The Program Manager vs. the Project Manager
February 19, 2020

The Program Manager vs. the Project Manager

by Brian de Haaff

“Program is to a project as product line is to a product.” One of our Customer Success teammates at Aha! made this analogy recently during a customer call. I believe her comparison perfectly encapsulates an important similarity between product and project management. Much like a product line is a grouping of individual products, a program is a collection of projects. And you need someone to own each — the totality and the individual.

This is where both a program manager and project manager provide value for organizations.

Program managers vs. project managers

The program manager focuses on how many efforts are tracking against goals like company growth, while the project manager oversees the delivery of an actual body of work. The distinction may seem subtle, but there are clear and important differences between the two.

Let’s begin with basic definitions. The program manager oversees the entire initiative. They are ultimately responsible for the success of all the interconnected projects within that program. The project manager oversees only one (or sometimes a few) of these efforts. They ensure the timely delivery of a specific project. And it is important to note that both roles can exist in product management, IT, service, and even marketing organizations.

It sounds simple, but confusion can arise for a few reasons — most often in the details. 

The words “program” and “project” are similar, and many organizations actually use the terms interchangeably. Some smaller companies may not even have a dedicated program or project manager — a product manager or technical lead does this work instead. In larger companies, these positions are typically more clearly defined, and project managers may report directly to the program manager.

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No matter what the size or structure of your organization is, it is essential to understand how the roles differ because both are necessary to the success of the business. Program and project managers need to collaborate effectively to ensure that each project supports the program and the overall company goals.

Here is a breakdown of the main differences between the two:

The program manager thinks broadly. They set the schedule and budget for the program and are responsible for the success of all the projects in that program. Their goal is to support the long-term growth of the business.

The project manager is more tactical. They coordinate the cross-functional work required to deliver a Complete Product Experience on schedule and within budget. Their goal is to facilitate the delivery of a project with a finite start and end date.

The program manager creates a program roadmap to represent the planned work across the entire program. They can tie the program (as well as individual projects) to the company strategy and visualize dependencies between projects in the program.

The project manager creates a project roadmap to represent the details of the upcoming work and a timeline for completing it. They can monitor cross-functional dependencies, identify any bottlenecks, and visualize progress.

Areas of responsibility
The program manager is responsible for delivering on company goals. Their focus is internal and external — they define best practices, streamline processes across the organization, and typically serve as the customer interface when a customer wants to negotiate a contract or change the scope of work. Since they know the strategic direction, the program manager is equipped to make decisions that affect customers.

The project manager is responsible for delivering their project on time. They do resource planning to define the scope, schedule the work, and set the budget for the project. Their focus is internal — they are experts at helping teammates stay on schedule so that the project is completed on time.

The program manager measures ROI for the entire program. They also track budgets, schedules, resource utilization, risks and risk mitigation plans, issues, and delivery to plan. In very mature organizations, program managers may also track earned value.

The project manager measures ROI for their individual project. They also track the budget, schedule, resource utilization, risks, and issues for the project they are overseeing. The metrics they report on roll up to the program level, then the program manager consolidates.

Although their purview differs considerably, both the program and project manager are essential to delivering new experiences to customers.

Many program and project managers struggle with infrequent communication and a lack of transparency. To overcome these challenges, some teams choose to use purpose-built tools to connect strategy to the work and share progress. This increases visibility into the plans and helps the team release new functionality more quickly.

Now that you have a firm grasp of the similarities between program and project managers, I bet you can better appreciate what makes each unique and valuable to the organization.

How do you think about the differences between these two roles?

Program and project managers really, really love our software — find out why.

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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