Project Manager Vs Program Manager
July 9, 2021

What is a Program Manager vs. a Project Manager?

By Niall Lenihan

Let’s distinguish between a Program and Project Manager


If you’re not entirely sure what the difference is, then you’re not alone.

Many of us use these words interchangeably, and whilst there are many similarities between the two management roles, there are in-fact different jobs with their own unique set of responsibilities and objectives.

In this article, we’ll be settling the confusion once and for all.

We’ll discuss the difference between a program and a project, and distinguish the program manager and project manager roles in more detail.

So, without further ado, to program or to project?

That is the question.

We’ll be covering

  • Programs versus projects: what’s the real difference?

  • Program manager versus project manager

  • The key elements of program versus project management roles

  • Programs versus projects: what’s the real difference?

They sound similar, and in many ways, they are similar, but programs and projects are in fact distinct things in themselves.

The best way to think about the distinction between a program and a project is in terms of scope. The program is the broader undertaking, whilst the project is the specific action.

In other words, a project is one component that makes up a program and a program is just a series of projects grouped together under a common objective or goal.

So, programs and projects are intimately connected but they are not one and the same thing.

In very basic terms…

Programs concern the long term and projects concern the short-term

Programs are about the bigger picture and projects are about the here and now.

Together, coordinated projects make up programs to fuel long-term objectives and growth.

Both programs and projects must be coordinated if they are to succeed.

Whether you’re managing an individual project or you’re in charge of an entire project, you’ll want to make sure that your efforts are supported with a strategic plan in place.

And whilst simple project management initiatives can be completed using only an Excel template, managing multiple projects (a.k.a. project management) requires something more robust.

Program managers will need a robust project management tool in order to stay on top of their complex workflows and responsibilities.

Luckily management tools like Project Central offer simple and intuitive management tools that can help you keep track of tasks, assign timelines and deadlines, create dependencies, customize templates, and collaborate seamlessly with other team members.

With Project Central, you’ll gain access to tons of useful organizational assets. Assets like gantt charts for flexible timelining, visual task boards for workflow optimization, project templates, activity feeds, and more.


Program manager versus project manager


As you might expect, a program manager is responsible for the strategic management and execution of multiple projects.

As a program manager, you’ll be expected to oversee and optimize an entire program by allocating resources and strategically prioritizing the individual projects that make it up.

Program managers are responsible for maintaining a top-down view of sometimes vast programs with many components.

As such, the organizational challenge can be huge. That’s why having the right management tool is so imperative.

This is what allows a program manager to monitor such a wide-scope of tasks, projects, schedules, teams, and deliverables.

It is the program manager’s responsibility to work across projects and build appropriate interdependencies between them.

Project managers in charge of individual projects fall under the program manager’s long-term, big-picture objectives.

Project managers, therefore, manage individual projects within a program. While the program manager facilitates cross-functional projects, the project manager works at the smaller-scale to support cross-functional teams.

Project managers have a much narrower range of focus.

As a project manager you will be responsible for achieving a set of project deliverables and ensuring that your team collaborates effectively in the process.

In other words, the project manager is responsible for their individual project within a program.

Even though the project manager ultimately reports to their program manager, it remains the project managers sole responsibility to make sure their assigned project is a success.

It is the project manager that will assemble and mobilize their team, schedule tasks within a project, and ensure that project deliverables are achieved on time and to a sufficient standard.

Project managers are responsible for all the decisions that go into their project. Each element within a project must be overseen and each team member actively engaged in the process.

As such, project managers need to be quick off their feet, and will need to think highly critically in order to make strategic decisions under pressure.

Free Project Plan Template in Excel

Click to download our Free Project Plan Template in Excel to begin simplifying your project management.

Key elements of program versus project managers: similarities and differences


We’ve now established that program managers are the overseers of multiple projects (each managed by an individual project manager).

But what tasks, skills, and attributes are needed for these two different roles.

Whilst there is a lot of crossovers regarding the skills required by program and project managers, the roles and responsibilities are not identical. Let’s home in on some of the key similarities and differences.

Program manager roles and responsibilities


As a program manager, it is your job to oversee the management of multiple related projects in order to maximize on program efficiency and ensure that all organizational objectives are met.

As such, your roles and responsibilities are likely to include some (if not all) of the following.

  • Overseeing program performance daily
  • Developing and implementing a program management plan
  • Managing and allocating resources fairly across multiple projects and stakeholders
  • Ensuring that all project deliverables align with program objectives
  • Coordinating documents across projects
  • Ensuring that individual project managers are on the same page
  • Taking responsibility for overall program execution
  • Tracking and reporting program progress and outcomes

As you can see, the program managers responsibilities lie at the macro level.

Program management is all about overseeing an entire operation and making sure that it’s contingent parts (the projects) align both with one another and with the broader company values and objectives.

By contrast, project managers work at the micro level.

Their responsibilities are similar but function within a much narrower sphere of influence.

Therefore, as a project manager responsible for an individual project and team, your responsibilities are likely to include some (if not all) of the following.

  • Meeting project deadlines
  • Keeping to the project budget
  • Assessing project risk factors
  • Assigning team members to the project
  • Delegating tasks to team members
  • Timelining tasks within the scope of the project
  • Coordinating resources within the scope of the project
  • Organizing and mobilizing a united team
  • Monitoring progress
  • Answering any questions or queries raised by team members
  • Developing appropriate strategies for project success
  • Updating reports and resources as necessary
  • Assigning relevant documentation to project tasks

Whilst it is possible for project managers to manage using an excel spreadsheet, it is still beneficial to support your project management initiatives with a robust project management tool – especially if you are responsible for coordinating a large team or longer-term project.

Project management tools like Project Central offer everything a project manager could need all under one simple and intuitive interface

With Project Central you’ll be able to manage projects and engage with your core teams with ease by aligning the execution of your project to hit those goals.

A large portion of the project manager’s role is about communication. Making sure that each and every member of your team is on the same page.

With Project Central, communicating and monitoring your team members’ progress is a simple and intuitive process.

Your project activity feed is there to provide a quick overview of all actions that have been carried out in your project.

You’ll then be able to delve deeper into any specific actions or changes made that need attention, monitor team activity, and assign status comments and project tags as needed.

It really is that simple.

Program vs project unveiled


So, there we have it. The program vs. project enigma has been decoded.

Whilst there are many similarities between program and project management, these are two distinct roles. One macro (program management) and the other micro (project management). If in doubt, just remember this.

Projects make up programs and programs oversee multiple projects.

These two business functions continually feed into one another to achieve short- and long-term company objectives.

And to achieve overall program success, effective management practices supported by a robust management tool are absolutely imperative.






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