15 Dec 2015

What is the Difference between Projects and Programs?

Posted by prince2guest

What is the Difference between Projects and Programs?

Best Management Practice standards include PRINCE2 for Project Management and MSP for Program Management.  But when I talk to Project and Business Managers about program management they often ask questions like:  “Are programs just big projects and shouldn’t we manage them like that?” or “What is the difference between projects and programs?”

So what are the differences between projects and programs.


The PMI definitions of a Project and a Program are:

  • A project is a temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service or result such as implementation of a solution, infrastructure etc.
  • A Program is a group of related projects managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits and control not available from managing them individually. Programs may include elements of related work outside the scope of the discrete projects in the program (such as transition to operations and then ongoing until the benefits are realized).

The PMI definitions for Project and Program Management are:

  • Project Management is the application of knowledge skills, tools and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements.
  • Program Management is the centralized coordinated management of a program to achieve the programs strategic objectives and expected benefits.

Management focus

Another key difference between program’s and projects is the focus of the management.  Program and project managers differ in their perspective, the lists below highlight the differences.

  • Projects have a narrow scope with specific deliverables. Programs have a wide scope that may have to change to meet the benefit expectations of the organization.
  • The project manager tries to keep change to a minimum. Program managers have to expect even embrace change.
  • Project success is measured by budget, on time, and products delivered to specification. Program success is measured in terms of Return On Investment (ROI), new capabilities, benefit delivery
  • Project leadership style focuses on task delivery and directive in order to meet the success criteria. Program leadership style focuses on managing relationships, conflict resolution. Program manager’s need to facilitate and manage the political aspects of the stakeholder management.
  • Project managers manage technicians, specialists etc… Program managers manage project managers
  • Project managers are a team player motivating by knowledge and skills. Program managers are leaders providing vision and leadership
  • Project managers conduct detailed planning to manage the delivery the products of the project. Program managers create high level plans providing guidance to projects where detailed plans are created.
  • Project managers monitor and controls tasks and the work of producing the projects products. Program managers monitor projects and ongoing work through governance structures.

The basic difference is that programs are responsible for delivering outcomes (benefits, new capabilities) whereas projects are primarily responsible for delivering solutions or products that enable the outcomes to be achieved.

Programs are a means of achieving organizational goals and objectives, often in the context of a strategic plan. Projects are a means of achieving tactical goals and objectives.

These fundamental differences mean that managing a program is not just BIG PROJECT MANAGEMENT.

About the Guest Author

David Whelbourn, MBA PMP is the Director of Project Management at New Brunswick Internal Services Agency.  A PRINCE2 Registered Practitioner he served a reviewer as part of the PRINCE2 2009 and MSP, Managing Successful Programs, 2011 refresh projects

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