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5 essential ways programme management differs from project management

Psoda blog author avatar
8 May 2018

When you think of programme management, do you automatically think of it being project management, only bigger? If you do, you’re not alone, but ultimately – like me: wrong! Managing a programme is very different to managing a project.
The Project Management Institute has great definitions for both a programme and a project.
It defines a programme as “a group of related projects managed in a coordinated manner to obtain benefits and control NOT available from managing them individually. Programs may include elements of related work outside of the scope of the discrete projects in the program… Some projects within a program can deliver useful incremental benefits to the organization before the program itself has completed”.
And a project as “a temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service or result”.
Although both those definitions are pretty clear, it is difficult to really grasp the differences unless you’ve seen them in action.
I only really got it when I was involved in a very complicated organisational change programme. It had not one, but three programme streams, and each of them had at least 10 projects. The project managers in each stream reported to a programme manager who in turn reported to a programme director who oversaw the whole thing. The work was big, messy and had to succeed.
I was working in the PMO so was able to observe how it all came together and what each role actually did. I found the work the programme managers did was very different to the work of the project managers.

From my time on that programme I identified five key ways that programme management is different from project management:

  1. Projects are focussed on delivering a product (or products) within specific tolerances, whereas programmes are all about delivering benefits.
  2. Programmes are managed in tranches, rather than phases. Each tranche can contain multiple projects and the tranches tend to be much longer than project phases.
  3. Programme management is best used when implementing complex organisational change or large bodies of work – e.g. building an airport. You wouldn’t use programme management for anything less than 10 projects spending well in excess of $10 million.
  4. Programme managers spend most of their time managing up and out – i.e. to the organisation’s leadership team and key stakeholders. They should be leaving the detail of managing the project work to the project manager and get updates regularly.
  5. Programme managers must focus on aggregated data. They don’t have the time to get into the weeds of any project.

These are not the only essential ways in which programme management differs from project management, but hopefully this has given you some insights into the topic. If you have some more suggestions just add a comment below.
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Rhona Aylward avatar
Written by Rhona Aylward
Rhona is Deputy Everything Officer at Psoda, where she does everything except code. After starting life as a microbiologist she moved into PMO leadership roles around the world before settling in New Zealand with her family.

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