Program Manager vs. Project Manager: What’s the Difference?

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Project manager vs. program manager. The two roles often differ in their day-to-day tasks and the overarching approach to their role. Program managers are more strategic in their thinking and deliverables, while the project manager is often working on day-to-day task management on a more cellular level.

But before we compare the roles of a program manager and a project manager in-depth, we must first understand the difference between a project and a program.

Understanding Projects & Programs

Here are two quick definitions of project and program in project management.

Project

A project is a set of tasks that are completed in a sequence to achieve a particular goal. To plan and execute a project is necessary to assemble a project team, create a project plan and secure resources.

Program

A program is a set of projects that are executed simultaneously to achieve the strategic goals of an organization. The purpose of a program is to achieve efficiencies of scale by sharing the organizations’ available resources for the execution of multiple individual projects.

Whether you’re managing a project or a program, you need project management software. ProjectManager is work and project management software that allows you to manage both projects and programs in real time for more insightful decision-making. For example, our real-time dashboard captures six project metrics automatically and there’s no setup required. You automatically get a high-level view of the project in easy-to-read colorful graphs. You can also get a portfolio dashboard that compiles and calculates data across a portfolio or program of projects to help you make strategic choices about how you’ll allocate your resources. Get started with ProjectManager today for free.

ProjectManager's dashboard view
ProjectManager’s real-time dashboard gives you a high-level view of your project or program. Learn more

What Is a Program Manager?

A program manager is a project management professional who oversees the life cycle of a program. To do so, this person has to collaborate with project managers, portfolio managers, teams and stakeholders.

Key Responsibilities of a Program Manager

  • Overseeing multiple projects
  • Managing multiple project teams (and sometimes project managers)
  • Delivering successful program outcomes
  • Overseeing the creation and execution of a program management plan

Top Program Manager Skills

  • Communication skills: A project manager must interact with many people, including the project team members and stakeholders
  • Leadership skills: A program manager must oversee the performance of several team members, such as project managers, project sponsors and key employees
  • Project budgeting: A program manager must keep track of several project budgets
  • Resource management: A program manager must be able to allocate, reallocate and keep track of program resources across projects
  • Risk management: A program manager is responsible for the success or failure of a program. That’s why this role requires excellent risk management skills

What Is a Project Manager?

A project manager is a project management professional who oversees the project life cycle. To do so, the project manager has to create a project plan, manage the team’s workload and keep track of project constraints.

Pro tip: Though not a program manager, the project manager has a lot to do with what’s happening on the program, such as delivering the project on time and within the allotted budget. It’s important not only to know the differences between the two roles but where they overlap.

Key Responsibilities of a Project Manager

  • Managing the project constraints, including cost, time, scope, quality, risk and resources
  • Assembling and managing the project team and their performance
  • Delivering successful project outcomes (ensuring it is on time and under budget)
  • Overseeing the creation and execution of a project management plan

Top Project Manager Skills

  • Communication skills: Project managers must communicate with their teams and stakeholders on a permanent basis
  • Negotiation skills: Project managers are the liaison between stakeholders and the project management team. It’s important that they can establish realistic goals and expectations
  • Project scheduling: Project managers must be able to create realistic project schedules that support effective task, time and resource management
  • Task management: Project managers must define the project scope, manage their team’s workload, set task dependencies and create a project schedule that fits all project activities

Program Manager vs. Project Manager In-Depth: 4 Key Differences

Now that we’ve reviewed the roles of a program manager and a project manager, we can easily conclude how they’re different. Here are some of the main differences between them.

  1. A program manager manages multiple projects and sometimes multiple programs while a project manager manages the teams responsible for fulfilling an individual project and achieving its deliverables.
  2. Program managers and project managers are both project management professionals, but their certifications are different. The most common certification for program managers is the Program Management Professional (PgMP) certificate from the Project Management Institute (PMI) while project managers usually get the Project Management Professional (PMP) from PMI.
  3. Program managers have a “strategic mindset” while project managers have a more “operative” mindset. That’s because the program manager makes high-level resource management decisions that impact multiple projects while the project manager is only responsible for managing a single project at a granular level.
  4. Programs are much longer in length and are more complex than a single project, so program managers will have a longer timeline to successfully deliver a program. On the other hand, project managers work on smaller projects, which are shorter in duration.

Want more information? Jennifer Bridges, PMP, further explains the difference between program manager vs. project manager below.

While the tools may be similar, the roles of a program manager and a project manager are different. Jennifer Bridges, PMP, explains the difference in this video.

Project management training video (vcbawuk48s)

Related: How Program Managers Use Software to Manage Project Portfolios

difference between program managers and project managers explained

PPM Tools

Generally speaking, a program manager has broader responsibilities than a project manager. This means that the program management tools they use are focused on either the macro, for the program manager, or the micro, for the project manager.

But that doesn’t mean they need to use different tools altogether. Luckily, project portfolio management tools or PPM tools can be used by both program managers and project managers.

ProjectManager Is the Ideal PPM Tool

ProjectManager is a great tool for both program managers and project managers. It’s project management software that offers PPM tools such as Gantt charts, roadmaps, kanban boards, task lists and much more.

These tools are robust enough for PMOs or program managers and specific enough for project managers.

Gantt Charts and Roadmaps for Project and Program Management

ProjectManager’s Gantt chart can keep track of a signal project or act as a roadmap to help you manage multiple projects. You can use it to create a project timeline, assign tasks, manage your team’s workload and communicate with team members across projects in real time. It filters for the critical path and sets a baseline to capture your planned effort so you can track it against your actual effort and stay on schedule.

ProjectManager's Gantt chart works for both program managers & project managers

Real-time Reporting & File Sharing

ProjectManager offers unlimited file storage that allows program managers and project managers to generate project management reports in minutes and create a central hub for all project documentation. Simply create your project reports and share them with team members and stakeholders in real time. Every report is filterable to focus only on the data you want to see.

ProjectManager allows you to create project reports for program and project management

Video Transcription

Today, we’re talking about the difference between a program manager and a project manager. So even though some of the tools and techniques may be similar, their roles are different. So let’s start by taking a look at the program manager role for an organization.

So a program manager is responsible for managing multiple projects and, in some instances, multiple programs. They also interact with multiple project teams, but they don’t necessarily manage those project teams, the project manager does.

They’re responsible for the program outcomes, so their focus is on the broader view of what’s happening in that program. If you look at their dashboards, they’re looking at what’s happening within each of these projects that make up the program that may impact the program being on time or returning the ROI.

So if you look at a graphical depiction of a program, again, it’s made up of multiple projects that are related to that program. And ideally, in the organization, a project manager manages each one of these projects and reports into the program manager.

So if you look at the project life cycle for a program, the program manager’s responsible more for the people, navigating any politics, and negotiating, maybe, between different organizations, different projects that are interacting among this program.

They deal more with strategic tasks, so they’re working with the organization to align the program to the business strategy and the strategic goals of the organization. They also deal with the business strategies and, again, they’re responsible for ensuring that that program delivers the ROI, or the return on investment.

Separately, the project manager has a different view. They’re responsible for a specific project, and the project team members and what’s happening, and whether they’re delivering on the activities they’re responsible for.

They’re also responsible for the project outcome, so they have a deeper focus on what’s happening on the individual project that they’re managing. So a project manager typically manages one or multiple projects. Their focus in the project life cycle has to deal with the scope, schedule, and resources for that project.

They perform more technical tasks for the project, and they deal with project requirements. They are the ones who are responsible for delivering that project on time and within budget for the organization. So as you can see, the project manager has a lot to do with what’s happening in the program.

If you need a tool that can help you manage your project or your program, then sign up for our software now at ProjectManager.

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