Programs and projects are like Legos – they’re the small blocks you need to build something really cool. In this case, they create an organization’s long-term strategic plan. But unlike everyone’s favorite plastic bricks, programs and projects each have very unique functions. So, it’s important to know which one you’re dealing with at any given time.
Project management is the process of working towards discrete, short-term goals, while program management is like taking a bird’s-eye-view of multiple projects at once. That might involve overseeing several individual projects or implementing an overarching strategy that takes place over a longer period of time.
It’s ok if that’s a little confusing! We’re here to help you understand the key differences between program management vs. project management so you can choose the right project management technique for your business goals.
Program management vs. project management
Knowing whether you’re dealing with a project or a program is the first step to hiring a team and choosing the right methodology. That’s because a program calls for a program manager and a project calls for a project manager. That may sound obvious, but the positions require slightly different skill sets, so it’s good to know which one you’re hiring for.
Let’s take a closer look at the differences between program management vs. project management and how they relate to each other.
What is project management?
If you’ve ever worked on a project team, you probably have a good idea of what distinguishes a project from other initiatives. A project contains specific milestones over a set timeline – often for a clearly identified stakeholder with concrete deliverables.
Project management involves shepherding that individual project through to completion, balancing factors such as scope, time, and cost.
The scope of a project can change over time, but in contrast to a program, a project has a clear end date and there’s less ambiguity around overall goals. For example, app or software development often takes the form of an individual project.
What is program management?
Now that we’re clear on what a project looks like, it’s easier to see what a program looks like. Basically, we just need to zoom out and take a look at the big picture.
A program usually consists of a collection of projects that tie into a company’s long-term strategic goals and business objectives.
For example, while developing an app can be considered a specific project, the overall program might be a group of related projects that tie into the app.
As a result, the program management role requires a different set of skills, since the program manager needs to be aware of dependencies between projects that might impact strategic objectives at the program level.
The manager’s role: Key differences and similarities
When it comes to program management vs. project management, both concepts use a lot of the same language and can even share management methodologies. Agile and lean project management techniques are often applied to programs, too.
But the Project Management Institute (PMI) explains that programs are not simply “big projects…the program extends into both strategy and operations.”
How are they similar?
Program managers and program managers may face many of the same issues, such as budgeting issues, scheduling issues, and scope creep. They need to be able to work closely with other team members and communicate across departments.
Both types of managers may have similar training, but program managers usually have more on-the-job experience – usually at least five years of project management.
How are they different?
Since programs are often made up of multiple projects, program management calls for a more comprehensive approach to risk management and decision-making.
Program managers need to be prepared for more uncertainty than project managers, since a delay on an individual project can impact others in the overall program.
Some companies may need both a program manager and a project manager to take charge of projects at multiple levels, while others may only need one or the other.
Program management vs. project management in action
Program managers may have higher rank or seniority, but that doesn’t mean a program manager can just step in and do a project manager’s job.
Overseeing a team as a project manager requires a specific set of skills and in-depth, granular knowledge of the project.
Meanwhile, the program manager may have to split their attention between multiple large projects while making sure they all align with overall program goals.
Let’s take a look at what both types of managers do on a day-to-day basis:
What project managers do
Individual members of the project team typically report to the project manager on a daily basis. The project manager is responsible for overall project planning, assigning tasks, and tracking progress – often with the help of project management software.
It’s their job to ensure that deliverables meet stakeholder requirements and that project goals are achieved on time and under budget.
A big part of the project manager’s role is communication: keeping stakeholders in the loop, coordinating the project team, and providing updates to the program manager.
What program managers do
A program manager has a broader and, in some ways, more flexible role. While they may still be involved in some day-to-day operations, their focus is on long-term planning and overseeing the connections between projects.
They may use Gantt charts to see how individual projects overlap and which project phases need to take place before others can begin.
On a daily basis, they may meet with project managers, ensure that success metrics are clearly defined, and provide mentorship and support. They may also be in charge of change management, risk management, and other high-level responsibilities.
The challenging part of program management is that there may be no clearly defined end date or deliverables. Program managers need to be comfortable with ambiguity, uncertainty, and complexity in a way that project managers don’t.
What portfolio managers do
There’s a third level of management that we won’t get into very extensively, but it’s worth mentioning: portfolio management.
In some ways, this sits atop program management and takes an even higher-level view of resource management. A portfolio manager might consider how different projects fit into a company’s long-term strategic roadmap and whether there are enough resources to take on additional projects.
Portfolio managers need to take the entire program life cycle into account to make sure that program objectives align with the direction the company is heading in.
Use automated meeting notes to gear up project and program management
Project managers and program managers rely on different tools. Projects typically have a discrete goal and end date, while programs may be made up of multiple projects and involve more long-term strategic thinking.
But there’s one thing that both roles require: accurate and effective meeting notes. Whether you’re meeting with team members, board members, or external stakeholders, it’s important to maintain a record of any decisions that were made.
Anchor AI can help with that process by taking notes for you, using artificial intelligence to identify speakers automatically and highlight key points and action items.
Inviting Anchor AI to your Zoom meetings is easy, but you can also use it to transcribe recordings of in-person meetings or virtual meetings that have already taken place.
Either way, you’ll get a searchable, time-stamped transcript that you can easily convert into official team meeting minutes or an abbreviated meeting summary.
Sign up to get access to Anchor AI and see how automated note-taking can streamline project and program management!