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What is the difference between a program manager and a project manager?

March 3, 2021

Woman project manager discussing business idea with woman program manager

Program Manager vs. Project Manager: Key Differences

What’s the difference between a program manager and a project manager? Think of a program manager as a movie director, overseeing the development of a feature film from well before shouting, “Action!” until the final credits roll. Project managers, on the other hand, are like the film crew that carries out all the myriad tasks—camerawork, lighting, set design—that go into making a movie.

Program managers take the long view of a company initiative, planning how to implement an overarching vision. Project managers, by contrast, take the short view, focusing on carrying out specific activities that drive a program forward. In the end, the coordinated efforts of program managers and project managers come together in the business equivalent of a blockbuster movie—a successful program.

LSU Online offers several online Bachelor of Business Administration degrees that cultivate foundational knowledge of key business disciplines, preparing graduates to pursue careers as program managers or project managers.

Program Manager vs. Project Manager: Roles and Responsibilities

The job responsibilities of program and project managers are similar, but they present different challenges.

The Relationship Between Projects and Programs

Projects involve short-term tasks that focus on producing specific deliverables, such as a product or a service. However, projects fit into a larger picture. They build off one another to achieve the long-term and ongoing goals or objectives of a specific program.

Programs are made up of coordinated projects designed to reach a business objective and create a meaningful benefit to an organization.

For instance, an organization wanting to improve its efficiency may start a program to digitize its processes. This will require several projects, such as a project to migrate the company’s accounting work to a digitized system and a project to develop a digitized inventory tracking system.

The success of any project or program depends on the skills and knowledge of capable project and program managers. Through their collaboration, both types of managers help ensure that projects support the goals of organizational programs.

The Work of Project Managers

Project managers direct specific, incremental projects in a program. They begin by drawing a project “road map” that details project tasks and the time frames in which team members will complete them. Well-planned road maps coordinate the various skill sets of team members, so they serve cross-functional purposes.

Project managers organize the resources needed to accomplish project tasks and ensure that all work sticks to program guidelines. They also lead their team members through the execution of each project stage.

As projects progress, project managers monitor and help resolve any bottlenecks to avoid delays. For example, if they discover an inadequate network infrastructure is slowing down their team’s progress, they’ll seek ways to fix the problem.

Additionally, project managers track the contributions of their projects relative to their costs. They then pass this information, along with the tracking of schedules, budgets, risks, and the use of resources, to program managers.

Successful project managers deliver cost-effective, quality products or services that move company programs forward.

The Work of Program Managers

Program managers define programs and their objectives, measuring how those objectives will affect their organization. They then devise strategies to realize the defined program objectives. This involves identifying and overseeing a host of projects structured to achieve the program’s goals.

Program managers envision how to support the long-term growth of an organization when planning a program. They develop road maps that sketch out schedules and budgets, and they anticipate dependencies that create roadblocks. However, instead of laying out the details of a single project, these road maps chart the details of multiple projects.

Although they don’t directly oversee individual projects, program managers are responsible for their success. To that end, they identify practices that’ll best serve the project and strategize ways to streamline organizational processes. For instance, they’ll eliminate unnecessary tasks and perhaps introduce project management software that improves efficiency. Typically, program managers also negotiate contracts with clients.

Based on the information that project managers report to them, program managers assess the performance and benefits of a program to a company’s overall goals relative to the organization’s investment.

Program managers have a big-picture outlook. As a case in point, instead of focusing on an individual project, they consider how a series of products build their company’s brand. From their broad perspective, program managers keep tabs on how individual efforts align with organizational goals.

Differences Between Program Managers vs. Project Managers

Program and project managers perform similar types of work, such as planning budgets and leading teams. However, the scope of those tasks differ.

Project managers have a narrow focus, ensuring the delivery of limited deliverables. Program managers, on the other hand, also serve as architects who envision and oversee the larger production of several projects, ensuring that they come together to achieve company growth. Their role goes beyond completing individual projects and extends to realizing long-term company growth.

Specifically, a program manager responsible for a program that broadens a company’s customer base first envisions a collection of projects that’ll best draw in potential customers. Next, the program manager designs a rollout of those projects that ensures that they successfully build off one another to achieve the greatest effect and generate the most leads.

Specific Examples of Program Manager vs. Project Manager Positions

Aspiring program and project managers can explore positions in various fields.

Program Manager Positions

Those seeking program management positions will find job opportunities across numerous industries.

HR Manager

The work of a human resources (HR) program manager involves:

  • Developing specifications for job classifications
  • Designing HR training programs
  • Analyzing HR trends to develop and revise program goals
  • Designing and revising HR policies and procedures

IT Program Manager

The role of an information technology (IT) program manager involves working across departments to address IT issues.

Their responsibilities include the following:

  • Delivering expert advice on IT management procedures and policies
  • Assessing IT operations to determine information system requirements
  • Guiding company leaders on the plans for integrating applications into the organization, such as systems that identify programs behind on milestones

Project Manager Positions

Project managers play a critical role in business performance and success. Consider the roles in project management.

Software Development Project Manager

Software development project managers organize and oversee software and web projects. Their duties include the following:

  • Establishing parameters for software with developers and clients
  • Allocating money and planning for software development projects
  • Managing the testing, troubleshooting, and evaluating of software throughout the development process
Technical Project Managers

Technical project managers supervise the development of IT or technology projects.

Their tasks include the following:

  • Finding solutions to technical issues and measuring risks within projects
  • Managing the purchasing of materials required for a project, negotiating prices with suppliers
  • Using their technical knowledge to devise project plans in line with company goals

Program Manager vs. Project Manager Skills

Key skills and knowledge qualify individuals for roles in program and project management.

Program Manager Skills

To lead program initiatives, program managers need to cultivate certain skills and knowledge.

Resource Management

To structure ongoing programs made up of several projects, program managers need superior skills in identifying and allocating resources. This involves developing contingency plans, as well as plans that address risks and costs.

To that end, for instance, a project manager should have a back up plan if the prices of materials increase in the middle of a project or a contract with a supplier falls through. Next, program managers must capably pair those plans with the necessary resources to execute them.

Knowledge of Program Tools and Techniques

Program managers need tools and techniques that support them through a program’s life cycle.

These include the following:

  • Change management: Managing people through a change initiative.
  • Milestone mapping: Identifying appropriate milestone markers that best indicate work is advancing on schedule.
  • Process planning: Defining the sequence of operations or steps that need to be taken to complete a program.

Negotiation Skills

Getting a program off the ground requires excellent negotiation skills and the ability to convince others of the value of one’s vision. Program managers must sell their ideas and influence others, so they can get what they need for their programs.

Analytical Skills

Programs generate huge amounts of data. Program managers need to efficiently collect and integrate statistical, financial, and other information to successfully execute their programs. This requires excellent analytical skills.

Project Manager Skills

Consider the skills and knowledge needed to thrive as a project manager.

Leadership Skills

Leadership skills help turn project plans into realities. Such skills allow project managers to identify people’s strengths and weaknesses, so they can appropriately assign tasks.

Leadership skills also help program managers and project managers rally and motivate team members throughout the course of a project.

Communication Skills

Communication skills play a key role in building collaborative relationships with team members and keeping open lines of communication with program managers.

They also help identify and address problems, then get team members back on track so that deadlines are met.

Risk Management and Contingency Planning Skills

To keep projects moving ahead despite challenges, project managers need risk management and contingency skills. These competencies help project managers prepare for and avoid potential problems that can derail projects.

Organizational Skills

Projects demand multifaceted planning, so project managers need superior organizational skills.

    They help with:
  • Effectively tracking progress
  • Accurately anticipating time and budgetary needs
  • Documenting project metrics (indicators that track progress)
  • Coordinating team members

Program Manager vs. Project Manager Job Outlook and Salary

Project and program managers typically earn competitive salaries and enjoy a promising job outlook.

Project managers earned annual salaries ranging from $39,930 to $128,420, with a median income of $73,570, in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Currently, the BLS doesn’t collect data on program managers. However, according to December 2020 PayScale data, program managers can expect to earn annual salaries ranging from $53,000 to $124,000, with a median income of $83,853.

Additionally, the BLS projects a 5% job growth in all management occupations by 2029.

Steer Programs and Projects to Their Destinations

Examining program manager vs. project manager job responsibilities, skill sets, and salaries can offer important insights to those planning careers in business.

Learn more about how LSU Online’s online Bachelor of Business Administration program prepares graduates to achieve their professional goals, and discover how it equips future program and project managers to thrive.

LSU Online offers multiple options for an online business administration degree.

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