what is a program manager

Program management 101: What is a program manager?

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Posted by: Lucid Content Team

Program management is the new darling of the project management world. And it’s a massive job. Though a program manager may sound like another name for a project manager, the two roles are distinct.

Learn what a program manager does and why they are so important for your business’s success.

Project vs. program

Before we can understand program management, we have to distinguish projects and programs.

Project: A project is a temporary undertaking focused on achieving specific short-term goals (e.g., creating or updating a product or service). Projects are time-bound with clear start and end points. Project tasks are functional and tactical in nature.

Program: In contrast, a program consists of multiple related projects that complement and build on each other towards achieving one or more long-term business goals or benefits.

Programs manage these projects “in a coordinated way to obtain benefits and control not available from managing them individually.” Program tasks are strategic in nature.

project vs program management
Project vs Program Management (Click on image to modify online)

Defining program management

Let’s examine what program management is and why it’s necessary.

At its most basic definition, program management is the application of the skills, knowledge, tools, and techniques needed to achieve a program’s objectives and requirements.

But that’s pretty vague.

Remember that a program consists of a collection of interconnected projects. While the program manager is accountable for the successful completion of each individual project within the program, the role is more all-encompassing. Program management is about coordinating these smaller initiatives and efforts to realize the long-term objectives of the program.

The program manager oversees, guides, and promotes coordination between project managers. They manage the interdependencies between projects within their program and handle escalated issues that are outside the scope of the project managers.

Program management is about the big picture. The program manager focuses on coordinating teams, implementing strategies, measuring ROI, and handling finance and governance constraints.

Among other things, the program manager’s responsibilities involve:

  • Aligning schedules
  • Managing and allocating resources
  • Identifying and mitigating risk
  • Establishing and monitoring a program management office

Program management is where operational and project management meet.

The importance of program management

So why do we need program management? Simply put: because the scale and complexity of a program require a dedicated, high-level manager to oversee its many moving parts and strategically coordinate those individual initiatives.

As with any large or complex project, without a strategic plan and careful management of resources, talent, constraints, and risk, the project will fall apart and the objectives will remain out of reach.

program manager roles and responsibilities
Program Manager Roles and Responsibilities (Click on image to modify online)

Program manager roles and responsibilities

A program manager has a big job to do. As a high-level leader, they are responsible for the following areas:

Program governance

The program manager is responsible for defining the governance structure for the program. Program governance includes the framework and processes that will guide the program and provide management oversight and control.

This is a crucial component of the program manager’s responsibilities because, without clear governance, the complexity of the program (and its many moving parts) can derail the program and cause significant loss (in time, resources, costs, etc.).

Program leadership

A program manager is essentially a senior-level leader. In that capacity, they are responsible for a number of leadership tasks such as:

  • Leading planning meetings
  • Guiding project managers
  • Reviewing and approving project plans
  • Communicating across teams and channels

The program manager acts as the point person and liaison for program initiatives. As such, they are responsible for communicating with and connecting project and program stakeholders to the right people and resources.

Part of their communication strategy may include a stakeholder analysis. This useful document keeps track of all relevant stakeholders (both internal and external) and helps the program manager ensure all parties receive the information they need when they need it.

Financial management

With so many projects, there are numerous financial costs and concerns to manage and coordinate. The program manager should work with senior leadership, including the CFO, to ensure the program stays on track financially. This role may involve drafting and coordinating multiple project budgets, managing risks, and conducting cost analyses.   

Program planning

A cornerstone of the program manager’s job is planning the program itself. A program plan is a comprehensive and strategic playbook for the entire program. The plan should outline the goals and business case for the program, all the projects within the program, the stakeholders responsible for each element (e.g., schedules, deliverables, deadlines, etc.) and dependencies.

The program plan is typically an iterative document that the program manager can change and update as needed over the course of the program.

Program execution

Executing the program is the culmination and ongoing implementation of the program manager’s responsibilities.

In addition to creating and implementing governance, communications, and program plans, the manager will also oversee risk management, procurement, project tracking, training management, financial management, and continued program steering and strategy.

Within these areas of focus, successful programs typically contain the following elements and tools that the program manager should initiate and manage.

  • PMO charter
  • Program governance plan
  • Program communications plan
  • Stakeholder analysis
  • Program plan
  • Issue tracker

A program management office (PMO) is a program support team that helps the program manager execute the program strategy and initiatives. A PMO charter is a document that establishes the scope, budget, and goals of the PMO and defines the pillars of the program that the team can measure progress against.

An issue tracker is a valuable tool in the program manager’s toolbox. It is typically a shared file where stakeholders can log their issues and roadblocks, update past issues, and communicate on project progress. Maintaining a clear and updated issue tracker helps the program manager keep the program running smoothly.

Using Lucidchart to manage programs successfully

Managing a program is an enormous and complex job. The program manager not only has to be skilled in leadership and communications, but they need strong competency in project management methodologies, financial management, and strategic planning and analysis.

In other words, they have a lot of things to juggle.

Keeping tabs on all these moving parts and processes is a challenge. Luckily, Lucidchart can help. Lucidchart is a visual workspace that helps program managers document and track processes, plans, issues, and stakeholders in one convenient place.

project health and progress dashboard
Project Health and Progress Dashboard

Managers can create custom project dashboards to track each project. Data linking makes it easy to create dynamic dashboards that track performance metrics, issues, and progress so you can get at-a-glance insights into each project’s status.

Additionally, Lucidchart templates do the heavy lifting for busy managers who need a quick process flow or roadmap. Fill in your project plans and outline processes at the click of a button. Conditional formatting and various design options give managers the flexibility they need to make custom program plans that work for them.

product roadmap example
Project Roadmap (Click on image to view larger in Lucidchart)

Of course, at the end of the day, the most important feature for a program manager is communication. With Lucidchart, you can communicate and collaborate anytime, anywhere. Documents update in real time so every team member and stakeholder can see up-to-date, accurate information. Never worry about changes or updates getting lost in the shuffle again.

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