The Difference Between a Project and a Program

One question I’m frequently asked is what is the difference between a Project and a Program? As posted in my very first article, a Program is defined as “A group of related projects managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits and control not available from managing them individually”.

According to PRINCE2, a Project is defined as “A temporary organization that is created for the purpose of delivering one or more business products according to a specified Business Case”.

Clear? Well, if you’re like most people, then probably not. Another way to look that this question, which I think helps to clarify the difference, is to examine the differing tasks Project and Program Managers perform. I’ve listed some of the main differences in the table below:

Program Project
Program Managers create high-level plans used to provide guidance to projects. Detailed plans are created from this guidance by the Project Managers Project Managers perform detailed planning to manage delivery of the products of the Project
Program success is measured in terms of business benefit, ROI, or new capabilities Project success is measured in terms of budget, time, and scope delivered
Focus is on leadership, as Program Managers manage managers. Program Managers need to facilitate and manage political aspects, relationships, and conflict resolution. Focus is on management of the people (specialists and technicians) involved to deliver
Program Managers manage managers Project Managers manage technical people
Programs have a wide scope, focussing on benefits, and may have to change scope dramatically during their execution to meet the changing needs of the organisation Projects have a narrow scope, focussing on deliverables
Program managers monitor and control projects Project Managers monitor and control tasks
Programs are typically executed over a much longer timescale than projects, often several years Projects are typically of a shorter duration than programs, often just a few weeks


Hopefully this table makes the differences clearer. In later articles we will look at each of these Program Management attributes in more detail.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Kate Edwards May 26, 2009 at 12:53 pm

I wasn’t sure of the difference between a project manager and a program manager, I now see that they are significantly different. There isn’t much information on the web about it so it was good to find you. Thanks!

Dave W Farthing June 9, 2009 at 3:34 am

The table of differences is succinct and very useful. I wonder if there’s a difference in the timescales involved? For example, programme managers are typically planning for several years hence, whereas a project manager is typically planning for the next few months (maybe at most up to a year or two).

Denis June 10, 2009 at 4:26 am

That’s a good point Dave, thanks for the feedback – I’ve updated the post.


Rajashree December 2, 2011 at 11:14 am


Very nice article.
During program execution multiple projects are planned and executed , some of them terminated before time. It is possible that full/part of the deliverables are not actually get utilized in program eg prototype.

Denis December 11, 2011 at 12:58 am

Hi Raj,

Thanks for the comment. I’m not sure I understand your question though! You can email me and I’ll try to help.


rakhshanda November 19, 2012 at 11:58 am

Thanks for providing such a comprehensive information…. article was full of breadth.

Abhishek May 6, 2016 at 12:32 am

Hi Denis,
I was looking for info on program management on web and found very few and shallow pieces. Your articles are indeed in-depth and interesting ones.
I’m budding program manager looking for program manager role interview questions (definitely with some answers- may be scenario based or based upon experience) so that I can make myself competent for program manager interviews with the little program management experience I have at hand.
I’m in the process of upgrading my role and need to make a breakthrough to get a project with program manager role.
Appreciate all your help in advance.

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