Program manager vs. project manager—roles with titles that similar couldn’t possibly be too different, right? Wrong!
While program managers and project managers share similar responsibilities, there are key differences between the two positions. The same thing goes for program management vs. project management. So whether you’re considering either as a future career or are looking to understand how these two camps might work better together, it’s important to know how they relate to each other.
Projects vs. programs
Before we discuss the similarities and differences between the two roles, it’s crucial to understand what separates projects from programs.
Projects are temporary, one-off undertakings. They are generally bound by cost, resource, budget, and time constraints. Projects have clear end dates and short-term goals that give way to tangible outcomes or deliverables.
Programs are composed of several underlying, interconnected projects. These projects complement and build off one another to achieve a larger, long-term business objective. A successful program drives strategic benefits and organizational growth rather than a single, tangible deliverable.
Let’s say a company wants to convert more CIOs. It might ask its marketing team to create a demand generation program to drive CIO interest and conversion. Several projects — creating a CIO-targeted eBook and hosting a CIO-related webinar, for example — might then go into this program.
The grid below offers a helpful side-by-side comparison of projects vs. programs:
What is a program manager?
A program manager articulates a program’s strategy and objectives and assesses how it will impact a business. They must define and oversee a list of dependent projects needed to reach the program’s overall goals.
Think of a program manager as an architect who sketches a blueprint. While architects don’t install plumbing or drywall, they make sure all these pieces come together to create a beautiful home. The program manager’s role extends beyond the completion of individual projects to the long-term realization of the whole program.
Their responsibilities include enlisting teams, implementing strategies, measuring ROI, and other big-picture initiatives. Going back to our CIO example, a program manager’s duties might include overseeing collaboration across project teams and defining whether or not an uptick in CIO lead conversion is a good success metric.
To get a better idea of a day in the life of a program manager, check out some typical program manager job descriptions here.
What is a project manager?
Project managers oversee the operations of individual projects within programs. They coordinate time, budget, and resources to complete work within program guidelines and report to the program manager on progress and any changes made to the initial project plan.
The role of the project manager is more tactical than the program manager. If program managers are architects, project managers are painters, plumbers, and electrical engineers.
They focus mainly on execution and managing the functional elements of the project. This includes meeting deadlines, staying within budget, delegating tasks, and completing deliverables.
So, you might be wondering: How much do project managers make? Typically, a project manager salary can range anywhere from $59,000 to $134,000 per year, with the average being about $90,000 per year. And, in comparison, how much does a construction project manager make? Or how much does an IT project manager make? What about other engineering project management roles? There are multiple kinds of project manager positions that exist — however, salary usually varies depending on the role of the project manager, location, and experience.
Interested in learning how to become an IT project manager or how to become a construction project manager? Check out some typical project manager job descriptions here. Consider learning more about how to become a project manager if it piques your interest.
Program managers vs. project managers
Let’s recap the three main differences between program managers vs. project managers:
- Program managers supervise groups of projects; project managers oversee individual projects
- Program managers focus on long-term business objectives; project managers have short-term, concrete deliverables
- Program managers are strategic; project managers are tactical
Different roles, similar challenges
Despite having different day-to-day responsibilities, both program managers and project managers oversee many moving parts and must exhibit extreme organization and efficiency. They encounter many of the same challenges and benefit from using similar techniques and tools:
- Dashboards: A clear view of task statuses and progression is crucial when success depends on multiple people and moving parts. Every program and project manager should have a dashboard to show them exactly who is working on what at a single glance. Ideally, this dashboard will provide both a bird’s-eye view and the ability to drill down when necessary.
- Templates: Many programs have similar projects. For example, every marketing project might contain an ad campaign. Rather than reinvent the wheel, project and program managers should templatize their work. This minimizes the need to start new initiatives from scratch and helps duplicate past success.
- Flexible work views: Not everyone works the same way. Program and project managers’ jobs are much easier when they don’t force their work styles on others. It’s important for them to be able to view a single program or project from different angles — think Kanban boards, tables, lists, and timelines. This means everyone involved can stay aligned while working in a way they find comfortable.
- In-context collaboration: Keeping track of every asset, update, and request can be difficult. Digging through emails and spreadsheets for details is a waste of project and program managers’ time. Keeping all program and project communications in a single, easily referenceable thread is extremely helpful.