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I've been both a project manager and a program manager.  There was a time I wasn't really sure what the difference was.  I am now comfortable with my answer, but I suspect there is not yet true consensus in the industry.

I asked my friendly search engine for the definition of program management and got back a wide range of answers, that have common themes, but seem loosely coupled at best.

Definitions of Program Management

I found these definitions on the Web.  Note:  Some of these sites may no longer be available.

  • Delivering a project or projects from concept through completion using a team of experts whose sole focus is obtaining the owner’s goals. Program management combines the ability and resources to define, plan, implement, and integrate every aspect of the comprehensive program.

  • Activities that include planning, monitoring, and reporting of ongoing activities, cost/schedule tracking, clerical, other administrative support, and grants to states and localities.
    Formerly available on a US Dept of Energy site that is no longer available. 

  • The process whereby a single leader exercises centralized authority and responsibility for planning, organizing, staffing, controlling, and leading the combined efforts of participating/assigned civilian and military personnel and organizations, for the management of a specific defense acquisition program or programs, throughout the system life cycle.

  • The coordinated management of a portfolio of projects to achieve a set of business objectives is called program management. Or, a program might refer to an ongoing set of activities internal to the organization, for example, a Total Quality Management program, workplace safety program, supplier development program, etc. Source:

  • Understands how programs are designed to use appropriate service strategies to meet program goals. Understands how budgets are developed and costs are tracked for individual programs. Is able to use indicators and established instruments to document program performance and outcomes.

  • Program management is the process of managing multiple on going projects. An example would be that of designing, manufacturing and providing support infrastructure for an automobile make. This requires hundreds, or even thousands, of separate projects. In an organization or Enterprise, Program Management also reflects the emphasis on coordinating and prioritizing resources across projects, departments, and entities to insure that resource contention is managed from a global focus.

The International Association of Project and Program Management defines both program and project management.  See

  • Program Management:  Program management is the active process of managing multiple global workstreams or projects which need to meet or exceed business goals according to a pre-determined methodology or life-cycle. Program management focuses on tighter integration, closely knit communications and more control over program resources and priorities." [IAPPM-2003]

  • Project Management:  Project management is the centralized management by an individual to plan, organize, control and deploy key milestones, deliverables and resources from conception through retirement, according to customer goals. Often project managers are skilled to use specific templates and techniques to manage through the preferred project life-cycle." [IAPPM-2003]

The common threads in these definitions include:

  • Multiple Projects:  A program consists of a series of related and possibly interdependent projects that meet an overarching objective.
  • Planning:  Any program or project requires planning.   A project has its own schedule, its own milestones.  A program may entail coordination and between and scheduling of a subset of the projects that make up the program.
  • Monitoring:  Management must monitor progress, issues, and risks ... regardless of whether at the project level, or the program level.  Program management entails monitoring at a higher level.
  • Reporting:  As with monitoring, there must be reporting at both the project and the program level.  Program management consolidates the reports from component projects comprising the program for its reporting to higher level management.
  • Budget:  In some organizations, projects are responsible for their own budgets but often, the project manager is working against tasks and deadlines, with budgets that were set at higher levels.  Programs are more often, but not always, inclusive of budget management.

So, what are the differences between project management and program management?  I believe there are two key characteristic differences that distinguish program management from project management:

  1. Programs encompass a series of projects that in aggregate achieve an overarching set of objectives, where projects have specific and more singular objectives.  In this sense, the difference is driven by scope and scale.
  2. Program management involves more than oversight of a set of projects.  It includes application of common standards and processes to the execution of projects.

I have also worked for an organization that chartered the Program Management Office (PMO) to report to technology, with responsibility for process definition for the software development organization.  This didn't work well, as processes must extend beyond the technology organization, and should not be dictated by technology to business units. That said, Program Management should work to support and enforce process adherence across all organizations of the business.  If Program Management is to be charged with overall process definition and / or improvement, the PMO should not be reporting exclusively into Technology. 

Program Management extends beyond technology practices. Program Management includes:

  • Oversight of related projects.
  • Establishment of business and technical processes.
  • Audit and enforcement of established processes.
  • Acceptance, analysis, and implementation of process improvements.
  • Measurement of existing processes against established metrics.

Project Management, on the other hand, focuses on a deliverable within the framework of established project management processes as established by the Program Management office (PMO).  This is true, whether the project is a business or a technical project, and whether the project is related to one or more other projects, or is a stand-alone project.

In summary, Program Management addresses the management of project management, setting up processes, monitoring and measuring project results, and coordinating related projects.


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