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Project vs. Program Management

The difference between project and program management boils down to the difference between projects and programs. According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), “A program is a group of related projects managed in a coordinated manner to realize benefits not available from managing them individually. Program management is the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to meet program requirements.”

While a project is a group of tasks that satisfy a specific goal, a program is a collection of related projects that meet a strategic business goal. A survey of 220 project managers conducted by RGPM found that only 15 percent managed one project at a time. However, managing multiple projects is different than managing a program unless a strategic initiative connects the projects.

Program Manager Responsibilities

Managing a project involves leading teams, meeting deadlines, working with outside vendors, and satisfying compliance requirements for one project. The job of a program manager is much more complex since it involves the coordination of these functions for several projects. Having a program manager does not replace the need for individual project managers.

Program managers are driven by program-level priorities that include:

  • Defining program scope and budget.
  • Identifying metrics for program success.
  • Providing long-term strategy to satisfy program objectives.
  • Anticipating program risks and mitigating their impact.
  • Creating efficiencies across the various projects in the program.
  • Facilitating communication between program contributors.
  • Ensuring that contributors’ goals align with program goals.
  • Monitoring progress and keeping stakeholders informed.

Program managers should not be micromanagers. They need to rely on project managers to solve project issues, allowing them to focus on the big picture.

3 Tips for Successful Program Management

Start with Planning

To ensure success, start with clearly defined program goals. Identify the program’s target audience or beneficiaries, stakeholders, and affected business areas. Find potential risks and threats; analyze the program’s impact on other business areas and the organization’s mission and long-term strategy. Starting with analysis and a detailed plan can save the program time and money.

Program planning should involve company executives, planners, and managers. Internal or external customers may also be called upon to provide requirements and feedback for the program planning stage. A good program manager will take input from all sources and create a program plan everyone can buy into.

Encourage Open Communication

PMI estimates that project managers spend 90 percent of their time on communication. This is even more true for program managers. Open communication and transparency are critical for program managers because they have no management authority over program participants. By effectively processing and conveying complex information to various audiences, a program manager gives meaning to program initiatives.

The program manager role requires written and verbal skills, active listening, and empathy. Engaging in honest dialogues helps build trust, loyalty, and respect. Program managers also need to be open to constructive feedback since ideas for program improvements will come from a wide variety of sources.

Take Advantage or Program Management Software

Besides program planning, program managers monitor and manage a program to its completion. Ongoing responsibilities include change management, risk mitigation, quality control, and reporting to stakeholders. Managing costs associated with the program is also part of the program manager’s job.

Success for program managers often hinges on using the right digital tools. Program management software can increase productivity and collaboration while providing management with up-to-the-minute data needed for timely decision-making. The software includes tools that allow program managers to plan, organize, and manage program resources across projects and teams. Best-of-class program management software also provides communication tools that help keep everyone informed and engaged.

Program management is a complex undertaking that involves the skills and talents of a variety of individuals. Without the proper tools, it’s easy to lose track of important details. Make sure you shop around and find the program management software that fits your management style and program requirements.


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