Programme vs project: definitions, differences and tips

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 8 June 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

The terms 'programme' and 'project' are often used interchangeably, but there are some key differences that set the two apart in business terminology. When words have a similar meaning, it's easy to use them out of context and misuse them. Both terms generally relate to completing tasks to produce an end result, but it's important to understand the key differences so that you can begin to use the correct terminology for future reference. In this article, we discuss what programmes and projects are, provide some examples of each and list the differences and similarities between the terms.

Programme vs project differences

To understand programme vs project, it's important to look at the differences between the two. Programmes are general frameworks that aim to achieve overarching and vague goals. They provide context to an organisation and are broad and adjustable. They consist of multiple projects and have a long-term outlook. They are typically created by the executive leadership of an organisation that considers the existing organisational mission and vision. The measurement of success for a programme is sometimes relative to the long-term benefits, return on investment (ROI) or new capabilities it brings to an organisation.

Conversely, projects are short-term strategic endeavours that look to achieve the goals the programme set for the organisation. Projects are much more specific and consist of tasks that team members carry out. These tasks can provide content for the organisation, such as product development, media or technical equipment. Mid-level staff and employees often monitor and manage projects. The measurement of success for a project is generally relative to its product quality, cost-effectiveness or customer satisfaction.

Related: How to become a project manager

What are programmes?

Programmes are deliberate efforts to reach a specific change and incorporate a group of related projects and business activities. Programmes are usually long-term strategies that can span multiple years without a fixed deadline. They can be broad, vague and adjustable and evolve or adapt as you complete individual projects to best suit the larger company strategy.

Many businesses use programmes as a framework to develop more specific projects. Developing these projects can give a business a general sense of strategic direction that brings long-term benefits or new capabilities to the organisation. Also, considering the direction of the business in this phase can help with the planning process to create a successful one.

Tips for programme planning

Understanding why, how and when to create a specific programme can help you plan for company changes or updates, which may be necessary for its success. Here are some tips to help you out with creating a programme for your organisation:

Relate to the organisation's mission

Typically, a programme is part of the organisation's overall mission. The organisation's executive leadership and management work to plan and strategise the programme to determine whether it ties in with the mission. Leadership can then evaluate whether the programme is necessary for the company or if any adjustments are required. Use the organisation's mission as a general pointer to create large-scale programmes and evaluate if the goals align accordingly.

Tie in with strategic planning

Strategic planning involves planning and reviewing strategic goals, issues and conflicts and means to accomplish the goals. These aspects make up the basic foundations for both projects and programmes. Strategic planning is also closely related to the organisation's mission. Once you have decided on the general goals of a programme, you can begin to create a roadmap and framework on how to achieve them.

Related: Guide: What is strategic planning? (With benefits and steps)

Involve management

The superior management team and general board of directors is a crucial part of deciding organisational programmes. Since programmes are large-scale, long-term roadmaps that help guide a company, senior-level directors have significant input in the process. Collaboration and alignment across the whole board are crucial to ensuring the organisation is working together productively. While programmes are adjustable and healthy debate to determine the company's goals is important, it's just as important to have everyone working towards the same task.

Related: Programme manager responsibilities

Teamwork

Creating a programme for an organisation is much more effective when all employees and key customers take part in the process. There are many different perspectives and opinions on the goals and missions of a programme, so it's important to survey the organisation to get a good understanding of these perspectives. If only a select few individuals create programmes and goals, it may create an unbalanced dynamic within the company, and productivity can decline as every one may not be aligned with the programme's goals.

Involve key customers

An organisation's executive leadership can create a programme and plan strategies and projects accordingly, but if key internal or external customers are absent in the strategic planning process, then the goals may not align with what the customers want. Have conversations with key customers to understand their perspective as a party that isn't directly involved in the everyday contributions of an organisation. This way, the organisation can tailor certain programmes to cater to maximising productivity to satisfy customers.

Programmes are adaptable

Developing the perfect programme takes time and diligence from all members of the organisation. Programmes are adjustable and adaptable to how the organisation evolves over time, so it's natural for organisations to make tweaks to their programmes. Since programmes are long-term endeavours, there may be failures and setbacks along the way that is part of the learning process. Experiencing setbacks is a good way of understanding weaknesses in strategy and fixing them to achieve your organisation's goals more effectively for the future.

What are projects?

Projects are typically short-term and specific strategic attempts that aim to complete specific objectives related to daily business goals. They are ways to complete the goals laid out in an overarching programme by dividing them up into manageable parts. These can include the completion of small tasks that create content that is trackable through measurable metrics. For example, your team is responsible for creating the advertisement for a new product. You might assign different members of the team a specific part of the project to complete, which can help create an efficient way to complete the project in a timely manner.

Related: Project management skills and how to improve them

5 steps of project planning

Project planning is much more focused on specific deliverables and measurable content. Here are five steps to help with project planning:

  1. Create a roadmap: During this planning stage, every member involved in the project has their responsibilities and tasks outlined to them, and the manager gives their team a specific goal to accomplish. It is ideal for the roadmap to be as detailed as possible to provide clarity to all team members involved in the project.

  2. Compartmentalise the project: While projects are short-term and specific, they can still be complex and involve multiple parts, so by breaking up the project into smaller deliverables, you can make it simpler to act upon. By compartmentalising the project, you can assign tasks to individual team members or departments and set a deadline on them, which gives the team a higher chance of completing the project successfully, as there are clear tasks to do.

  3. Identify risks: Spend some time with the team to identify any risks associated with the project and provide answers to questions, such as what would happen if the project experiences any setbacks or goes over budget. While you may not need a specific answer or course of action for every potential risk, it's ideal to have a general idea of how the team would react to certain circumstances.

  4. Create a budget: It's essential that you evaluate the tasks and responsibilities of the project and create a reasonable figure to set as a budget. Document every step of the process and each deliverable to get quotes for each expense associated with the project, as this will help you create an approximate range for your budget that you can then specify once you enter the advanced stages of project planning.

  5. Set up milestones: Create milestones you can measure and track as progress for the project. Consider the S.M.A.R.T. framework when formulating these milestones, which include being specific, having a measurable goal, making sure goals are achievable, ensuring milestones are relevant and setting time-based milestones you can achieve on time.


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