Program Manager vs Project Manager: Which One Do You Need?

June 4, 2021 Radhika Basuthakur

Program Manager vs Project Manager - Woman putting sticky notes on project management board

2020 taught businesses that agility is no longer just a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have. Program managers and project managers are an essential component in meeting this increasing need for agility in business.

According to a spotlight on project management trends in BTG’s 2021 High-End Independent Talent Report:

As companies made massive changes to ride out the economic turbulence of 2020, the need for unique skills, expertise, and leadership for both business units and individual projects was greater than ever. Ready to get right to work within days, experienced…project managers provide just-in-time and right-sized resourcing where and when needed. It’s the kind of agility that’s essential in 2021 and at any stage of an agile journey.

So should you onboard a project manager straightaway? Or is a program manager better suited for your needs? While each of these types of talent could help your business achieve its strategic vision, it is crucial to understand that the terms aren’t interchangeable. They represent two different roles in the workplace.

Below we explain the differences in the roles and their specific job responsibilities to help you get a better understanding of which professional you need for your business.

Program manager or Project manager: What’s the difference?

Programs and projects may be interrelated but they are also distinctive. A project is temporary work (of sorts) geared towards a specific goal. It comes with a set of deliverables and objectives to be fulfilled within a set deadline. It usually has a set start and end date and is overseen by a project manager supported by a team.

A program, on the other hand, is a group of related projects that work together to achieve a company’s overall goal. Programs are linked to strategic initiatives, hence they will often be long-running and even permanent in some cases. They are led by a program manager.

To explain better, let’s take a look at a program management example. Imagine a company is launching a new product. The product launch is the program. To launch this product successfully, different things have to come together. For instance, marketing, legal, operations, etc.
In this case, a good project management example would be the marketing department creating effective sales training and support materials specific to this product launch. The successful delivery of sales training and support materials will incrementally move the product launch forward.

So now that you have an idea of the differences in the roles, let’s dive deeper into understanding these two similar—but distinct—job functions.

What is the role of a program manager?

A program manager takes on the strategic management role of executing and controlling multiple related projects. They are responsible for overseeing the program by working with different teams, project managers, and stakeholders. They steer their teams towards achieving the strategic goals and objectives of the company.

According to BTG’s 2021 High-End Independent Talent Report, “A well-resourced Program Management Office is key to the critical transformations companies must undertake to succeed in 2021.”

Further, the report found that program managers are highly sought after for roles in business processes, supply chain, IT and tech transformation, M&A, growth strategy, product strategy, and launch and business transformation.

Program manager responsibilities

So what does a program manager’s day-to-day involve? They:

Run the program

Program managers are responsible for running the program. They are in charge of managing budgets and resources in liaison with project managers. It is their responsibility to define the program’s operating parameters and controls. It’s also their role to develop strategies for continued program advancement.

Analyze policies, goals, and objectives of the program

As program leaders, they are responsible for shaping how teams progress toward their goals. It’s their duty to identify goals and objectives and analyze policies. They also establish communication channels and reporting methods as well as determine priorities across the entire program.

Liaise between different project leaders

A program lead oversees the entire program which includes the projects supporting the program. It is, therefore, their responsibility to liaise between different project leaders to ensure projects are running smoothly. With the help of project managers, program leaders should periodically review outcomes to identify opportunities for improvement.

Oversee collaboration across project teams

It’s their job to review and evaluate a program by working closely with teams to identify any risk mitigation or improvement opportunities. Their goal is to stay connected and make sure all teams are working towards shared goals.

Manage risks

A program manager should mitigate any risks before they even happen. It is their duty to be aware of anything that could impact the progress or outcome of the program and related projects.

Real-life example

See how program managers contributed to the success of a clinical process transformation program.

What is the role of a project manager?

A project manager carefully manages all the tasks and activities involved in an individual project within a company’s program. They take a hands-on role that’s responsible for numerous moving parts of a project and ensure that everything is running smoothly.

Project manager responsibilities

So what exactly does a project manager do? They:

Track project progress

A project manager is responsible for overseeing the progress of the project until it’s completed. They should regularly update the program manager on the progress of the project and on any hurdles or delays.

Develop and monitor tasks

A project leader develops tasks that will help realize the project’s goal and objectives. They delegate these tasks to team members and monitor them to ensure they are being worked on.

Track project deliverables

The leader of a project should constantly check on the status of deliverables to determine whether they will be delivered on time and within budget. Should there be any constraints, it’s their duty to coordinate them.

Evaluate milestones

The project lead should clearly communicate the project scope with their team and create a plan for how to reach specific project milestones. They develop timelines to help members work through tasks within set deadlines.

Quality control

The lead is responsible for ensuring that project work meets the quality and reliability requirements established at the beginning of the project. Once the project is done, they should review workflow processes and determine what didn’t work in the project.

Real life example

See how a highly skilled project manager kept 15 different workstreams on track for one Fortune 500 life science company.

Program management vs project management: Which do you need?

As you may understand by now, the roles of a program manager and a project manager can easily intertwine but the scope is what differentiates one from the other. When it comes to scope, a program is broader than a project. Both are important to a company and each support the business in their own unique way.

Before you bring on a project or program manager, here are some questions to consider—to help you decide which role will serve your business better:

Is your scope pre-defined or unknown?

A deadline-based scope requires a project manager while a scope with a non-defined timeline usually requires a program manager.

How many management roles will be involved?

Work that requires just a single or at most a few departments can be project-based. However, if a wide variety of departments need to work together towards a similar goal, a program manager would be the best bet to oversee the work.

Discrete units of work or a series of deliverables?

Does the job you need done involve creating, updating, or reviewing a particular document, process, outcome, or other discrete units of work? If so, you're looking for a project manager. But, if it is an overarching series of deliverables, then you need a program manager.

Are you looking for a specific output or want to achieve a long-term business goal?

A specific output will best be delivered by a project manager while a long-term goal is best handled by a program manager.

Find the right program or project manager for your business

Projects and programs are both immensely valuable to businesses, and each has a role to play. The question of program manager vs project manager is best answered in relation to your business needs and goals. Learning the differences and similarities of each role gives you a better understanding of which function will help you achieve your goals.

Whether you need a project manager or a program manager—or maybe even both—BTG can help you find the right person for the job. Our on-demand expert consultants can manage multiple workstreams, coordinate with stakeholders,and most importantly, keep the work on track.

Accessing project-specific talent on an on-demand basis not only allows your existing teams to remain focused on their work; it also allows your organization to ramp up or down as needed. As projects change and clarify, independent consultants with specific areas of expertise can be brought in to help define the next steps, shape strategy, and address concerns. Get in touch to find the right independent program or project manager today.

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About the Author

Radhika Basuthakur

Radhika is a self-confessed word nerd and content expert with over 15 years of experience writing content for businesses around the world. She is a cheerleader for flexible work, a passionate world traveler, and spends her free time alternating between a good book and a good hike.

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