“Project management is like juggling three balls: time, cost, and quality. Program management is like a troupe of circus performers standing in a circle, each juggling three balls and swapping balls from time to time.”
~Geoff Reiss, program management author and expert
Program managers and project managers might sound like very similar jobs. They have similar job titles, work with similar concepts, and speak a similar workplace language. They even have similar academic and professional backgrounds (though there’s a difference in depth).
But make no mistake, these two roles are as crucial as they are distinct — and those distinctions are worth understanding.
This blog post explores these two professional roles in detail, showing you what’s similar, what’s different, and how these two professions relate to each other.
What is a program manager?
Program managers evaluate and define big-picture concerns for a business, looking at how to achieve long-term strategic goals and building out programs that will do so.
Program managers might oversee a program to create a better hiring and onboarding process for the agency or to create and launch a new service offering. Any initiative made up of multiple projects that works toward a specific big-picture goal could be considered a program.
Responsibilities of a program manager
This role can vary a lot between agencies and industries, but typical responsibilities include:
Evaluating long-term objectives from the executive team and board of directors
Determining strategic approaches for meeting those objectives
Overseeing groups of projects
Managing ongoing, permanent programs that move an agency forward
Reviewing and advising on projects within a program
What is a project manager?
Project management is overseeing, planning, scheduling, problem-solving, and assigning various tasks within specific projects from start to finish.
Projects are more tactical in nature: They’re time-limited, defined initiatives with clear goals and specific deliverables. Projects often fit into a broader program as well.
Project managers are typically assigned to only a handful of projects (and sometimes, just one), and they oversee their projects through all five project phases:
If a project manager does manage multiple projects at a time, they don’t typically manage the connections between those projects — that would be the program manager’s responsibility. Instead, each project is managed as a separate, distinct entity.
Responsibilities of a project manager
There’s quite a bit of variation in the project manager position as well, but its common responsibilities include:
Defining project scope
Building project schedule
Resolving team conflicts and project bottlenecks
Monitoring adherence to schedules
Interfacing with project stakeholders
Program manager vs. project manager: Key differences
These two professional roles work with similar concepts, and some of their day-to-day responsibilities may look similar. Let’s take a closer look at how the two roles differ in a few key areas.
Focus area is the clearest difference between the two roles:
Program managers focus on the big picture — strategic, long-term work.
Project managers focus on short- and medium-term planning, tactical execution, and short-term performance.
The project manager’s performance is judged at the project level, while the program manager’s performance is judged on a broader scale.
A program manager oversees one or more programs at an agency, each of which is far-reaching, ongoing, or both. Programs typically contain multiple projects and span cross-functional teams. As a result, one or more project managers could report to a program manager.
On the other hand, project managers are responsible for specific projects that are defined and limited by the project scope. These professionals can have varying levels of responsibility or seniority and may have different specializations or industry credentials.
Scope and purpose
Project managers develop and work within the scope of individual projects, while program managers work outside that scope. Anything that supports long-term business objectives could be within scope for the program manager. Even at the narrowest definition, program managers have freedom and flexibility within their entire program (consisting of multiple projects as well as ongoing initiatives).
The project manager’s purpose is to ensure that the assigned projects succeed. While they care about the agency’s broader overall success or failure, their main concern is the success or failure of their specific project.
The program manager, on the other hand, is concerned with the agency’s long-term health and success. An entire program must succeed for the program manager to be satisfied with a job well done.
Daily tasks and responsibilities
The mix of day-to-day responsibilities will change over the course of the project’s life cycle.
A typical day in the life of a project manager could include building a project plan, working out a schedule, adjusting a budget, leading a project team meeting, solving in-the-moment conflicts or technical challenges with the team, and whatever else needs to happen that day to keep the project on time and on track.
Most project managers will interact daily with their project management software as well, using it as a home base to keep assignments and workflows running smoothly.
The program manager doesn’t spend daily time organizing projects or delving into the details of project scheduling. Instead, program managers focus on higher-level tasks and concepts.
A typical day could involve several meetings with various departmental leaders, stakeholders, and executives. Other duties could include evaluating the progress and health of their program and developing new goals and programs for consideration.
Required skills and qualifications
Many project managers hold a professional project management certification (such as the Project Management Professional [PMP] certification offered by the Project Management Institute [PMI]). However, if you’re wondering how to become a project manager, breathe a sigh of relief: This credential isn’t required to become a PM.
Some universities offer bachelor’s degrees or master’s degrees in project management, though these degrees are also not required. In fact, some project managers who focus on specific fields or disciplines (like finance, technology, or engineering) are better served by a degree in those fields instead.
Program managers typically hold an advanced professional certification in addition to significant project management experience. For example, the Project Management Institute offers a Program Management Professional [PgMP] certification, which requires a mix of a bachelor’s degree, a preexisting PMP certification, and extensive work experience as a project manager.
Both roles also require project management skills, excellent communication skills, and resource management capabilities.
Project managers' interactions are primarily internal; however, they might occasionally interact with mid-level client stakeholders seeking specific project updates.
Program managers, on the other hand, interact regularly with senior client stakeholders — those with a stake (metaphorical or literal) in the company itself. In addition to possessing this closer connection to the higher-ups, program managers are also more likely to interact with stakeholders in numerous areas due to the cross-functional nature of the job.
In other words, for program managers, stakeholder management has the potential to go higher, deeper, and broader than it does for project managers.
While both job types have a role to play in this area, program managers carry a higher level of responsibility. Project managers are responsible for analyzing and mitigating risks within a project, while program managers respond to risk at a program- or even agency-wide level.
Is a program manager higher than a project manager?
The program manager role is typically considered a higher rank or classification than standard project manager roles.
The difference here is somewhat similar to the one between project managers and project coordinators. While both the project manager and the program manager work on similar tasks, there’s a difference in scope and (usually) authority or hierarchy.
Because the program manager oversees a much bigger picture than the project manager, they typically rank higher on the org chart. In many cases, one or more project managers will report directly to a program manager, as there may be several projects within that program.
The comparison between product management and project management is similar, with the product manager having a more wide-ranging role. The key difference is product managers focus on cohesive products (physical or digital things that may be used or sold), while program managers focus on less tangible initiatives (like digital transformation).
How program and project managers work together for success
While the two roles are distinct, both program and project managers work on similar types of initiatives. And that means these roles can work together to achieve even more success.
Alignment with organizational goals
Organizational alignment is one area with an opportunity for synergy. Program managers can collaborate with project managers to ensure that individual project goals align seamlessly with the broader strategic objectives of the agency.
In this way, program managers can help the agency (and the project manager) avoid siloed thinking and keep all projects moving toward the organization’s broader goals.
Project managers sometimes feel like they have to compete for limited resources within the agency — and sometimes, it’s more than a feeling. Program managers have the big picture in mind, seeing how various projects within the program fit together.
The program manager can ensure that resources are distributed effectively to support the success of both the individual projects within the program and the program itself.
Change management often cuts across teams, departments, and divisions. Changes affect projects, programs, departments, individuals, and clients. For those changes that affect both individual projects and the program as a whole, program and project managers can work to navigate them together.
Program and project managers can use standard collaboration tools to facilitate two-way communication. Project management tools like Teamwork.com and its seamless communication tools can fill this role nicely as well!
Program managers and project managers work together to establish and enforce consistent quality standards across all projects within the program.
Individual project managers are responsible for implementing quality assurance processes within their projects. They also collaborate with program managers to ensure alignment throughout the program.
While project managers focus mainly on individual project success, isolated success isn’t enough. Winning the project management Olympics might not matter if that win occurs in the middle of a broader program- or agency-level failure.
Program managers can help project managers evaluate success in a broader context, and project managers can provide data and context to explain project-level success to the program manager.
Empower your team to achieve collaboration excellence with Teamwork.com
Staying on top of project details can be a challenge — as can creating and maintaining programs that meet organizational goals and move agencies forward.
But the right software can make a huge difference.
Program managers and project managers both win when agencies implement a collaboration-friendly project management platform like Teamwork.com.
Teamwork.com helps create in-depth project schedules, track project details, and handle task management with ease. Agencies can measure and evaluate multiple projects simultaneously, giving them a clearer picture of all projects within a program (and within the broader organization).
From gathering data to communicating with stakeholders to allocating resources effectively, Teamwork.com is the platform that makes it happen.