Program management vs. project management: What’s the difference?

By Alvares on Feb 6
Program and project management

Many a time, fairly large projects in an organization are referred to as programs. Have you ever wondered if the two words are related? Do program managers, product managers, and project managers carry the same set of responsibilities?

Well, program, project, and product management seem related, but they actually aren’t. This post will focus on the differences between program and project management. It will help you make the right choice between projects and programs so you can work more efficiently.

1. Understanding projects and project management

When a group of skilled people performs a set of well-planned tasks sequentially to achieve a specific goal, they are working on a project. In a project, a project team is formed, the project plan formulated, and essential resources procured to realize project outcomes. A project manager supervises the team and takes responsibility for end-to-end project execution.

Project management

Project manager skills and responsibilities

Project managers oversee the day-to-day activities of their respective teams. They are responsible for making necessary amendments to project plans to ensure goals are accomplished.

They need to possess strong project management skills:

  • Excellent communication: Verbal and written communication skills help project managers connect with their teams effectively as well as present thoughts and ideas to stakeholders clearly.
  • Task, time, and team management: Project managers must be able to allocate the right people for the right task. They need to closely monitor individual team members, adjust workloads, and manage task dependencies. They must also manage project schedules wisely so all deliverables and milestones are achieved on time.
  • Negotiation and conflict resolution: As the key link between project stakeholders and the project execution team, project managers are often required to work out practical timelines, realistic project costs, etc., and exercise their negotiation skills with stakeholders.

A project manager’s key responsibilities include:

  • Designing and implementing the project plan and roadmap with support from the project team
  • Ensuring the team adheres to project timelines, costing limitations, and guidelines
  • Supervising and managing the project team
  • Guiding individual team members so they contribute toward project success in the best way possible
  • Managing and addressing risks and challenges within the project for project scope, team performance, timelines, project budget, resource allocation, etc.

Project management tools such as Breeze help managers monitor project status, risks and challenges, milestones, and accomplishments easily.

2. Understanding programs and program management

Multiple project teams could be working simultaneously to contribute toward an organization’s strategic goal. These related projects together form a program and are usually promoted as a single package.

Program management

Program managers are responsible for program planning and execution. They may not need to get down to the nitty-gritty of individual project elements. But as programs are, after all, a group of projects, you will find that project and program managers do carry a few common skills.

Program manager skills and responsibilities

Program managers oversee the various projects that form a program and possess the following key skills:

Interpersonal and communication skills: Program managers must be able to speak fluently and write clearly so they can articulate thoughts, ideas, risks, and concerns to top decision-makers in the organization, internal and external stakeholders, and project teams.

Critical thinking and decision-making: Program managers are required to monitor the overall performance of multiple projects. They are responsible for a program’s success or failure. Program managers also interact with top executives within and outside the organization. To perform these day-to-day duties and interactions, they must possess leadership skills such as critical thinking, risk management, and decision-making.

Financial skills: Almost always, there’s the pressure for limiting resources and costs. Program managers must be able to monitor and manage program costs. For this, they will need to constantly keep an eye on associated project budgets.

A program manager’s key responsibilities include:

  • Designing a program plan and ensuring it is followed
  • Taking end-to-end responsibility for the program, including program cost, milestone, and outcome management
  • Overseeing the performance of various projects within the program so they are delivered as per service level agreements (SLAs)
  • Interacting with project managers as well as internal and external stakeholders to enable the smooth functioning of the program
  • Identifying program challenges and addressing them with appropriate corrective action.

3. Key differences between program and project management

Now that you are more familiar with projects, programs, and associated terms, it’s time to look into the key differences between them.

Program management vs. Project management

Project vs. program — differences in scope and focus

Projects differ from programs in terms of scope, focus, team size, timelines, and more. Here are five key differences between projects and programs.



1. Projects have well-defined targets that the project teams must achieve. A project is marked complete once the project output is delivered.

1. Programs, on the other hand, can have wide-ranging and variable outcomes with flexible timelines.

2. Projects are generally short-term with a definite end date.

2. Programs can last very long, and in some cases, programs may not have an end date.

3. Projects comprise several tasks and activities.

3. Programs comprise a set of related projects that are executed simultaneously.

4. Technical execution is taken care of by smaller projects.

4. Programs help achieve an organization’s strategic objectives.

5. Project teams focus on achieving client satisfaction, high-quality output, and on-time delivery while abiding by cost limitations, state regulations, etc

5. Programs focus on the continuing benefits to the organization, long-term gains, and the addition of new capabilities.

Project manager vs. program manager — differences in leadership and management styles

As mentioned earlier in this post, project and program managers have a few common skills and responsibilities. However, there are notable differences in their leadership and management styles.



1. A project manager oversees and tracks various tasks, activities, and milestones within a project.

1. A program manager oversees a cluster of projects that contribute toward the program’s objectives.

2. A project manager creates plans that cover project details, resource allocation for the project, project spending, timelines, etc. Usually, these plans are specific to a project.

2. Program managers create broader plans for use across projects.

3. A project manager works in close liaison with the project’s stakeholders and the project team which can comprise marketers, designers, accountants, developers, testing professionals, etc.

3. A program manager, on the other hand, holds an important position in a company’s senior management team. As program managers are responsible for strategic value delivery to the organization, the role involves frequent communication with project managers, the organization’s leadership team, and program sponsors.

Project management vs. program management

The difference in scope, focus, leadership, and management styles for projects and programs may have already given you an idea about how project management differs from program management.

  1. Project management involves tracking and addressing project elements and concerns that are defined before execution. As programs run over a longer period, program management will involve managing uncertainty along with other aspects of the program. Embracing uncertainty and making necessary modifications to maximize outcomes is essential for good program management.
  2. Using the right project management techniques will help project managers deliver quality output within agreed-upon deadlines and on budget. However, adhering to deadlines and budget constraints does not necessarily define good program management. Program management techniques revolve around delivering greater value to the organization. Programs are more flexible. They can take longer and can cost a little more than anticipated if the outcome delivers higher value and benefits.
  3. Both project and program management involve risks and challenges. Managing a project well and avoiding common mistakes can enable project success. However, with defined scope and a roadmap, managing projects is quite straightforward. Programs can be tricky to manage. They can often see changes in scope and outcomes based on the market situation, competitor offerings, and other external factors. A program can take years before the company begins deriving its benefits. In such instances, maintaining relationships with stakeholders — program sponsors and the organization’s leadership team — can be complex. External forces also make the risk management framework of programs unrestricted.

4. What’s appropriate for you — program management or project management?

Which to choose?

Programs are catalysts of change within the organization. Program management can work for your company if you want your organization to reach a desired new state but aren’t sure of the best solution or tangible outcomes. A program lets you plan and execute projects or align existing ones to support the program. You have the flexibility to make necessary amendments along the way, and proceed till the organization achieves the desired transformation.

Program management is appropriate if:

  • You want to bring about a significant change supporting strategic business objectives.
  • You will be delivering multiple products or outcomes with effort spread across several months or years.
  • Your focus is on value and benefits due to which you are willing to remain flexible with timelines and budget.
  • There is a certain level of uncertainty concerning processes and outcomes, and your scope has room for change based on external factors.
  • Multiple departments need to invest time and effort to deliver outcomes.

If you have specific goals to achieve within a timeframe and know how to accomplish them, a project will work best. When you know what processes to follow and what skills you’ll need to reach your goals, opt for a project.

5. Program or project management, go for Breeze!

Projects and programs follow different paths and processes to achieve results. Project and program managers possess different sets of skills to perform their roles. Whether you’re going for a single project or a multi-project program, Breeze can help.

Tracking projects

Breeze is an easy-to-use application with just the right features to help you manage projects and programs. Sign up and start your free 14-day trial today.