What is Program Management and How Does It Compare to Project Management?

The above question is common. Most companies will start out with a number of project managers on their payroll and get along swimmingly for years. Projects come and go like clockwork. Systems and processes have been put in place to expeditiously take care of project work and treat it like child’s play.

Program Management Vs Project Management

Everyone gets along with each other very well and the teams have mutual respect.

Sounds like the perfect scenario…and it is but believe it or not something is missing. Business is being left on the table.

The Sales team has moved on to bigger (and potentially more lucrative) accounts and project managers are so mired in the details that it’s hard for them to see the bigger picture. There are always business development opportunities with established clients for several reasons.

First, your company has established a good working relationship with the client. You are seen in the role of a trusted advisor that can help them solve their problems.

Second, you have a unique vantage point that someone from the outside may not have. You can see the inner-workings and areas that could use some improvement within the client.

Finally, if your company has done its job well, you will find that you know that company’s business and systems better than even they do. On the surface, this is surprising, but it makes sense. Your company focuses on the big picture and how everything works together, while those of your client are focused on just their individual piece of the puzzle.

There is a lot of potential for new business here. But, if the salespeople are busy selling and the project managers are busy managing, how can this be realized? Enter the role of the Program Manager.

What is Program Management?

In its simplest terms, program management can be seen as the role or function between project managers, the sales team, and the client.

The company has to be large enough to fund such a role, but the results are well worth the investment. The program manager settles into the role of helping the company (internal or external) realize business value from the projects and processes that are underway.

The program manager has a broader scope than a project manager and is focused on project work, day-to-day operations, new areas of business within the client, billing, and other business related functions.

But what is program management compared to project management? The following outline some of those differences and how each role can complement each other:

Programs can (and should) Change Over Time

Programs are aimed at providing business value. Business value is derived from providing goods and services to the marketplace that buyers want to purchase.

It is no surprise that the market changes based upon buyer’s needs. For example, when was the last time you said, “I need to buy some thermal fax paper to fill up my fax machine?” Probably at least 10–15 years ago.

Innovation, buyer’s needs, and a shifting marketplace necessitate change. Programs are put in place to accommodate this change and move respond accordingly.

On the other hand, projects are (and should be) resistant to change. Projects are set for relatively short periods of time and need to come to completion in order for the value to be derived from them.

Does this mean that they should never change? Of course not. But it does mean that projects need to have a certain sense of stability and the ability to come to be finished up so the next project can be started on.

Program Management Success is Based Upon ROI

Something every program manager needs to have in their back pocket are ‘the numbers’.

What are ‘the numbers”? A big part of what program management has to do with is knowing how your activity affects the bottom line.

If this amount of money is spent on a new project or implementing a new process than what amount of money will come back because of that investment? The success of the program is measured upon those results being favourable.

When comparing what is program management to project management, the success metrics are a bit different. A project’s success is based upon the ability for the project to come in ‘on time, in scope, and under budget’. It’s the project manager’s job to manage the triple constraint and make sure those three critical elements stay on track.

Program Managers Manage Project Managers

Another fundamental difference between program managers and project managers is that program managers will manage project managers. A program manager will be responsible for delivering on a number of different projects that make up the program.

Rather than manage these projects directly, a program manager will work along with a project manager (or project managers) to accomplish the work. This will involve mid-to-high level updates to the program manager where the project manager will give a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ about how things are going with their project.

Based upon how things are going, the program manager can then choose to get involved and escalate stubborn issues for resolution.

Program Management is More Political

More political than project management? Yes. Not that project management doesn’t come with its political challenges, egos, agendas, and a crop of other energy sapping drama, but it does have a greater chance of surfacing in program management.

Why? Because you are dealing at a higher level, with higher stakes, and more people involved. Budgets are bigger. Decisions are bigger. Egos are bigger. Agendas may be hidden.

There is always going to be the push and pull that goes on through the normal course of a project between managers and resources.

The above are just a few of the differences when you compare what is program management to project management. If you enjoy jumping into the deep end of the pool and learning how to swim, then you will most likely do well at program management.

It is challenging, each day is different, there is the ability to identify and create opportunity, and you are able to see the results of all your hard work.



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