Skip to main content

You may have heard of project management, but what about program management? Though they share similarities, program management takes a more strategic and long-term perspective. In contrast, project management focuses on a single project's well-defined scope and deliverables.

Typically, both will use some type of program or project management software to plan, manage, and execute initiatives. 

What Is Program Management?

Program management involves a long-term strategy encompassing multiple project tasks ranging from defining success to driving it across different teams.

Project management is the process of delivering value that moves a program forward. This often involves organizing projects, coordinating work, and tracking progress. Remember, you need project management to drive programs (multiple related projects). 

What Is Project Management?

Project management, on the other hand, involves daily projects and tasks ensuring the delivery of a successful project. A project is a single, focused work with a defined scope and output.

Program Management vs Project Management: Differences & Similarities

Here is a summary of how program management and project management are different and similar in a few core areas:

DifferencesSimilarities
Program ManagementProject Management
FocusOwns the overall success of a program, which often involves multiple projects and teams.Manages a specific project or initiative, usually having a defined start and end date.Require strong foundations in execution, leadership, risk, and change management.
ScopeOverseeing a portfolio of interconnected projects contributing to a larger strategic program objective.Responsible for the overall success of a specific project, including budget, timeline, and quality of deliverables.Scope creep can challenge both fields if a project/program exceeds the planned timeline.
TimelineOften takes multiple months, quarters, or even years to accomplish.Specific deliverables with set dates (days, weeks, months, quarters). Both follow a structured lifecycle, including initiation, planning, execution, monitoring, and closure phases.
Value Success delivers long-term, strategic value to the business.Improves quality and efficiency in a specific way.Projects and programs, whether strategic, operational, or tactical, are designed to advance a company’s objective. 

Differences

Sign up for the DPM newsletter to get expert insights, tips, and other helpful content that will help you get projects across the finish line on time and under budget.

Sign up for the DPM newsletter to get expert insights, tips, and other helpful content that will help you get projects across the finish line on time and under budget.

  • Hidden
  • By submitting this form, you agree to receive our newsletter and occasional emails related to The Digital Project Manager. You can unsubscribe at any time. For more details, please review our Privacy Policy. We're protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

1. Strategic Programs vs. Tactical Projects

Program management is focused on steering a group of projects toward long-term strategic goals, while project management focuses on successfully executing a single, specific initiative. Programs are strategic and often require heavy leadership input versus projects' more immediate, tactical nature.  

2. Programs Have a Broader Scope vs. Project’s Narrow Focus 

In program management, the scope extends across various projects to achieve overarching business objectives, requiring a holistic view. Conversely, project management hones in on the specifics of a single project, with a clear focus on defined deliverables, budget, and timeline.

3. Programs Expect Extended Timelines vs. Project’s Defined Durations

Programs often unfold over extended periods, from months to years, adapting to strategic needs and organizational changes. Projects operate within tighter timeframes, with specific deadlines dictating a more immediate pace and focus on timely completion.

4. Programs Focus on Long-Term Value vs. Immediate Impact

Program management aims to deliver long-term strategic value that aligns with and supports the broader company goals. Project management, on the other hand, seeks to create immediate, tangible outcomes that enhance quality and efficiency within a predefined scope.

Similarities

1. Both Require a Foundation in Core Management Principles

Both program and project management build upon essential principles of execution, leadership, and strategic alignment. This shared foundation ensures that whether managing a program or a project, the focus remains on achieving objectives effectively and efficiently. 

Core responsibilities include aligning key stakeholders, providing a perspective across the delivery, and offering servant leadership to connect disparate teams. 

2. Both Navigate Scope Creep

Scope creep is a common challenge. Uncontrolled project or program scope changes can lead to delivery and resource constraints. Recognizing and mitigating scope creep is crucial to maintaining focus and achieving success.

3. Projects and Programs follow the Project Life Cycle

All projects follow a universal structured life cycle, including initiation, planning, execution, monitoring & closing, and closure. This structure ensures clarity, focus, and alignment throughout the life cycle of any project or program.

4. Both Advances Organizational Goals

At their core, programs and projects are launched to drive the organization forward, aligning with strategic, operational, or tactical objectives. This alignment ensures that every initiative, whether part of a larger program or an individual project, contributes to the company's overarching goals.

Key Differences Between Program Managers vs Project Managers

Project managers and program managers are the cornerstones of successful project delivery, but their roles differ in scope and focus. Here's a breakdown:

Skills

  • Project Management: Both roles require core project management skills like project planning, project scheduling, budgeting, resource allocation, risk management, and stakeholder communication.
  • Leadership: Project managers lead project teams, but program managers lead project managers! Program managers require a higher level of leadership to guide and motivate multiple project teams, fostering collaboration and ensuring alignment with program goals.
  • For example, a program manager overseeing a new product launch might lead project teams responsible for product development, marketing, and sales. They ensure all team members are aligned and working towards the program's overall goals.
  • Strategic Thinking: Project managers focus on delivering a specific project, while program managers think bigger picture. They translate the organization's strategic goals into actionable program plans. 
  • Imagine a program manager tasked with improving customer satisfaction. They would analyze customer data, identify key areas for improvement, and develop a program that includes multiple different projects, each with its own objectives, all contributing to the overarching goal of enhancing customer satisfaction.
  • Communication: Both roles need strong communication skills, but program managers need to communicate across a broader range of stakeholders, including executives and senior management.

Effective program managers are masters of tailoring their communication. They can explain complex program details to technical audiences while simultaneously presenting a big picture overview for executives.

They actively listen to concerns, address them promptly, and proactively manage stakeholder expectations throughout the program lifecycle.

Qualifications

  • Certifications: Both program and project manager roles often benefit from a Project Management Professional (PMP) certification, although it may not be strictly required for entry-level positions. The PMP certification validates a candidate's knowledge and skills in project management principles and practices. Check out the 9 best PM certifications. It’s also worth looking into the Program Management Certification (PgMP).
  • Experience: Project management experience is essential for both roles, with program managers typically requiring more experience leading and managing projects. Having a proven track record of success in project management demonstrates the ability to deliver projects on time, within budget, and to project scope.
  • Advanced degrees: Program manager positions may sometimes prefer candidates with advanced degrees in business (MBA), project management, or a related field. An advanced degree can provide additional leadership, strategic thinking, and analytical skills that are valuable for program management roles while not required.

Salary

According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), the median salary for project managers in the United States is $107,000 per year. Program managers typically earn significantly more, with a median salary of $134,000 per year according to PMI data (2023). This can vary depending on location, industry, experience, and the specific program or project complexity.

Career Growth

Project management is often seen as a stepping stone to a program management career. As project managers gain experience, develop leadership skills, and broaden their strategic thinking, they may seek opportunities to transition into program management roles. 

Program management opens doors to senior leadership positions. Here's why:

  • Portfolio management: Program managers oversee entire portfolios of projects, allocating resources and ensuring alignment with business objectives. This experience positions them well for leadership roles where they manage large budgets, prioritize initiatives, and make strategic decisions that impact the organization's overall success.
  • Executive visibility: Program managers work closely with senior management and executives to keep them informed of program progress and address any challenges. This exposure builds strong relationships with key decision-makers and provides valuable insights into senior leadership responsibilities.

By building a strong foundation in project management and then progressing to program management, individuals can pave the way for fulfilling careers in senior leadership, shaping the strategic direction of their organizations.

What's Next?

Want to connect with other digital project managers to share resources and best practices? Join our membership community and get access to 100+ templates, samples, and examples and connect with 100s of other digital project managers in Slack.

By Jean Kang

Jean is the founder and CEO of Path to PM and a LinkedIn Learning Instructor, paving the path for future program managers. Jean is recognized as a top LinkedIn Program Management Voice and has worked at top tech companies such as LinkedIn, Figma, and Meta.