If you’ve been even loosely involved in project management, you’re likely to have heard people talk about portfolios, programmes and projects. They’re part of the language of project management but it can be difficult to know the differences between them, even though they’re all related.
A really good way to visualise the difference is to think of a triangle with three layers. The bottom layer is the project, the middle layer is the programme and the top layer is the portfolio.
Projects are normally one off, unique activities and proportionally there are more projects than anything else in the P3 triangle.
Project managers are all about the day-to-day running of the project. They focus on the deliverables and balancing the time, cost and quality of the product being delivered. They live and breathe the various project registers, schedules, budget tables and resource plans
Programmes usually contain two or more projects. Instead of focussing on deliverables they are concerned with the benefits
Programme managers on the other hand, have a wider view than project managers. It’s not about managing multiple projects – each project will have its own manager, it’s more strategic than that. They are all about managing dependencies, delivering programme benefits and communicating with stakeholders. Their view tends to be outward rather than inward. That’s not to say they’re not concerned about risks, issues and budget overruns. They are, but only if it affects the overall delivery of the programme.
Portfolio management is at the top of the triangle and this is where all the strategic decisions are made. They have a 50,000 foot view of the project and programme landscape and they’re only interested in the outcomes. An organisation may run one portfolio or many.
Portfolio managers don’t care about the day to day performance, or even the monthly view. All they are interested in is how the projects are delivering against strategic benefits and organisational goals. They make decisions based on very high level information and they’re all about balancing and prioritising the programmes and projects to ensure they achieve the best use of the people, budget and resources available. This isn’t a one-off activity – it’s likely that the portfolio managers will be constantly reviewing and rejigging the portfolio to ensure optimum balance.
The last thing to address is the spelling of programme. Program is American English, while programme is British English. Both are correct – it just depends on where you are in the world as to which you use.
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