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program manager vs project manager

Program manager vs project manager: Is there a difference?

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Posted by: Lucid Content Team

Modern project management is structured around well-documented processes and clearly defined roles. In a small company, you may have one person who takes on multiple project management roles such as product manager, project manager, and program manager. Many companies use these terms interchangeably, but they actually describe specific roles.

In this article, we will focus on the project and program management roles and discuss similarities, differences, and how they work together to achieve the same goal.

What is a project manager?

A project manager is the person responsible for taking a project from the initial planning sessions to its final completion. This means that project managers ensure that the team remains focused, stays on schedule, and has everything they need to get the job done.

Project managers will typically have a deep understanding of, and intimate experience with, the product or service the team is developing. But they rarely are required to do any of the actual coding or manufacturing that creates the final product.

Project managers are important to any organization and are in high demand. According to the Project Management Institute, by 2027 businesses worldwide will need about 88 million people working in project management roles. This means there should be plenty of good paying jobs if you choose to make project management your career path.

What are a project manager’s responsibilities?

Your project management responsibilities will vary depending on your industry and employer. But you will generally be responsible for 

  • Creating and executing long- and short-term plans
  • Setting timelines and schedules
  • Aligning project goals with business goals
  • Staying within the budget
  • Managing employees and resources to make sure that the right people have the right tools needed to complete the project
  • Breaking down large chunks of work into smaller tasks
  • Implementing processes and procedures
  • Managing project risks
  • Solving problems to keep development moving
  • Being organized and efficient

Which teams do project managers work with?

Projects will often require input from multiple teams, such as IT, customer service, testing, finance, legal, HR, etc. This means that the teams will need to collaborate so the final product can be completed and released on time.

The project manager works with these various teams, or forms a cross-functional team with project leads from each team, to facilitate multi-team collaboration. The project leads are then responsible for communicating action items from the meeting with their individual teams. This helps everybody stay focused and on the same page. 

If your teams are spread out across the country or the world, your best bet for bringing everybody together in the same “room” is to use web-based software or intranet software with built-in collaboration tools. This will save you time, strengthen team relationships, improve organization, and make project management easier. 

What are the challenges a project manager may face?

We all hope that projects will move forward without a hitch. But there will always be some challenges that can derail the project and put it in danger of missing crucial milestones.

  • Internal problems: Goals and objectives may not have been defined or communicated clearly. Make sure you understand goals, budget, and timeframe before starting the project.

  • Team problems: The project won’t be a success if you don’t have the right people with the right skills. Make sure your people can do the job and provide training as needed. It is also important to make sure that team members can work together without conflict.

  • High risk: You will likely run into risks. But you can reduce risks by doing thorough project research, building team trust, and understanding what is and isn’t feasible for completing the project.

  • Poor communication: Sometimes teams work in silos and don’t talk with each other. The project manager is responsible for facilitating communication and stressing how important and essential each member of every team to the project’s success. Lack of communication and miscommunication can be project killers. 

  • Managing expectations: You need to know what team members expect of you, and teams need to know what you expect of them. This makes it easier to move toward the same goal.

What is a program manager?

To help you understand the difference between a project manager and a program manager, suppose you are attending a three-day conference that has multiple sessions throughout the day. Each session touches on a different topic, but each topic relates to the conference’s overall theme. 

For example, a conference about improving IT management might include sessions covering cloud migration, network infrastructure, software deployment, adherence to ITIL standards, scalability, and so on. Each session is like a different project that fits into the conference’s program that aims to improve IT management.

So, a program manager is the person who manages multiple related projects that are working toward the same output or goal. Program managers coordinate the work among these projects to ensure that they align with business and customer needs.  

What are a program manager’s responsibilities?

Program managers are responsible for the delivery on the final product that is being developed by the projects that make up the program. Their responsibilities include:

  • Supervising: The program manager is responsible for the success or failure of the program. As a program manager, you must find the most talented and skilled people who can get the job done.

  • Planning: Program managers plan the overall program, making sure that individual projects are aligned with the outcome that the company expects. This includes monitoring daily progress and making sure milestones are met.

  • Scheduling: Project schedules are typically tied to short iterations and sprints. The program schedule is more likely to be tied to a longer time period such as a fiscal quarter. A program manager defines and sets the milestones that need to be met by the various projects within the stated time frame.

  • Defining management controls: A program manager defines the processes, procedures, reporting, etc., that will be used to manage the program.

  • Budgeting: As the program manager, you are responsible for the program’s overall budget. Working with organizational executives, you propose a target budget and allocate resources to individual projects as needed.

  • Troubleshooting: Program managers need to be good problem solvers. You need to be able to identify and remedy risks before they become major issues.

Which teams do program managers work with?

Program managers meet with project leaders regularly to keep on top of current progress. Program managers also work with senior and executive management, including the CEO, CTO, COO, CFO, and vice presidents.

The senior management team helps the program manager with defining outputs, expected outcomes, business objectives, and goals. The program manager also reports status updates to the senior management team.

What are the challenges a program manager may face?

Program managers share many of the same challenges that project managers face such as internal conflicts and miscommunication. In addition, a program manager might face challenges such as:

  • Responsibility without authority: You might find that your company defines the program manager role as “Individual Contributor.” Your program manager could be met with resistance when trying to enforce strict schedules and some policies.

  • Limited technical knowledge: Most program management job requirements emphasize communication, problem solving, and organizational skills, but do not mention specific technology skills. This can be a problem if there is a perception that the program manager doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

  • Resistance to processes: Some teams, especially when they are spread out globally, may have their own way of doing things. It can be a challenge to get them to follow new processes and procedures.

  • Managing work that spans many time zones: Working with teams in various time zones can lead to some interesting and inconvenient working hours as you coordinate with teams around the globe.

How do project managers and program managers work together?

In addition to frequently reporting progress and risks to the program manager, project managers work to integrate their project plans into the program plan.

As the program manager, you meet with the project manager to review the plan and to identify any dependencies between various projects. You also look for dependencies between tasks within the individual project.

It’s important for you to identify dependencies because you might have to reprioritize tasks and rearrange schedules to accommodate key players working on the projects.

After a project plan is rolled into the program plan, you can track individual project and overall program status using program management software such as Gantt charts or dashboards. As project managers update their projects, you should be able to see potential risks and problems so you can adjust the plan as needed. Always keep everybody informed of changes and what those changes mean to their work.

There are a lot of job opportunities in project and program management. If you are organized, like planning, can solve problems, enjoy working with many people, and communicate well, a career in these fields could be right for you.

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