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

With similar titles and skill sets, it can be challenging to understand the difference between a program manager and a project manager. Here's a closer look at the roles and responsibilities of each.

Updated July 24, 2020

Program managers and project managers have similar skill sets and use similar tools. They even have similar job titles. Similarities aside, these professionals play two different roles within an organization.

If you’re considering either as a future career, or if you’d like a better understanding of where the two positions fit in your organization, read on to learn more. We’ll look at the roles and responsibilities of both management types, then look closely at what sets them apart.

Overview: What is a program manager?

Program managers coordinate and oversee programs. Here, “program” refers to entire business initiatives, like improving customer retention, implementing a new process, or diversifying revenue. Programs involve numerous interconnected projects that build on one another.

Program manager duties include planning programs, setting goals, budgeting, measuring ROI, and coordinating efforts between teams. Ultimately, program managers work toward long-term business growth.

The program manager role and responsibilities

What does it mean to work toward long-term business growth? Let’s look at the specific roles and responsibilities of a program manager.

1. Develop programs to support an organization’s mission and goals

Program managers think strategically about the long-term goals and mission of an organization. How can the organization move in a direction that aligns with its overall vision? The program manager develops and plans programs to help businesses meet their goals and grow.

They also set goals for each program and decide how to measure them. Throughout the process, program managers track progress and adjust as needed.

2. Create a budget and operating plan for programs

Program management involves creating a budget and an operating plan. Besides estimating the cost for each phase of the program, program managers lay out the scope of the project. They list specific outcomes and the steps required to achieve them.

They determine which team members will be responsible for which deliverables or outcomes. Program managers also schedule the order and timeline for completion of each interconnected project.

3. Manage and coordinate between teams

Once the program manager has an approved operating plan, they must oversee team members and coordinate between teams. Effective program manager training emphasizes business and leadership strategies.

It’s the program manager’s responsibility to ensure team members understand objectives, deliverables, and deadlines. Does every individual have what they need to succeed?

One program may involve many teams: marketing, product development, customer relations, operations, etc. The program manager makes sure communication goes smoothly and all pieces of the puzzle operate optimally.

4. Analyze program risks and implement changes

Program managers must remain aware of potential risks. What obstacles could disrupt the team or their projects? How likely are these risks to occur? And if they do occur, how will they impact the program’s cost, schedule, or quality? What steps can the team take to mitigate risk?

As the program manager tracks progress, they must be prepared to course-correct as needed. Flexibility and problem-solving skills are essential.

5. Meet with stakeholders

Program managers meet with stakeholders to discuss objectives and priorities. They communicate transparently throughout the process and check-in regularly to keep stakeholders informed. This may include sharing issues that arise and brainstorming solutions.

What is a project manager?

Remember the interconnected projects involved in a program? That’s where project managers come in. A project manager plays the lead role on an individual project, which may be part of a larger program.

The responsibilities of a project manager look a lot like those of a program manager, but on a smaller scale.

The project manager role and responsibilities

Key project management tasks include planning, leading, and monitoring the success of a project.

1. Plan the project

Project managers create a blueprint for successful completion of an assigned project. Project management plans outline the components and sub-components of the project, necessary steps, required resources, budget, and timeline.

Sounds similar to a program manager, right? Both managers create plans, but projects are more short term and tactical. Programs are long term and strategic. Project managers plan how to achieve a concrete deliverable that fits within the bigger picture of a program.

2. Lead a team

Like program managers, project managers lead a team. However, their team is likely smaller and may involve fewer departments across the organization. Project managers must inspire, encourage, and communicate clearly and directly.

Project managers lead meetings on progress, needs, issues, and any changes to project tasks or approaches. Project management tools can simplify communication and coordination between team members and managers.

3. Monitor project progress

Similarly, project management software can help managers monitor the direction of a project. Close monitoring detects problems and potential risks early, allowing project managers to address them quickly and effectively. Project managers also need the ability to course-correct when problems arise.

Monitoring projects provides project managers with the information needed to create reports and documentation for higher-ups, such as the program manager. Documentation may include work estimates, risk assessments, issue tracking, requirement specifications, and more.

Program manager vs. project manager: What's the difference?

Now that you know program and project management basics, let’s look at the difference between the two. Although both roles involve planning, leading, and monitoring, they are different.

Program managers focus on the long-term goals of a business. Project managers work toward short-term, concrete deliverables. While program managers oversee an interconnected group of projects, project managers manage one individual project.

With program manager versus project manager, the key difference is the mindset required. Program managers look at strategic, big picture concepts. They focus on overall improvement and growth. Project managers are more technical. They work toward a specific outcome with a straightforward deliverable.

Here’s an example: An organization wants to focus on offering more digital products. The program manager oversees the entire “digital product” initiative.

This might include brainstorming new products, determining how to best deliver these products to the customer, and working with the marketing team on an overall promotion strategy. Meanwhile, a project manager might lead the development or launch of one specific product

Are you a program manager or a project manager?

If you see a future in management for yourself, we hope this post has helped you narrow your focus. Are you more of a program manager or a project manager?

To succeed in either role, you need skills such as leadership, communication, problem-solving, conflict resolution, organization, planning, and analytical thinking.

However, program managers require a larger dose of creativity, strategy, vision, and the ability to think in big picture, abstract terms. Project managers must have tactical thinking skills and be able to focus on successfully reaching a single short-term goal.

Both management types earn similar salaries, and both play an essential role in an organization’s success.

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