The Keys To Outstanding Program Management: What You Need To Know

Learn about the nuts and bolts of program management, how it differs from project management, and how to do it right.

Graphic illustrating resource article

Are you a project manager wondering what sets program management apart from project management? You're not alone! The terms may seem interchangeable, but essential distinctions can make or break program success.

In this article, we'll unpack the differences between program, project, and portfolio management. We'll also provide proven strategies to become a more effective program manager.

So if you want to take your program management skills to the next level, keep reading! We've got the keys to unlocking your success.

What is program management?

Program management can be defined differently, depending on the context.

Firstly, program management refers to managing a group of interrelated projects that are better off managed together. This means that program management differs from project management by scale, where a program is a collection of several projects.

Secondly, program management can also be used interchangeably with project management. The preferred terminology varies by industry, and job listings in the tech sector tend to recruit program managers instead of project managers.

The choice of terminology ultimately depends on the industry and context. However, I prefer the term program management as it better captures the long-term vision and interrelatedness of an organization's strategic endeavors. With organizations pursuing more significant, cross-functional initiatives aligning with their strategic goals, program management is a better term for capturing the associated complexity.

Where can you find program management?

The practice and prevalence of program management depend on how you define the term.

If program management refers to managing a collection of related projects, it is more commonly practiced at larger organizations. This is because larger organizations manage a larger volume of projects. Therefore, it is likely that these projects would be related to one another and that the organization would derive benefits from managing them together.

Smaller agencies, by contrast, are more likely to practice project management. Their engagements tend to be smaller and more likely to be one-off efforts. As an agency starts to sell repeat business to clients and/or markets these capabilities to other clients, it may engage a program manager to handle the higher degree of project complexity.

The industry you work in may also play a role. For example, when I worked in consulting, I referred to myself as a project manager. Now that I'm in tech, I use the term program manager almost exclusively, as most tech companies advertise for program manager (vs. project manager) roles. See more about the role of technical program management in this guide.

The differences between program management and project management

The main difference between program management and project management lies in the scope and complexity of the effort being managed.

Project management typically involves managing a standalone, relatively less complex effort with a short time horizon. For instance, a project manager may oversee a website launch.

On the other hand, program management involves managing a group of related projects that, as a whole, are typically larger, more complex, and have a longer time horizon than a standalone project. While individual projects within a program may have shorter durations, program goals may collectively require multiple quarters.

Program management involves more extensive and interconnected efforts, whereas project management typically focuses on a more specific, standalone initiative.

The benefits of program management

Managing a group of related projects as a program yields several benefits:

  • Clearer alignment with organizational goals, improving the project selection process
  • Broader dissemination and understanding of company strategy, improving employee motivation and accountability
  • Greater standardization of project management practices, saving time and money
  • Improved reporting and performance metrics make it easier to identify learnings, iterate, and correct course

If an organization practices program management, they may centralize the program management function into a program management office (PMO—sometimes called project management office.) A PMO is responsible for governing how projects are managed across an organization.

Program managers vs. project managers

Project and program managers are responsible for keeping teams aligned, accountable, and executing. However, how they perform these activities varies based on their experience level.

Program managers progressively elaborate upon the skills they learned as project managers to operate at a more senior level within the organization.

A comparison of the role and responsibilities of program managers vs project managers
A comparison of the role and responsibilities of program managers vs project managers

Program management vs. portfolio management

While program management involves managing a group of related projects, portfolio management consists of managing multiple projects that may or may not be related.

In project portfolio management, the focus is on ensuring that each individual project within the portfolio is aligned with the organization's overall strategy and that resources are allocated effectively. A portfolio manager's role is to oversee the selection, prioritization, and execution of projects to maximize the value that the portfolio delivers to the organization.

Sometimes, a project management office (PMO) may manage programs and portfolios, depending on the organization's needs.



Track capacity of people assigned to multiple projects with Float

Easily see which team members are shared between projects and programs to plan projects better, and monitor timelines and hours worked.

<cta-button>Try for free</cta-button>


Three crucial strategies for successful program management

If you’re new to program management or looking to transition from project manager to program manager, consider these three strategies to set yourself up for success:

1. Cultivate critical thinking skills

When trying to drum up a book of international business at a previous job, I constantly evaluated ways we could spin the work we were doing now to go after similar opportunities for that client.

If this isn't an option, double down on documenting your work and improving your processes to automate the routine parts of your job and achieve a similar outcome.

2. Delegate and automate

Identify tasks you can delegate to project managers in your organization that free up your time to do higher-order tasks and create a full program management plan.

If this isn't an option, double down on documenting your work and improving your processes so that you can automate the routine parts of your job and achieve a similar outcome.

3. Organize your toolbox

Your back-of-the-envelope Google Sheet or Google Doc worked fine for one-off projects, but as you start to scale, your reporting gets more complex, and you get more stakeholders, it will be harder to maintain.

Choosing the right tool for your strategic planning can make a real difference. Consider using resource planning software like Float to manage and predict capacity, streamline workflows, and monitor spending across your program.