Project Manager vs Program Manager

I have just read an amazing blog by Harold Kerzner (Senior Executive Director at International Institute for Learning). The headline of the blog is Project Management Predictions For 2020

He states that most of the critical changes that he sees happening in 2020 can be clustered into the six pillars of project management, namely:

  • Pillar #1: Project managers will be expected to manage strategic projects rather than just traditional or operational projects.
  • Pillar #2: Project management is now recognized as a strategic competency rather than just another career path position.
  • Pillar #3: There will be a significant change in the skill set that some project managers may need.
  • Pillar #4: There will be a significant change in how we define the success (and failure) of a project.
  • Pillar #5: There will be a significant growth in the number of metrics, especially business-related metrics, to be used on projects.
  • Pillar #6: There will be a growth in flexible project management frameworks or methodologies that are capable of measuring benefits and business value as the project progresses and after the deliverables have been created.

I would like to discuss these six pillars by focusing basically on two points: project metrics and the skills of program and project managers.

If you read the text in detail, one of the words that is repeated most often throughout the six pillars is “metrics” or “measuring”. This is an old fashion project management principle: “If it cannot be measured, it cannot be managed and you can’t improve it” (Peter Drucker).

So, I really think this is not a real change for 2020. Perhaps we will try to find new Key Performance Indicators (KPI) for successful project or some new measuring tools will be launched. In addition, measurement could become a multifocal oriented activity and it will be done by all the project stakeholders.

Other repeated word is «strategy» or «strategic«. There is no doubt that projects have a strategic value for the organizations that develop them. However, it is important to remember that business strategies are stated at higher levels.

Organizations establish their strategic plans, programs that allow to reach the objectives of the plans and the projects that obtain deliverables (outputs). The integration of the success of all projects will make the success of the organization’s strategy a reality.

Therefore, if we talk about management, it is important to distinguish its object. Therefore, there are management professionals who are dedicated to:

  • Portfolio management.
  • Program management.
  • Project management.

Although these management activities have many elements in common, there are many other distinctive elements that make the manager’s professional profile different in each case.

A project manager must have an overview of the company and the strategic objectives and values. But the fundamental task of the project manager is to focus on the success of his project. This success must be measurable in objective terms and the criteria to be used must be known from the beginning.

The project manager’s roles and responsibilities are different from those of a program manager.

  • Project Manager Responsibilities:
    • Managing the project, including project scope, schedule and resources
    • Assembling and managing the project team and their performance
    • Delivering successful project outcomes (ensuring it is on time and under budget)
  • Program Manager Responsibilities:
    • Overseeing multiple projects
    • Managing multiple project teams (and sometimes project managers)
    • Delivering successful program outcomes.

Program managers are more strategic in their thinking and deliverables, while the project manager is often working on day-to-day task management on a more deliverables development level. The key difference between a project and a program of works can be described as follows (Weaver, 2010)[1]:

  • Projects involve delivering a product to meet stakeholder needs and expectations with unnecessary change minimized. The key element in project management is efficiency.
  • Programs are about delivering benefits to the organization within defined constraints and in alignment with its strategic objectives. Changing the elements within a program to maximize benefits actually realized and maintaining alignment with changing strategic objectives are essential. The key focus of program management is in the delivery of value, working in concert with the operational and strategic elements of the organization.

Despite having different day-to-day responsibilities, both program managers and project managers oversee many moving parts and must exhibit extreme organization and efficiency.

In other words, the skills of each of them are similar but not exactly the same.

  • Program manager’s skills (Ward, 2009)[2] :
    • Big Picture Thinking and Selling the Vision.
    • Superior Analytical Skills.
    • Leadership and Teambuilding.
    • Influencing and Negotiating.
    • Conflict Resolution.
    • Stakeholder Management.
    • Planning and Resource Management.
  • Project manager’s skills [3]:
    • Leadership.
    • Negotiation.
    • Scheduling.
    • Cost Control.
    • Risk Management.
    • Contract Management.
    • Communication.
    • Project Recovery.
    • Task Management.
    • Quality Management.
    • Meetings Management.
    • Business Case Writing.

Not all project managers can become good program managers as they could lack the strategic vision. Similarly, some program managers may not have some of the skills of project managers. This situation is more unusual, as organizations usually promote to program managers those project managers who demonstrate adequate skills.

Definitively, we are talking about two different professional profiles with different roles and responsibilities and therefore with professional skills that are not exactly the same.

[1] Weaver, P. (2010). Understanding programs and projects—oh, there’s a difference! Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2010—Asia Pacific, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

[2] Ward, J. L. (2009). Power up your program management skills: gaining key proficiencies. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2009—Asia Pacific, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

[3] For a whole skills list: Caupin, G., & International Project Management Association. (2006). ICB: IPMA competence baseline, version 3.0. Nijkerk: IMPA, International Project Management Association.