Project vs. Program vs. Portfolio Manager
May 5, 2020

Project vs. Program vs. Portfolio Manager

by Brian de Haaff

Projects belong to programs as programs belong to portfolios. Sounds like a word problem from a school assignment to me. You might not think it is necessary to discern the differences between common project management roles. But the distinctions are important to understand.

Project, program, and portfolio managers play a crucial part in aligning complex cross-functional projects with broader company goals.

Recently I shared my perspective on the relationship between product, project, and program managers. This post caused a flurry of interest and questions — specifically around the project-specific roles. So I wanted to dig deeper into project, program, and portfolio management and how each one helps organizations deliver products or services their customers love.

I have worked with some awesome project management teammates throughout my career in product. The best project managers can be the missing piece to your larger organizational puzzle — catching every detail and driving work forward. These are true leaders who know what it takes to get the work done and rally teams around the plan.

You will most likely find project, program, and portfolio managers at large enterprise companies. There is usually a formal project management office (PMO) in place too. Typically these teams are working against many strategic initiatives simultaneously that all roll up to the company strategy. Smaller companies might not have the complexity of work required to employ individuals to oversee projects at the program or portfolio level.

Of course, company size is only one factor. Project, program, and portfolio managers differ in the range of work they oversee. Let’s take a closer look:

Project manager
High-level responsibility: A project manager ensures that individual projects (specific deliverables completed within a certain timeframe) are finished on time and within budget. The efforts project managers oversee are usually part of larger programs.

Strategic focus: These folks strategize how the work will get done at the tactical level. They build project roadmaps that show upcoming cross-functional work. The details of that work will vary based on the deliverable and the organization, but typically includes engineering, product management, and marketing teammates.

Everyday work: Project managers serve as the leader of the project, overseeing one or two projects at a time. They set timelines, assign work, allocate resources, and set dependencies. Project managers know the effort required to complete each phase of a project so they are often the first to spot potential roadblocks related to timelines, resources, or scope.

Program manager
High-level responsibility: A program manager is responsible for the success of a group of related projects that support a strategic initiative.

Strategic focus: They create program-level roadmaps for a group of projects. Ensuring that the overall program is supporting portfolio and company-wide objectives is a key part of how this role supports business strategy.

Everyday work: On a day-to-day basis, program managers track the high-level progress of each project and ensure that work is coordinated and aligned. They are constantly looking for ways to streamline and improve work across the program. While program managers often set schedules and budgets for the entire program, they do not manage the day-to-day tactical work for an individual project.

Portfolio manager
High-level responsibility: Portfolio managers are responsible for the success of a group of programs that may or may not be related to one another. In some cases, the portfolio could be the entirety of the organization’s projects. Portfolio managers help executive leaders ensure that the work completed across the company moves broader business objectives forward.

Strategic focus: Portfolio managers are remarkable strategic thinkers. They set the strategy for the entire portfolio of programs to ensure alignment with the overall organizational strategy. They build roadmaps that show how all programs are progressing towards goals.

Everyday work: Portfolio managers optimize a collection of offerings and are responsible for business outcomes that are needed to achieve organizational goals. They balance program activity within the portfolio, determining the necessary resources and budgets across all programs. They also set big-picture schedules to provide direction and clarity for program and project managers.

If you did not already have a profound appreciation for project management teams, I hope you do now.

Strategic focus is crucial to delivering your company’s products or services. But vision is only so much. To get the work done and truly deliver a Complete Product Experience, your team needs to be aligned on nitty-gritty factors like timelines, resources, and cross-functional dependencies at all levels. And this is why project teams are so important.

How are projects managed at your company?

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Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 roadmap software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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