Program management vs project management can be two very confusing career paths to differentiate between. After all, they even sound the same. The truth is that program and project managers work closely together. However, their day-to-day job responsibilities couldn’t be more different.
Understanding project management vs program management starts with knowing the difference between a product or service. A program is defined as a large project that is made up of a collection of projects. In contrast, a project is vastly smaller than a program.
Program management focuses on long term business goals and overall programs, while project management is usually more short term dealing with one project at a time.
So, how else are they different, and what do they have in common? Learn the pros and cons and everything in between when it comes to program versus project management in our guide below.
What Is Program Management?
Program management is the process of listing projects that need to be completed to reach an overall goal. A program manager is responsible for delegating tasks while focusing on strategy and implementation.
Additionally, they will partner with several different departments and project teams, including marketing, sales, customer success, and many more. This is to ensure that they reach the overall business goal of a company.
What Is Project Management?
Project management focuses on time, budget, and resources for a specific project during a specified time. Project management will focus on completing a project on time, staying on a budget, and completing deliverables.
The project manager will report to the program manager on how the project is tracking. Project management tools can include Trello, Asana, Slack, and Airtable, to name a few.
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Project managers will take on an individual project from the program manager and then develop a timeline and plan to implement it. They work to hit deadlines and goals.
An excellent resource for project managers is the Project Management Institute. The Project Management Institute or PMI is an American non-profit professional organization that focuses on product management.
Program Management vs Project management: The Most Important Differences and Similarities
While program managers and project managers do have similarities, there are also many differences. Some of the similarities are that they both rely on similar skills, the roles can be interchangeable, and both work with stakeholders.
The differences can include short term versus long term projects, individual versus multiple projects, and tactical versus strategic thinking. Explore a few of these in more depth below.
Difference: Short Term vs Long Term
A significant difference between the two is that a program manager is responsible for the projects’ long-term success, meaning managing a project from inception to bringing it to market, and everywhere in between. They will pass projects along to the project manager, who will work on the individual project, reach deliverables on budget and on time, then give it back over to the program manager and then move on to the next project.
Difference: Individual Project vs Multiple Projects
Program managers will oversee multiple different projects, while a project manager will work on an individual project one at a time.
Difference: Tactical vs Strategic
A popular industry saying is that program managers deal with what and why while project managers deal with how and when. This means that program managers must be able to think strategically while project managers think tactically and focus on day-to-day tasks.
Similarity: They Rely on Similar Skills
One similarity that they both have is that they both have comparable skills. Both roles require strong communicators, an ability to see the bigger picture, and managing project scope.
Similarity: The Roles Can Sometimes be Interchangeable
At some smaller companies, one person can do both of these roles. While it is possible, it is not recommended since it might result in insufficient skills, decreased focus, and potential bottlenecks.
Similarity: Both Can Work With Stakeholders
Another area where the two roles overlap is when it comes to dealing with stakeholders. The two roles can both have the responsibility of reporting to stakeholders and clients.
Program Management vs Project Management: Pros and Cons
If you are considering becoming a program or project manager, then, of course, you will want to learn the pros and cons before committing to one or the other. Decipher some of the pros and cons of becoming a program versus project managers here.
Program Management Pros
- Working toward strategic goals. A program manager ensures that projects are working toward the company’s goals, which is a rewarding aspect of the job. This means increasing sales, reducing costs, and benefiting the customer.
- There is consistency. There are steps that every project must take, including outlining the process, rules for communication, and more. Program managers are able to have this little bit of consistency in their role.
- You can choose the best projects. An exciting part of the job program managers can choose the best projects, which align with the company’s mission and vision.
Program Management Cons
- Burnout. Since certain programs can extend on for an extended time period, burnout is inevitable. Any team member can also experience this, so managers must protect them from it by providing downtime.
- Uncertainty. A vision for a program might be clear, but you might not know precisely how to get there. There are some things that you might need to work out on the fly. You might also have to plan time for the next steps.
- Managing the pace. You will need to control the pace of a program and keep the momentum up on a team, especially those with a long time span.
Project Management Pros
- Working with people from diverse backgrounds. In any project management team, you will be working with people from diverse backgrounds. It’s rewarding to work together with a diverse group of people who often share a similar enthusiasm for getting the job done.
- Watching the plan come together. One of the best job aspects is the excitement of watching a plan succeed. Additionally, motivation is increased every time that you see something come together and work out according to the plan.
- Empowering different teams. One of the best parts of the job is making a team stronger and more independent than they ever thought they could be. Watching the team all work together toward a common goal is extremely rewarding. Additionally, helping them exceed their potential is one of the best parts.
Project Management Cons
- Accountability without authority. One of the major cons is that project managers have a lot of responsibility but not the authority that goes along with it. This means that you won’t always have the authority to make decisions when needed on the job, which can be frustrating. Additionally, you might not have the authority to reward or reprimand team members.
- Stress from Stakeholders. Keeping stakeholders on the same page is one of the job’s primary responsibilities and is also one of the most significant stressors of the position. Stakeholders can be project sponsors, executives, customers, members of a project team, and more. It’s also a lot of work and is a process that doesn’t end.
- Lots of uncertainty. Just like in product management, project management also deals with uncertainty in its own right. Managers feel it’s challenging to manage a project’s outcomes where they might not always know what the outcome will be. However, handling uncertainty is an excellent job lesson.
Should You Use Program Management or Project Management?
You might be wondering which direction to take in becoming a program manager or a project manager. Both have their advantages and can ultimately lead you toward a fulfilling career. Explore which one might be right for you below.
Advantages of Choosing Program Management
Becoming a program manager comes with many different advantages. Not only is program management a high paying career choice, but it is rewarding in many other ways. Program managers are vital to a company’s success, so you will work every day, knowing that you are making a difference. Additionally, program managers are needed for a variety of industries, including but not limited to, finance, construction, and architecture.
Advantages of Choosing Project Management
There are many advantages to becoming a project manager. Firstly, this profession is needed in many different industries, including architecture, construction, engineering, finance, healthcare, insurance, and many more.
Project managers are transferable throughout these different industries and are in high demand when the economy is good. There is job security in the field, especially if you’re interested in working in the tech industry.
The job at hand provides something different every day, learning new skills and getting recognized for results. Additionally, there are many various tools and techniques that you can follow to become successful such as becoming certified.
An excellent aspect of the role is that if you wish to become a program manager, you can transition into becoming one from a project manager.
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