by their project quality, customer satisfaction, and budget compliance. On the other hand, a program manager’s success is measured by the degree to which each program meets the business’s needs. The benefits for which the program is carried out are also important when evaluating the success of a program manager.
  • Benefits: A project manager works to produce a product, an application, and other tangible deliverables, while a program manager works to produce results. These may or may not be tangible, and are often more intensive and demanding.
  • Management: A project manager’s work is to monitor and coordinate the project team to meet the project’s objectives. On the other hand, a program manager strives to coordinate project managers and program staff by providing global vision and leadership.

Which Role Is Right for Your Team?

As much as project managers are critical for organizing and executing projects and managing teams and communication, program managers are essential for ensuring any project strategy’s success. Both career paths provide great opportunities for professionals who prefer managing highly efficient teams and working together to achieve a common goal. Don’t turn a blind eye to the chance to maximize and utilize both managerial positions. Examining the job roles, responsibilities, and skillsets of program managers and project managers can give you important insights to meet your objectives. So, why not hire professionals from both positions if you can? Read next: Difference Between Scrum Master & Project Manager

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