A Concise Guide to the Differences between Programs and Projects

Programs are collections of projects, but… there’s more to it!

Strategic initiatives are an important tool of organizational strategy execution.  From my experience, a good way to understand how to execute a strategic initiative is to understand the differences between the principles and norms of program management versus project management. Strategic initiatives are most commonly programs composed of smaller projects rather than large strategic projects.

In a future post, I will examine the differences between programs and portfolios and the different competencies of a program manager (of a strategic initiative) versus a project manager. For now, let’s take a look at the structural differences of programs and projects independent of the leadership behaviors needed for success.

The following two tables provide some compare and contrast. While it may seem like simple semantical nitpicking, language frames much of what is important to know about working with strategy. The first table involves generalizations that I can use with a high degree of confidence, whereas the second table involves numerous qualifications involving the word “typically.”

Projects Programs
Are assembled from tasks. Rollup reporting is involves aggregating task performance. Are assembled from projects. Rollup reporting is involves aggregating project performance.
Are focused on “outputs” and “deliverables.” It is the result of a process. If you can touch it or see it, it is probably an output. Are focused on “outcomes,” “benefits,” and achievements. Outcomes are things that can be graphed and analyzed for trends.

In recent years, I’ve spoken to hundreds of people about program management in general and strategic initiatives in specific.  Those individuals who come out of classic techno-process background have experienced project management as a science, and are somewhat frustrated to find out that program management is more of an art.  The following table shows some generalizations.

Projects, typically Programs, typically
Have solutions that are known and describable Know that a solution exists, but is often is initially unknowable
Are amenable to a structured process (“methodology”) Less amenable to a structured management process
Have specific details in their charter documents (and are often indistinguishable from a project plan) Are chartered to reflect the strategic nature of an investment
Have an internal focus on tasks and project issues Have an external focus on stakeholders politics and alliances
Regard “risk” as a threat that will undermine performance. Project mangers focus on reducing uncertainty. Regard “risk” as an opportunity that brings with it threats and obstacles that will be managed. Program managers focus first on managing ambiguity and then on managing uncertainty.
Are typically led by people who have good knowledge of the technology and system Are typically led by people who appreciate the politics and culture as well as the technology. Stated differently, they tend to function more as executives than as technocrats.
Are smaller in size and intended impact Are larger in size and intended impact, thus are more strategic and aligned with enterprise strategy
Are funded from a single funder Are often funded by multiple stakeholders, and often self-generate their own funds
Have clearly distinguishable end points Often end when the underlying technology platform becomes obsolete and funding is withdrawn (for an example, the NASA in the USA recently terminated the Space Shuttle Program)
React to changes from specific customers React to changes from stakeholders of all type, from changes in strategic intent, and from changes in strategy

Many practitioners regard programs are larger and more complex projects.  I think that this perspective is changing and that the profession is seeing that program management is not “project management on steroids,” especially for the special topic of strategic initiatives.

As a final point, the Project Management Institute’s Standard for Program Management adds three new knowledge areas to those identified in its Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge.  Because the standard-setting process casts a wide net across practitioners, we can be assured that we are less likely to be looking at the subjective opinions of individuals, and more likely to have some sort of consensus. PMI takes the existing 9 project management knowledge areas (saying that all 9 apply to programs) and add the following three knowledge areas to its Program Management Standard:

    • Program Stakeholder Management
    • Program Financial Management
    • Governance

These differences imply significance to how the leader of an initiative will practice leadership. For example, the leader has to use more questions and tolerate more ambiguity (and do it with confidence). How have you seen this work?


About Greg Githens

Author, How to Think Strategically (2019) Executive and leadership coach. Experience in driving change in Fortune 500 and mid-size companies through strategic initiatives and business transformation. Seminar leader and facilitator - high-impact results in crafting and delivering strategy, strategic initiatives, program management, innovation, project management, risk, and capturing customer requirements.
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14 Responses to A Concise Guide to the Differences between Programs and Projects

  1. David Carroll says:

    Greg, Thanks for posting this! It reminded me of some of the great discussions we had in your Strategic Initiatives seminar after the PMI Congress a couple of weeks ago.

    • Greg Githens says:

      Thanks! People have been telling me for a while that they really need to understand the distincitions, so I trust that I’ve added to the knowledge base. I hope that you and others will add comments, as I’m sure I’ve probably missed things (or at least provoked some disagreement).
      — Greg

  2. Ian Thornton-Bryar says:


    PMI have been much slower than OGC to recognise the difference between Projects and Programmes – OGC’s Managing Successful Programmes is long-established and well into it’s second coming. It also knits well into SSADM, Prince2™, ITIL, M_o_R, Gateway Reviews, etc, to make a complete management toolkit.

    The essential difference that you don’t seem to mention is that Project Management is essentially tactical (doing the thing right), while Programme Management is essentially strategic (doing the right thing).

    • Greg Githens says:

      Ian adds an important dimension to this discussion in noting UK’s Office of Government Commerce (OGC) advanced understanding of programmes. Certainly, PMI’s treatment of the topic in its upcoming 3rd Edition will need to mature to reflect the unique strengths of the PMI philosophy.

      While the second paragraph (programs = strategic = right things, whereas projects = tactical = doing it right) is attractive, we need to admit it is a cliche. It’s logic starts to fall apart when we realize that programs need to be concerned about execution (doing things right) and projects need to also select the right methods to get to the end points (do the right things). Part of the problem is that the word strategic – as is commonly used – really means “important” and generally adds very little to the understanding of the topic. Thus, I can’t agree that the statement constitutes an “essential difference.”

      Do you agree?

  3. John,

    One other distinction in the defense business. The awared contract is almost always called Program. The “name” project manager rarely is used, it’s Program Manager. But the Program Manager, rarely gets into the details of the execution of tasks. This is the role of a Control Account Management (CAM).

    The CAM is equivalent a Project Manager in the civilian world, cost, schedule, technical performance and many times technical leadership. Although that varies by firm and domain. The best CAMs are “business managers” of their budgets and assigned Control Accounts and Work Packages inside those CA’s.

    My favorite Program Management book is Dr. James Brown, The Handbook of Program Management: How to Facilitate Project Success with Optimal Program Management.

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  9. Hadaf says:

    Thanks a lot for posting this important topic, it is really helpful to clear the concept of project or program managers.

  10. Andy Huntley says:

    Thanks… Great insight.

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