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What Is Program Management and How Is It Different from Project Management?

Smartsheet Contributor Kate Eby on Oct 28, 2016 (Last modified on Aug 30, 2021)


Program management has been a growing job category over the last 20 years, largely due to its increased visibility in the software and marketing industries. Yet there can be confusion or inconsistency from industry to industry and company to company on what exactly a program manager does. What’s more, there is also confusion about what a program manager does vs. what a project manager does. 

When the right person fills the program manager role, he or she helps the project managers whose projects are part of the program succeed. Additionally, the program manager will shape the program to align with the company’s top-most financial goals. In this article, you’ll learn from prominent business, recruiting, and tech experts what an effective program manager does, the difference between program management and project management, and what the landscape looks like for program management in the future.


The Role of the Program Manager

Though the role of a program manager may vary due to the size or type of company, essentially a program manager oversees a series of progressive and related projects, each of which has its own schedule and set of deliverables. The projects are often related, though sometimes a program manager can oversee a set of projects whose only connection is shared resources. A program manager also has a high-level role in his or her company’s management structure, and therefore has responsibility for overall processes, annual budgets and costs, and more. It can also be helpful if a program manager to manage projects to avoid bureaucracy.

 

 

According to Dan Friedmann, a Program, Project, and Product Manager who has written extensively about program and project management, “In a small- to mid-sized company, a program manager is part of the senior leadership team, and in an enterprise-level company, they likely would run a division.”


So, a program manager needs to keep the small details moving forward and on time—but through his or her project managers—and is accountable to the organization and senior management for their projects, which make up the program.

 

As Dr. James T. Brown, former Associate Director of Logistics Systems for NASA at the Kennedy Space Center and author of The Handbook of Program Management: How to Facilitate Project Success with Optimal Program Management, explains the difference. “Program management is where operations and project management collide,” he says. This means that a program manager oversees related projects, yet answers and is responsible to senior leadership at the organization.

 

 

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The New (Bright) Kid in Management: The PMO

A new entity being embraced across industries is the Program Management Office, or PMO. If an organization has a PMO, it codifies what it means by program management, as well as the types of projects appropriate to take on under each program. Significantly, it also underscores that a program manager is part of senior leadership, a key component of the company’s strategic and financial success.

A word of caution from Dr. Brown: “I believe you need the functionality of a PMO and not necessarily the office. A lot of companies have formed the office without these very clearly defined goals and responsibilities—and a lot of PMOs have failed.”

To be truly effective, the PMO must align programs to the organization’s values and bottom line; identifying and mitigating risks, and managing stakeholder requests to be able to take action and course-correct quickly as needed. A PMO can increase project efficiency and reduce costs by centralizing services such as staff, supplier, customer, and equipment management. A PMO should also ensure that all stakeholders are kept in the loop with update plans and status reports. Additionally, a PMO can help an organization truly learn from its mistakes and regroup so that those errors or inefficiencies don’t happen with the next program or group of projects. To be as effective as possible, it’s critical that the PMO office and role, as well as those of the program managers with it, have a very clearly defined set of goals and responsibilities.

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Program Management vs. Project Management

Many business experts agree that the difference between program management and project management remains confusing for company managers as well as for candidates and hiring managers. Is a program manager essentially just a glorified project manager?

The answer is: sometimes. Some companies may ask a seasoned project manager to oversee several related projects during a time of growth; this role can later become a program manager. But more often in today’s business environment, a program manager is a separate role that has responsibilities stemming from the top management, the company’s annual revenues, and potentially in client relations—as well as monitoring individual project managers overseeing projects.

“CEOs will tell you, talented high-level program managers are in high demand. They would kill to get a strong person into that role in their company,” says Dr. Brown. “And program management really is more art than science. I don’t care how much process you have in a role; if the program manager’s artistry - [their] individual take on how things should run - isn’t there, they won’t succeed.”

A program manager needs to keep his or her head out of (most of) the weeds of the projects. “Program managers should not micromanage and should leave project management to the project managers,” says top tech recruiter Janis Strathearn in her popular LinkedIn blog post on the subject. “Project managers need clear direction and circumstances [from their program managers]. This allows them to be successful fulfilling the immediate tasks, timelines and goals of the project.”

Dan Friedmann thinks of program managers as “meta-project managers.” In this model, a single program could have as many as ten related projects aggregated within it. “The program manager juggles resources and schedules for all of their projects, and has the responsibility to move money, people or time from one project to another if needed.”

 

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Program Manager Priorities

A program manager typically oversees multiple projects and people, which requires strategic assignment of resources and planning. It’s the program manager’s call if one project needs to be given more resources, even at the expense of another one. Sometimes individual projects need to be put on hold or killed to keep the overarching goals of the program moving in the right direction.


Typical program manager duties include: 

  • Defining and assigning projects within the program, and working with the project manager to set up a timeline, budget, and necessary staffing and resources.
  • Regular check-ins with project managers on status, as well as with senior management, clients, and other stakeholders.
  • Reprioritizing, demoting, promoting or adding projects to a program if necessary, and adjusting timelines and stakeholder and staff expectations as needed.
  • Identifying potential risks (business level, program level, and project level) to the program, and making timely adjustments and course-corrections if needed.

The Bottom Line: Managing Costs and Budgets of Programs
Keeping costs and budgets under control is one of the most important aspects of running a project or program effectively. Nobody wants to lose money on a program, and nobody wants to find out late in the game that a program is likely to run over budget.

  • One of the main tasks of a program manager is managing costs and performance. An effective program manager should be able to:
  • Spot duplication and inefficiencies among and between projects, and work to streamline and eliminate duplication, saving staff time and money.
  • Communicate clearly to appropriate stakeholders throughout the program.
  • Establish a consistent project and program infrastructure that can be easily replicated and scaled over time.
  • Create governance and scheduling checks for the control of outcome, performance and scope, mitigating risks, and course correcting as needed to keep the larger program on track

 

Download Program Communication Plan Template 


The Elements and Stages of Successful Program Management

According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), the accrediting agency that certifies program managers as well as project managers, a program manager should consider instituting several components and guidelines to set up program teams for success. These include:

  1. Program Management Office (PMO) Charter: A PMO charter establishes the scope, goals, and budget of the PMO, and enables discussion and collaboration. Most importantly, it sets out the key pillars of the program so that future projects can be checked against them at every stage for alignment and effectiveness.
  2. A Program Governance Plan: This can be a very simple document, but should identify who is responsible for the program’s governance and management. It should also spell out the plan for managing and reviewing the program (at a fairly high level).
  3. A Program Communications Plan: This plan can encompass internal communications (IT needs, content or graphics assignments, etc.) as well as outward messaging. Those messages could be simply for clients or stakeholders, or they could involve press releases, media communications, newsletters, and/or marketing campaigns. Depending on the type of program, and who the ultimate audience or users will be, a program manager should be identifying and planning for communications streams internally and externally as needed.
  4. A Program Stakeholder Analysis: This can be a helpful tool in keeping track of all your stakeholders, as well as what they need to know and when they need to know it. This document is typically a checklist that lists all potential stakeholders – internal (IT, top management, client services, team members) and external (clients, vendors, contractors, media). This is generally for use by the program manager and not shared externally, and is a good planning tool for ensuring that stakeholders are receiving the type and frequency of communication they need. 
  5. A Program Plan: This is the comprehensive playbook for the entire program. It lists the goals and components of the program, all the projects contained within it, the staff responsible for each piece, calendars, deliverables, deadlines and more. The more comprehensive it is, the more useful it is to those working on the projects as well as the more helpful it is to others in the company wanting to find out where a piece of the program is, whom to ask, etc. This can be a living, breathing document, updated by the program manager and designated others as desired.
  6. Issue Tracker: This should be a shared file or set of files where anyone involved in a piece of the program can log an issue, share a roadblock, make an update, ask a question, or refine a task. If your company already has a task or issue tracker, that might be adaptable to this use, but it can be helpful for the project teams to feel they have one “home base” for all the pieces of this program. This can be programmed to email certain recipients when certain types of updates are logged.

 

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Specific Examples of Program Management and Types of Projects

Programs can run for many weeks, months, or even years. It takes a strategic vision to run them effectively and use resources wisely, while also staying apprised of smaller components and projects. A program may have dozens of individual deliverables, so organizing them well is critical. Here is how some typical programs might be structured:

In the Technology and Marketing Worlds
Program managers have become much more prominent in the past few decades, thanks to their high profile in the software and marketing industries. A typical program/project structure in these industries might look something like the following.

  1. Technical organization scenario: Let’s say a giant software company is creating and planning to release a large bundle of updates to its popular mapping platform. These updates may include more locations, more refined abilities to locate and map remote areas, directions that include local landmarks, ways to plan complex trips, etc. It may also include improved functionality on various devices. 
    - The program manager would oversee the various components and pieces of this rollout and the messaging and collateral related to them.
    - The project managers would take a set group of the components. One might oversee the collateral outlining all features and benefits that are relevant to end-users/consumers. Another project manager would oversee features and benefits that would resonate with a developer/IT audience. A third might monitor features and benefits relevant to business-to-business customers. Each of these projects would be staffed appropriately, and the program manager would be tasked with overseeing the progress and success of each project manager and their projects, underscoring the critical nature of this important update to the company as a whole.
     
  2. Non-IT organization scenario:
    Dan Friedmann was working on the Hubble Space Telescope for NASA, writing code for one of the onboard computers managing the telescope’s payload package. “That,” he says, “was just one of many projects going on at the same time, being managed not only by our project managers individually, but by a program manager. That program manager wasn’t hands-on on our projects, but spent his time coordinating and planning across all the projects.”

Using Program Management to Set Goals and Measure Success

 

“A program manager is first and foremost a strategic leader,” says prominent IT recruiter Janis Strathearn, who sometimes hears confusion about the role from candidates at her Vancouver-based company, JKSTalent.


The key is to set clear goals for each project and project manager, and to hold regular check-ins on progress and adjusting deadlines and deliverables as needed. A strong program manager should be accessible and transparent to his team, yet empower them to manage their projects the way that suits them best. Too much involvement would result in micromanaging and dispirited project managers. Too little oversight could leave projects vulnerable to risks, missing deadlines, and worse. 

Success comes from seeing each project completed on time and on budget, and in finding efficiencies along the way. That can sometimes mean downsizing or even killing an already-off-target project, but if the ultimate success of the other projects (and thus the overall program) needs it, the program manager needs to be willing to make that call.

Dr. Brown also says that “a strong program manager is a good mentor and developer of his team, is continually reviewing and revising processes for maximum impact, and, most importantly, spending time thinking about all of this strategically.”


Program Management Best Practices

“On a daily basis, a program manager needs to see the issues he needs to see, and he needs to not see the issues he doesn’t need to see,” says Dr. Brown. In other words, project managers should be bringing only potential roadblocks to the program manager for intervention; otherwise the project managers should manage the details of their projects. Remember the program plan we discussed above? This is where that document does its living, breathing, and morphing. 

For example, the program manager may have planned a separate project for that mapping software rollout that involved paid sponsorships from locations called out in the imagery. But as the program and that specific project got under way, it was clear that the clients had not yet worked out the royalties or rights with each individual company, and wouldn’t be able to before the launch of this version of the software. So, the program and project managers have a conversation and decide, along with the client, that the feature needs to be pulled from this program. The project manager can be reassigned to work on another part of the overall release, and knows that when the next update comes to this software in another year or so, he or she will be on-point to takeover that task.

The same is true for cost overruns, scope creep, additional unplanned client revisions, and other unexpected realities in projects. As soon as the project manager makes the program manager aware, the program manager should be able to make a call on when to push back, how to course correct, and even if and when to pull the plug on something. This keeps the bulk of the program on budget, on schedule, and on target. That is ultimately what a program manager is responsible for.

 

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The Current and Future Landscape

Today’s business leaders agree that an effective program manager can manage multiple profitable projects over time in a scalable way. As long as companies initiate complex programs with multiple projects within them, they will need talented, professional program managers. That said, Friedmann has noticed there can be some interesting challenges as more companies shift to Agile methods of project management and completion. “In theory the Scrums manage themselves,” he says. “So you might ask what a program manager’s role would be in that environment. I would see the Scrum masters in a project manager ‘conductor’ role, and the program manager still taking the high oversight responsibilities. But I think this will be an interesting phenomenon to watch in the coming few years.”

Dr. Brown says that actually, Agile and Scrum are really nothing new. “Companies have been running projects like this since the ‘60s—it’s just that it has a new name. … the truth is, program management is simply ‘organized common sense tailored to an organization's context,’” and projects of any size and scope, especially big ones, will need a smart leader at the helm. 


Educational Opportunities

Someone interested in becoming a program manager will likely spend some time in project management first, and there are some good places to learn both disciplines before diving into real-world experience.

  • PMI – The Project Management Institute (PMI): The PMI is based near Philadelphia in the U.S. and has offices around the world. In existence since 1969, it’s the recognized leader in specialized business certification programs, including Project Management Professional (PMP) ® and Program Management Professional (PgMP) ®. The institute requires several thousand hours’ work in project or program management before you can take the accreditation exam.
  • University of California-Santa Cruz extension offers the only discipline of study in program and project management in Silicon Valley, and is designed to complement academic study with the PMI certification courses. Most of the instructors are working project or program managers. It also offers a PMP prep course. Check your local community or four-year college to see what kinds of courses they offer.
  • SEBA ® Solutions: Dr. James T. Brown offers training for project and program managers, both online and onsite. His courses conform to the PMI standards and in addition, he offers real-world scenarios and solutions.
  • Skills required: Regardless of where or how you study to be a program (or project) manager, you will learn elements of business leadership, management, certain software programs, and organizational skills. You’ll need to be able to think three steps ahead for your program, as well as keeping an eye on the details that move your program toward completion.

Job Searching: What Top Recruiters Look For

While many strong project managers may hope to become program managers one day, that isn’t always a natural career path, as the skills, while similar, are quite different. “Many project managers look up to program managers and aspire to be in their shoes one day,” says Janis Strathearn, “although that is not every project manager’s career path. Business today employs a new level of thinking and management approach at the program level. The person who is good as a project manager may not be proficient as a program manager. Program management may not be for everyone.”

This is because the program manager needs executive-level authority and experience to manage multiple projects, and to be able to be fully accountable to the organization’s budgetary and long-term financial goals. Therefore, recruiters look for someone with deep project management experience, but also executive-level experience with organizational planning, leadership, budget responsibility, and a comfort with C-level decisions. “A project manager may grow into those skills, but will need to seek and take opportunities to use and grow his or her strategic skills as well,” adds Strathearn.


Program Management Software

Software solutions can help make program managers, and their programs, more efficient and scalable. Below are software examples for each element of the successful program outlined in  “The Elements and Stages of Successful Program Management” section above. 


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