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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