Program manager vs. project manager: Key differences to know

Team Asana contributor imageTeam AsanaJune 9th, 202110 min read
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Program manager vs. project manager

You may know what project management is, but have you ever heard the term program management? While the two sound similar, you might be surprised to learn there’s a lot that sets them apart. 

Whether you’re searching for the right role for your team or want to improve your work management processes, we’ll help you understand the differences between a program manager vs. project manager. Not only will you learn the responsibilities of each job, but you’ll also learn which role is right for your team. Now, let’s get into the differences between a project and a program. 

What is a project vs. a program?

To fully understand the difference between a program manager and a project manager, it’s important to first know the difference between a project vs. a program. In short, projects are temporary and programs are underlying strategies. But there are a few other key differences and similarities to note. 

An easy way to conceptualize the two is to consider the fact that multiple projects make up the programs in place. This means that each project has specific objectives that make up broader program objectives. While projects have clear timelines and deliverables, programs consist of long-term business objectives with multiple dependencies. 

Though there are many differences between the two, they do share some similarities. Both a project and a program consist of four components: size, difficulty, relationships, and uncertainty. What’s different is the degree of complexity. Projects tend to be smaller in size and run into less uncertainty, while programs tend to be larger, have many complex relationships between departments, and involve more uncertainty. 

Program manager vs. project manager

Now that you have a better understanding of the differences between a program and a project, let’s look at how the two roles compare. Learning the differences will help you understand the role of each job within your team and how you can make improvements in your own role. 

Program manager vs. project manager

While a program manager leads long-term program strategy which consists of multiple different projects, a project manager leads individual projects. Here are some additional differences between a program manager and a project manager. 

  • Managing projects: Unlike a project manager who supervises individual projects, a program manager supervises a group of projects. In other words, they focus on large programs that span a number of small projects. This makes managing multiple projects a large part of the job. 

  • Managing daily tasks: A project manager, on the other hand, focuses on daily project management duties which include work coordination and timeline tracking. This is often done with the help of project management software

  • Seniority: A program manager often has more seniority than a project manager. While this isn’t the case in every scenario, program managers are most often senior to project managers since they oversee broader strategies.  

  • Responsibilities: Program managers work alongside project managers but may not directly manage them. A great way to help identify roles and responsibilities is by using RACI charts

  • Internal roles: A project manager and a program manager have very different roles, but both are necessary for the success of an organization. 

Read: Work management vs project management: what’s the difference?

What is a program manager?

As you can see, a program manager handles long-term program strategy and success metrics. Their tasks range from defining success to overseeing collaboration and many things in between. 

A program manager is important when you’re looking to implement programs into your current systems. They can also be helpful for overseeing project managers and connecting day-to-day projects with larger programs. 

Here’s an example of a day in the life of a program manager. 

Your morning will be spent finishing up yearly baseline goals that stem from company-wide OKRs. In the afternoon, you’ll meet with project managers from various departments to ensure projects are on track to meet program goals. You’ll finish the day off with an executive meeting where you’ll be reporting monthly project metrics to leadership. If you have time, you’ll get a head start on the budget report for next month. 

What is a project manager?

A project manager, on the other hand, works on daily projects and tasks. They help keep teams organized and on track, while also helping streamline communication in the workplace

Project managers are great for ensuring goals are met and team members have clear directions. They also work with program managers to ensure projects are hitting target objectives, though most of their work is focused on project tasks. 

Here’s an example of a day in the life of a project manager

You’ll start the day by reviewing the progress of the two projects your team is working on. A deliverable looks overdue, so you connect with the team lead to provide support. In the afternoon you’ll chat with the program manager to review upcoming projects and make sure they’re on track for monthly goals. You’ll finish the day off by running a post-mortem meeting to review the project your team completed last week before archiving project materials. 

What does a program manager do?

A program manager is a very rewarding role. There are many responsibilities a program manager is in charge of, including big picture initiatives. A program manager handles complex projects that span long periods of time and align with larger company goals and also coordinates project teams and budgeting needs. 

Program manager roles and responsibilities

The difference in duties between a program manager and a project manager comes down to who’s focusing on the daily tasks vs. overarching project plans. That said, it’s common for both to collaborate. Let’s dive into some key roles and responsibilities of a program manager. 

Program manager roles and responsibilities

While the roles of a program manager vs. project manager are different, they do share some responsibilities, such as overseeing projects and coordinating communication. Program manager roles and responsibilities vary from company to company, but some of the universal duties include project strategy, quality control, performance reporting, change management, and risk planning

A good candidate will have all of these and more, as well as be a good leader who can coordinate with multiple teams. Here are some additional roles and responsibilities of a program manager. 

Implement strategies

Program managers are in charge of coordinating smaller projects with objectives that measure up to company-wide goals. This means working with project managers to ensure daily project goals are being met and bigger picture programs are on track.

Program managers also streamline internal processes and define best practices for a collection of projects. This allows project managers to have clear direction when managing projects. It also prevents errors due to lack of communication and time spent on work. 

Other strategic duties include coordinating projects with a project manager to make sure deliverables are aligned. 

Oversee collaboration

While project managers tend to focus on introducing collaboration for one-off projects, program managers make sure collaboration is happening cross-departmentally. While challenging, it is one of the most rewarding parts of the job. 

Program managers also tend to focus on creating program roadmaps for high-level company goals. This is slightly different from a project manager who will create individual project roadmaps

A program manager may manage collaboration by introducing new tools that streamline communication, such as program management software or team-building games. While different, these methods are designed to encourage teamwork and increase visibility.

Read: 100+ teamwork quotes to motivate and inspire collaboration

Define success metrics

While both a project manager and program manager should be analyzing and reporting on ROI, a program manager is in charge of ensuring that company-wide ROI aligns with high-level objectives. 

This means meeting with project managers to ensure one-off projects are hitting initial goals. Program managers will often be the point of contact for reporting ROI metrics to company executives and overall program performance. 

Skills and experience

A program manager should have a well-rounded skill set and both project management and workflow management experience. Though some professionals formally study program management and receive credentials, that's not always necessary.

If you're looking to add a program manager to your team, these are the skills to look for and keep in mind.

Program management skills

Top skills that a strong program manager should have include organization, planning, scheduling, program strategy, reporting, proposal writing, and budget planning. This will ultimately depend on the duties your organization is looking for and how they’ll work with any existing team members. 

Beyond any specific skills needed, it’s also important for a program manager to have people skills in a program management role. This will help them coordinate collaboration and inspire teammates to push themselves to do their best. 

Program management experience

A strong program manager will have previous experience in project management or another role focused on managing and organizing projects. 

While the number of years of experience needed varies, the average program manager has around five years of previous experience. This differs from project management which requires less experience depending on the complexity of the particular job. 

Common challenges

Whether tackling timeline delays or budgetary issues, program managers have to overcome obstacles just like other roles within a team. In fact, program managers are in a unique position where they must manage expectations from both above and below them.  

Here are some common challenges that program managers often face. 

  • Cross-departmental challenges like unaligned goals and lack of communication can have a negative impact on long-term objectives.   

  • Without direct reports, program managers can face challenges around authority and influence. 

  • With long program timelines, it can be difficult to ensure short-term projects stay on track in order to meet annual goals.  

Read: The ultimate guide to program management

What does a project manager do?

A project manager differs from a program manager based on daily tasks, though it is just as rewarding as a program manager role. A project manager’s main responsibility is to translate the program manager’s strategy into individual projects that meet set objectives. This includes organizing, planning, tracking, and executing work.

Project manager roles and responsibilities

Project managers often work alongside or report to program managers. This is because so much of their job is based on the program strategies put in place. Other duties include assigning project tasks, keeping projects organized, creating timelines, and tracking progress—all of which help projects and teams stay on track in order to meet company goals.

Project manager roles and responsibilities

A project manager’s main role is to help keep teams organized and communication aligned. This keeps deadlines and program-level objectives on track. Other roles and responsibilities include assigning tasks and tracking project progress to ensure deadlines are met. 

Here are some additional responsibilities to consider when weighing the differences between a program manager vs. a project manager.

Coordinate work

Project managers are responsible for assigning project tasks to the right stakeholders and ensuring they have all the information they need to complete the work. This is especially important to avoid wasting time searching for information. It’s also one of the most difficult tasks considering many teams are working virtually and 60% of their time is spent on work coordination instead of actual work. 

Although coordinating between team members can be a difficult task, it can improve productivity and team efficiency if done correctly. This allows your team to focus on their deliverables at hand.

Read: 12 tips to be more productive today

Organize projects

Project managers are also responsible for organizing projects. Not only does this require connecting with team members, but it also requires managing project information and stakeholder deliverables.

While that may seem easy enough, there’s a lot that goes into effectively organizing projects. Some of the key duties include providing team members with accurate information, keeping deliverables moving forward, and leading team meetings throughout the project lifecycle. 

Track progress

Tracking project progress is another important task that project managers are responsible for. This requires aligning deliverables with task timelines and ensuring they are on pace with project deadlines. 

Progress mapping also requires the task of communicating progress to team members in order to create project visibility and improve collaboration. This can be tricky, especially when working virtually, and requires both patience and problem-solving skills. 

Skills and experience

Unlike a program manager that requires around five years of experience, a project manager doesn’t necessarily need the same amount of experience. The main criteria to look for are organizational skills, communication skills, and work coordination experience. 

Take a look at these project management skills to get a better understanding of the experience needed.

Project management skills

Project management skills are similar to those of program management, with a couple of big differences. Skills such as organization, planning, and scheduling are essential for both roles. The difference between the two is that project managers work on tight deadlines and need to be able to work in a fast-paced environment, whereas program managers don’t work on such concrete timelines. Because of this, the right person should prefer a fast-working environment. 

Similar to a program manager role, it’s important to continue learning new methods and tools that can help set you apart. Organizations like the Project Management Institute (PMI) offer tools to grow your skill level and learn new methods to bring back to your team. 

Project management experience

The necessary experience needed to be a project manager will differ depending on the complexity of the role. Most roles require around two years of experience, though some require little to no experience. 

Just like a program manager, the experience needed will depend on what your organization is looking for. Small teams that need help with project planning may be suited for a project manager with little experience, while large teams with complex project deliverables may benefit from a project manager with more experience. 

Common challenges

Unlike a program manager who faces strategic challenges, a project manager faces daily obstacles like communication and productivity issues. 

Here are some of the biggest challenges project managers face on a daily basis. 

  • If communication is lacking between stakeholders, deliverables could be missed or, worse, done incorrectly.

  • Scope creep can become a challenge if a project is going over the planned timeline. This can happen if there is a lack of organization or the right tools aren’t in place. 

  • Lack of success metrics can be a challenge when tracking goals and opportunities. 

Read: What are the benefits of project management?

What role is right for your team?

While project managers are essential for executing projects and managing team workload and communication, program managers are also essential to a successful project strategy. Let’s look at ways you can determine which role is right for your team. 

What role is right for your team: Program manager vs project manager?

Consider areas that need improvement, then weigh whether a project manager or program manager is the best fit for the job. It’s also helpful to evaluate whether or not your current roles are being utilized correctly. In many cases, project managers take on program manager responsibilities. This can lead to burnout and more errors within individual projects. You can also look to company-wide OKRs to get an idea for which role aligns most closely with long-term objectives. 

Here are some example scenarios your team may be facing and how to determine which role can help solve each. 

Scenario 1: Is your team meeting deadlines but struggling to measure performance and meet company objectives?

  • Solution: A program manager can set performance metrics and strategize ways smaller project goals can measure up to company-wide objectives. 

Scenario 2: Is your team struggling to meet deadlines and feeling overwhelmed by the tasks on their plate?

  • Solution: A project manager can oversee deadlines and team workload to ensure due dates are met and communication is clear. 

Scenario 3: Is your organization aiming for huge growth but struggling with both meeting deliverables and measuring performance? 

  • Solution: It may be beneficial to add both a program manager and a project manager to your team. The program manager will be able to help strategize long-term objectives and help projects meet those goals. A project manager will help with the daily management of timelines, deliverables, and team communication. 

From project to program manager

Both project managers and program managers are an essential part of any high-performing team. While they both manage projects in one way or another, each one brings a different perspective to daily operations. After all, we could all use a little more help managing work and strategy.

If you’re looking for additional information on program management, read our guide to what is program management.

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