Project Management vs Program Management: What is the Difference?

Doug Vincent
Doug Vincent
March 6, 2024

Understanding the difference between project management and program management is important for anyone working on capital projects to better appreciate the various roles and responsibilities, trade-offs, and decisions toward successful capital project delivery.

This blog dives deeper into these concepts, drawing insights from industry expertise to offer a comprehensive overview for businesses and professionals in the capital project management space.

Project management focuses on applying knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to meet specific project requirements.
Project management focuses on applying knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to meet specific project requirements. | Image source: Storables

What is Project Management?

Project management is a specialist discipline in capital projects, focusing on applying knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to meet specific project requirements. The project manager role is often undertaken by a client side project manager, who oversees a single project through to completion in the defined timeframe and budget. Project management is characterized by an outcome-oriented approach aimed at achieving success criteria and delivering value through effective:

  • Scope Management: Defining and controlling what is included in the project to meet the sponsor or user's requirements.
  • Time Management: Ensuring project completion within the agreed timeline.
  • Cost Management: Keeping the project within the budgetary constraints.
  • Quality Management: Meeting the required standards and stakeholder expectations.
  • Risk Management: Minimizing risks to the project's success.

The unique challenges of capital construction projects also require project managers to handle regulatory compliance, safety management, and environmental considerations.

Program management has a bigger scope, overseeing a collection of related capital projects.
Program management has a bigger scope, overseeing a collection of related capital projects. | Image source: MPUG

What is Program Management?

Program management oversees a collection of related capital projects to achieve strategic goals. Program management takes advantage of managing many capital projects together, making trade-offs and synergies impossible if managed individually.  

Program management is often delivered via a Project Management Office or Program Management Office (PMO), which introduces a broader and more structured approach to achieving these goals. The PMO is an organizational structure designed to execute program management by standardizing project-related governance processes and facilitating the sharing of resources, methodologies, tools, and techniques to achieve net gain. Think of People, Processes, and Systems.

A PMO's program management responsibilities can range from providing project management support functions to direct management of a project or program.

Note: You may also hear the word Project Portfolio Management in the context of Program Management.

Key Functions of a PMO:

  • Standardization: Developing and implementing consistent project management standards and practices across projects to improve efficiency and effectiveness for the entire program of work. This includes "templatizing" work such as cost trackers, risk registers, management plans, and reporting.
  • Governance: Establishing policies and frameworks for managing projects within the organization, ensuring alignment with business goals. This includes who can approve things such as change orders and variations, reporting deadlines, and more.
  • Resource Management: Allocating resources optimally across projects, including tools, techniques, and personnel, to ensure that each project has what it needs to succeed. This takes advantage of internal expertise, such as a technical design expert who can lend their experience across all projects.
  • Benefits Realization: Monitoring and measuring the outcomes and benefits of projects and programs to ensure they align with strategic objectives.
  • Knowledge Management: Facilitating sharing of lessons learned, best practices, and project documentation to enhance project management capabilities within the organization.
Project management and program management work together to achieve their project goals.
Project management and program management work together to achieve their project goals.

Delivering Results: How Project Management Supports Program Management

Project management and the program management office have an interdependent relationship, collaborating daily. Project management focuses on the successful execution of individual projects, while the PMO provides a standardized framework and oversight to ensure these projects align with the organization's strategic goals. Together, they create a cohesive strategy that enhances efficiency, reduces risks, and maximizes the realization of benefits.

  • Strategic Alignment: Managing projects as a program ensures that projects contribute to overarching business goals, enhancing strategic alignment and value creation.
  • Efficiency and Consistency: By standardizing methodologies and sharing resources, the managing projects as a program helps project managers execute their projects more efficiently and consistently.
  • Improved Decision-Making: The governance and oversight provided by managing projects as a program enable better decision-making processes, with a focus on strategic alignment and resource optimization.
  • Enhanced Capability: The Program management team's role in knowledge management and training supports the organization's continuous improvement of project management skills.
  • Scale: A program management officer allows organizations to easily scale capital works and inject new projects into the PMO.  

Conclusion

Organizations should consider strategically deploying project management and program management to navigate the complexities and challenges of delivering many capital projects.  

The singular focus of project management, combined with the strategic framework provided by program management, creates a powerfully efficient alignment that can significantly improve the effectiveness and outcomes of the capital projects.  Embracing this integrated approach is crucial in maximizing project success, driving innovation, and achieving long-term strategic goals.

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