Program Manager vs Project Manager

By Chris Kolmar
Oct. 5, 2022

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When you start looking into a career in management, you’ll likely come across both program manager and project manager roles. These are both important management positions, but they involve different responsibilities.

In this article, we’ll discuss the difference between programs and projects as well as the difference between program managers and project managers, and where these roles overlap and interact with each other.

Key Takeaways:

Project Managers Program Managers
Project managers are responsible for overseeing individual projects within programs. Program managers ensure that all of the projects within a program are working towards the program’s overarching goal.
Project managers do hands-on work on projects. Program managers check on individual projects but don’t need to know all the details.
Project managers plan out and execute the functional parts of a program. Program managers define the goals and strategies of a program and evaluate how they’ll affect the organization.

Program Manager vs Project Manager

Program vs. Project Defined

When trying to outline the difference between program and project managers, defining exactly what “projects” and “programs” are and the differences between them is an essential first step.

It’s important to determine this difference as it affects how these tasks will be dealt with and how they will be managed. Managing a program as a project is a common mistake if these differences are not clearly defined, and it usually leads to work that falls below expectations or at least work that doesn’t reach the heights that it should have.

Projects are short-term, one-time deals. Projects are (ideally) clearly defined tasks with clear goals that are to be met within a given timeline. Projects are bound by time constraints, budget, available resources, and cost. Projects have deadlines and concrete deliverables.

In other words, projects are undertakings with a definite “finish line,” and it’s easy to tell whether or not you’ve crossed this finish line.

Programs, on the other hand, are like macro-projects. Programs are composed of a series of deeply intertwined projects designed to build off of each other to achieve loftier, more complex, long-term goals.

Programs are not intended to have clear finish lines or concrete deliverables, because they are focused on the strategic development of business goals.

Some of the fundamental differences between programs and projects are as follows:

  • Main focus. Projects are focused on the content of specific deliverables, which will take the form of a service or product. Programs are focused on situating the work within one of the company’s larger goals and achieving intangible benefits.

  • Time constraints and units. Projects have short-term time constraints, and they function as a single unit. Programs have long-term timeframes, and they function as multiple, interconnected units.

  • Type of task. Projects will involve technical tasks that produce a deliverable. Programs involve more strategic tasks that will amount to an outcome, but not necessarily a specific output.

  • Definition of success. Defining success for a project can be measured in terms of its cost-effectiveness, the quality of the deliverable, whether time constraints were met, and the level of customer satisfaction.

    Defining success for a program can be measured in terms of how effectively it addresses the need it was meant to serve within the organization.

Determining whether you are dealing with a project or a program can be a bit tricky in practice. To help figure it out, you can use this checklist created by J.S. Duggal via the Project Management Institute (PMI):

  1. “Is the associated change wide-ranging and designed to achieve a strategic business objective?”

  2. “Are there multiple deliverables staggered over a period of time?”

  3. “Is the timescale loose and flexible, focused on achievement of benefits rather than on meeting strict deadlines alone?”

  4. “Is the scope fluid and are dynamic changes expected?”

  5. “Is there a good deal of ambiguity and uncertainty?”

  6. “Is it at a departmental or higher level?”

  7. “Are benefits expected to be delivered incrementally during the lifespan of the initiative?”

The more you answer “yes” to these questions (or “higher level” in the case of number six), the more likely you are to have a program on your hands.

However, the most critical question is the first one. If there is a single goal you are hoping to achieve, it’s likely a project, but if you are dealing with multiple goals, your best bet is to consider it as a program.

What Project Managers Do

Project managers have a variety of responsibilities, including:

  1. Project managers are responsible for overseeing individual projects within programs. They allocate money, stocks, resources, and time to projects. A project manager will also be in charge of determining project scope, team members, challenges, risks, and changes.

    As individual projects are part of overarching programs, project managers must work within the project requirements and report to program managers on changes to project plans and progress updates. Once the project is completed, project managers must assess the project’s success, give feedback to team members, and archive the project’s materials.

  2. Project managers work in a more hands-on way than program managers. While program managers may deal with more conceptual and abstract planning, project managers deal with the nitty-gritty details of achieving these plans.

  3. Project managers help to plan out and implement the execution of the functional parts of a program. They ensure projects are kept within strict budgets and that deadlines are met. They are also responsible for delegating work to employees in order to complete a deliverable.

A great project manager needs to be organized and resolute, while at the same time being highly adaptable and able to roll with the punches. They need to keep close tabs on the time and budgetary limits, address their team’s needs, and regularly update the program manager.

There are project managers at work in just about every industry, from IT to engineering to construction. Regardless of the industry, project managers need to be good at balancing all of their many responsibilities, as things can quickly get out of hand. Not being able to attend to one of these responsibilities can cause a domino effect.

However, a project manager’s potential salary is a good reason to take on all of these responsibilities.

Though salary varies widely based on specific roles, industry, job location, experience level, and other factors, the average salary is around $90,000 per year. Project manager salaries range anywhere from $53,000 to $135,00 annually.

Being a project manager is also an incredible stepping stone to the next phase of your career if that’s how you choose to use it. Learn more about exciting jobs for former project managers and related titles.

What Program Managers Do

Program managers have a variety of big-picture and detail-oriented responsibilities, including:

  1. Program managers ensure that all of the different projects under a program’s purview are working cooperatively and as necessary towards the program’s overarching goal. Program managers also have to oversee budgets, resources, and scope, similar to a project manager but from a much larger standpoint. The key to project management is strategy.

  2. Program managers define the goals and the strategies of a program, and they must evaluate how these programs will affect the organization. Depending on the defined goals and strategies, program managers then determine the specific projects they will need.

  3. Program managers are responsible for allocating money to projects. As a result, they usually work with a relatively large budget. They also create the program’s timeline and schedule and what its key progress points will look like.

  4. Big picture responsibilities fall to program managers. They must create teams, implement program strategies and track ROI on a broad scale.

  5. Program managers need to regularly check in on individual projects but don’t need to know everything. They just need to understand how the project looks at certain milestones in broad strokes, especially in terms of budget and risks.

    At the end of the program, program managers give feedback to project managers and other project leads, archive program materials, and close out financial contracts.

A great program manager can think in big-picture, strategic terms. They need to have excellent organizational skills and interpersonal skills. Program management requires effective communication, delegation skills, and the ability to prioritize the most important matters.

Program managers are like the architects that conceptualize and design the blueprint for a building. Project managers are like the builders, plumbers, painters, electricians, and others carrying out the different tasks required to complete the building.

Interestingly, political donation data shows that over 74% of program managers contributing to political campaigns identify as Democrats.

The title program manager carries a lot of weight and can lead to some pretty incredible advancement opportunities. Learn more about exciting jobs for former program managers.

Biggest Differences Between Program Managers and Project Managers

As you can see, program managers and project managers have similar but distinct roles. Here are some of the main differences between program managers and project managers:

  • Program managers have more substantial budgets to work with than project managers.

  • Program managers oversee more employees than project managers.

  • Program managers are considered more advanced within the organization than project managers.

  • Program managers are in charge of larger responsibilities than project managers.

  • Program managers work indirectly with employees, while project managers have direct contact with their employees.

  • Programs do not have end dates, and they are expected to undergo changes over time, while projects have set deadlines and are over once the work is completed.

Program Manager Vs. Project Manager FAQ

  1. Can a project manager become a program manager?

    Yes, a project manager can become a program manager. Many project managers who have repeatedly shown they can deliver move into program manager roles.

    The only problem is that there are usually fewer program manager roles than project manager jobs, so the competition can be fierce.

  2. What is higher than a program manager?

    Vice presidents, presidents, and C-suite executives are usually higher than a program manager. Some companies may have additional positions that are higher ranking than program managers, depending on how they’re structured.

  3. What degree should a program manager have?

    A program manager should have a degree in business administration, communication, or another area related to their field of expertise. For example, many program managers who work in technology have degrees in computer sciences.

    Having an MBA is also beneficial for many people interested in becoming program managers.

Final Thoughts

While program manager and project manager are similar roles with similar names, there are some key differences. Understanding these differences can help an organization run smoothly and efficiently. Projects and programs are two very distinct types of tasks, and the differences between the two are too often ignored, to poor results.

A project is intended to deliver a specific product or service efficiently. On the other hand, a program is intended to provide long-term benefits to the organization and is made up of a series of projects.

People refer to projects and programs interchangeably in common usage, which has seeped into business since the very beginning. Further, many organizations are guilty of assigning the program label to simple projects in an attempt to elevate these tasks or to avoid clearly defining the objectives.

Program management is deeply tied to how the organization is run. Program managers must work internally within the organization and have a deep understanding of its mission and business strategy. Project managers can work within the organization, or they could be independent contract workers.

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Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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