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Project Manager vs Programme Manager: What is the difference?

The role of a project manager is very different to that of a programme manager and yet in some ways, the tasks each manager must carry out are similar.  What separates the two roles most of all is the focus. The project manager concentrates on the successful organisation and delivery of one project in time […]

Project Manager vs Programme Manager: What is the difference?

The role of a project manager is very different to that of a programme manager and yet in some ways, the tasks each manager must carry out are similar.  What separates the two roles most of all is the focus. The project manager concentrates on the successful organisation and delivery of one project in time and on budget. The programme manager, on the other hand, concentrates on a programme of several projects, focussing on their collective (rather than specific) value and the benefits they will bring to business transformation. So, beginning with project management, let’s look at this in more detail…

What is a project?

A project “is any undertaking, carried out individually or collaboratively and possibly involving research or design, that is carefully planned to achieve a particular aim” (Wikipedia). 

Project Management

Project management focuses on 3 things: People, Systems and the Organisation.  It is all about bringing people with different skills together and organizing and developing them as a team.  To create and manage an effective team leads to the successful achievement of the goals of the project, such as scope, time and budget. 

Project Planning and Governance

In a project managing world, proper planning allows the team a better understanding of user requirements so that a workable strategy can be put in place.  Once the plans for each of the projects are approved, the programme manager will integrate them into the programme.

Plans may differ according to the business environment.  This is because traditional methodology such as PRINCE2® charts the course of the project at its’ very beginning and will be very detailed as to requirements.  An AgilePM® environment, however, sees a different kind of planning that is less detailed initially but that will be re-visited and added to more frequently as the project progresses (See: The Agile Planning Onion: Making Sense of Planning in an Agile World).  Regardless of environment however, the project plan will include details of:

  • Work and resources
  • A control process to keep the project on track
  • A clear objective and timeline
  • A defined beginning, middle and end

Governance of both a project and a programme provide the guidelines for when and how a project or programme will be started, managed and ultimately closed.  For programme management, however, governance is a lot more complex than for project management (more on this later).

What are the responsibilities of a project manager?

The project manager is responsible for the daily managing of the 6 main aspects of a project: Scope, Schedule, Finance, Risk, Quality, Resources. Unlike the broader focus of a programme manager (we will discuss this later in the post), the project manager focus is much narrower.  They concentrate on the successful and timely delivery of the project they are managing (it is possible for a project manager to be simultaneously involved with more than one project).  They do not focus on the significance each project will have in the overall programme as would the programme manager.  Project managers usually choose what projects their team will work on as well as which team members will work on which aspect of it.   

Project managers’ focus:

  • Creating and managing the business case
  • Managing changes within scope, time and budget
  • Creating, organising and managing project plans
  • Tracking and measuring both project and team progress
  • Managing quality
  • Identifying, tracking and managing risk
  • Advising on project management tools

What is a programme?

A programme is “a series of actions or events that are planned to be done” (Collins Dictionary).  Programmes must offer value to the organisation, and to do so they must grow and evolve over time. 

Programme management

Every programme is unique but must deliver benefits to the organisation.  The completion date for a programme could be in the long-distant future, so the programme manager needs to manage the pace of work.  They are managing many projects within the programme, so they must juggle priorities to achieve and deliver regular successful outputs as the programme evolves.  An individual project may come to an end, but that is not necessarily the end of the programme.  New projects may be created as necessary over the programme lifecycle. 

Programme Planning and Governance

Large, complex deliveries are easier to manage if they are broken down into smaller inter-related projects.  Planning a programme requires the identification of dependencies between these projects, so the programme manager must follow a set of principles, governance themes and a transformational flow.  For more information on this see my post: Benefits of Adopting MSP (Managing successful programmes).  The programme manager must rely on the detailed planning carried out by the project managers.  They then need to juggle tasks and activities for the duration of the whole programme.    

Once the programme is planned, it can be tracked by a software tool such as a Gantt Chart.  By this means, as project managers update individual project progress, so the programme manager can track all projects in real time.  Adjustments can be made to the programme as it unfolds, and all relevant parties can be kept up to date of any changes.

Trying to maintain momentum over several years can be difficult for a programme manager.   Effective governance means that decision-making is carried out by the right people in the right way at the right time.  Governance is not only the key to both project and programme success, but also helps keep team members accountable.  To provide effective governance of a programme includes the governance of the projects within it, which is what makes programme governance much more complex than for a single project.

What are the responsibilities of a programme manager?

As established, the programme manager has a much broader focus than the project manager.  The programme manager is the architect who envisions, creates and oversees the bigger programme of several projects.  It is they who strive to ensure the collective success of those projects so that growth and transformation can be generated for the organisation they work for. 

Programme managers’ focus:

  • Managing scope and timeframe of programme
  • Simultaneously overseeing multiple projects
  • Evolvement of programme over time
  • Striving to achieve business transformation

In a nutshell:

A project manager may run more than one project at a time, but that does not make them a programme manager.  The roles may be similar in some ways, but the responsibilities are very different because the focus is different.  The project manager concentrates on organising and managing the individual project from beginning to end.  Their focus is the success of that project.  The programme manager, however, oversees several projects within the programme, so their focus is not on the success of an individual project, but on the success of the programme and the transformational benefits it will deliver for the organisation.


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