Project management vs. programme management: what's the difference?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 28 April 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.

Business professionals use programmes and projects to manage their progression towards a set of predefined outcomes. Project and programme managers oversee processes such as better customer service or increased efficiency. Projects have a smaller scope than programmes, and they involve the day-to-day completion of documents and tasks, whereas programmes have less specific daily goals and focus on long-term business initiatives. In this article, we compare project management verus programme management, define the two roles and explain the responsibilities for each position.

Project management vs. programme management

If you're interested in understanding management roles, it's helpful to review the differences between project management versus programme management. Here are a few of the key ways the roles differ:

Long-term vs. short-term tasks

Both roles involve managing tasks and people as they move towards a set of goals. Programme management is a longer-term role than project management. A programme manager oversees a company's long-term aims, while project management involves a single deliverable with a much smaller scope and a defined deadline. For example, a project manager might oversee an employee completing a document.

Outcomes for projects usually relate to increased production, cost management, improved quality or customer satisfaction. Programmes are less specific with their outcomes and deadlines because they usually cover a larger scope of work that could continue over a long period. Programmes have many deliverables that may change because of the success of the programme or other unforeseen business needs. Setting long-term goals that change as the programme progresses allows you to work towards larger business targets. It also facilitates putting permanent business initiatives in place that may improve the reliability and efficiency of your efforts.

Related: Project management skills and how to improve them

Responsibilities

A programme manager plans and tracks strategies and provides feedback to stakeholders, while project managers plan and track smaller projects and report to the programme manager. This creates a clear chain of authority that requires communication between project and programme managers. The programme manager reviews and advises employees on projects, then the project manager acts according to their feedback and allocates any required resources. The project manager manages the daily risks of the project while the programme manager oversees audits and quality assurance across the wider business.

Focus of the role

Project and programme managers work together on many closely related tasks. Project managers focus on the individual deliverables that allow a programme to function correctly. They ensure the project is operating within the budget and on deadline. They interface with other staff members to ensure that the project runs smoothly on a daily basis.

In comparison, programme managers may interact with other staff members less often and work on smaller tasks. This is because they handle longer-term goals and require an overview of the entire business to make informed decisions. Programmes are often permanent initiatives that continue to operate through organisational change and other business factors.

Related: Project manager requirements (with duties and skills)

What is a programme manager?

Business professionals in charge of programme management coordinate the long-term projects and initiatives that a business is undertaking. They often have several project managers reporting to them to handle the smaller day-to-day tasks contributing to the goals of a programme. Programme managers help implement organisational growth by responding to daily changes and ensuring the success of long-term targets. This role involves a great deal of collaboration along with agile problem solving and time management skills.

What is a project manager?

Project managers are business professionals who oversee the delivery of predefined outcomes on a day-to-day basis. Regardless of how long a project runs, its end goals remain the same. Project management still requires planning and strategy, as projects support the success of programmes and other broader business initiatives. As these tasks have smaller outcomes than those seen in programmes, there are more regular deadlines to meet. While a project progresses towards completion, the project manager deals with everything needed to complete the task.

What does a programme manager do?

The day-to-day tasks of a programme manager vary based on the company for which they work and the goals they're working towards. This is because short-term changes influence the long-term goals of these professionals. Programme managers play a key role in keeping a company moving towards its goals. If you become a programme manager, some tasks you could expect to be doing regularly include:

Portfolio evaluation

Managing several long-running projects requires you to evaluate all the business's strategies and activities to assess how they are performing and influencing each other. The programme manager stays connected to project managers and ensures that each project contributes to the programme as required. Other unforeseen business circumstances could necessitate a change in the programme strategy by a programme manager.

Risk assessment

Managing the risks associated with your various tasks is essential to programme management. These risks include late deliverables, changes to requirements and any other unavoidable issues that might arise. The programme manager requires enough agility to take corrective action and minimise the risk to the business. Any changes to the programme may also require changing the details of specific projects and other tasks that are a part of the programme's goals.

Daily programme oversight

The programme manager handles the daily management of the programme. As a programme manager, you could oversee all the projects that support the programme. You may also define the operating parameters and processes for the completion of your deliverables. This involves providing feedback on projects and keeping the wider programme on budget and on time for its agreed delivery.

Communication with stakeholders

If you are operating as a programme manager, you could be responsible for connecting with stakeholders and updating them on the progress of programmes. The programme manager has the task of ensuring the structure of the programme addresses any new stakeholder goals. You could use your regular contact with stakeholders to steer the programme towards desirable outcomes.

Programme adaptation

The programme manager is responsible for refining the operating model as the programme moves towards its goals. You might oversee the operating model used by project managers when they are completing requirements for the programme. As the work progresses, the programme manager adapts to any new conditions or requirements and optimises the operating process to reduce the possibility of risks occurring.

Decision-making assistance

There are numerous decision-making processes included in the daily tasks of a programme manager. Such tasks might include reviewing all results and outcomes supporting the programme and deciding what changes are necessary to achieve maximum success and efficiency. This process could involve analysing important data, keeping your eye on deadlines and meeting with other decision-makers and stakeholders.

What does a project manager do?

Unlike programme managers, projects have a short-term scope with specific deadlines and milestones. As a result, project managers have an integral role in guiding work to completion. This can involve managing a team, performing quality checks and regularly updating stakeholders on your progress. As projects have short-term goals, a project manager could have more regular deadlines than a programme manager, but the deliverables may be smaller. Some of the tasks you could perform as a project manager include:

Managing time and budget

One of the primary concerns of a project manager is delivering outcomes on time and on budget. A project manager keeps track of the progress of deliverables. They also ensure everyone on the team is performing as required.

Monitoring task progress

As a project manager, you may take responsibility for every other member of staff contributing to the task. One of your duties might be to review the quality of their work. You might also delegate tasks in a way that keeps the project running on time.

Setting and communicating goals

Project managers often set and communicate goals at work. A part of your project management responsibilities could involve setting achievable milestones for your team to target. You might also keep the relevant stakeholders and management up to date on your progress at each milestone.

Related: 13 milestones in project management (with definitions)

Providing quality assurance

If you're a project manager, you might perform regular quality assurance analyses and checks. This can help you ensure that the deliverables meet the stakeholder's requirements for quality. This can help satisfy clients and motivate them to continue working with the company.

Acting on feedback

As you progress towards your milestones and deadlines, you might receive feedback from stakeholders and management. As a manager, it's often your responsibility to act on this feedback. You might also ensure that your team understands the new requirements.

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