Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Difference between Project and Program Management

I see many of my clients struggle with this on a regular basis and there is a general mixup between a project manager, program manager and a system/process operations manager.

Here are some quick observations:

From juggling balls to juggling jugglers with balls!

I think you can liken Project Management to juggling a set of balls (projects) and ensuring your hands and brain is acting quick enough to keep them all in the air, whereas Program Management feels like you’re co-coordinating several jugglers, who all have lots of balls in the air, and you need to manage the jugglers passing balls to each other on a very regular basis!

You really do need to look at and take in the bigger picture and overall strategy, without this larger view and forward planning; the ongoing projects won’t be aligned strategically for both the business and IT.

More strategy, less dirty hands

This doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t EVER get your hands dirty again in the joys of managing projects on a daily basis, as you do have to do this as well! It just means that you tend to have to step back a bit more and let other specific project managers or business team members run the daily stuff, while you just ensure strategy and alignment of overall goals is still on course.

Negotiation and High Level Support

You’re here to manage and deliver a program of work, which may involve 50 projects, all intrinsically linked (or not) and all with their risks, issues andinternal/external problems. I’ve found my leading change, resolving, negotiation, peace-keeping, support skills being put to the test on an almost daily basis.

A communication conduit

In Project Management, you need to be able to communicate effectively between the project team you’re working with, the client and any teams you are supporting, and finally the project board.

With Program Management, your communication channels are much more diverse and far reaching, you basically have to communicate right up tothe top levels for Concept, Benefits, Progress, Delivery and Review. While working with the ranging projects that are under the program umbrella, ensuring all teams are clear on goals, direction and status.

Finally you have to ensure that there are clear communication channels between any projects that are linked into your program projects, and be a conduit for information, strategy and knowledge.


The project manager tries to keep change to a minimum, and controls change requests and scope creeps with an iron fist. Of course thanks to Agile Methods that project management is more open to changing environment.

Program management on the other hand is about expecting change, even embracing it at some levels, and being adaptable and flexible enough to run with it without jeopardizing the projects under your umbrella.


Project deliver a certain capability, whereas Programs deliver business benefits!

I think Program Management is far more then managing a group of related Projects. Program Management starts with a clear definition of business need and goals at a high strategic level and from there develops into a roadmap, or Program, as to how best satisfy the business needs. Of course aligning it with company strategies is key.

The roadmap should articulate how each Program and the Projects within each Program connect, the relationships, dependencies and data / information management. The roadmap should also be visited periodically to embrace the changing conditions.

Would love to get some more thoughts on this...

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