by Jim Vaughan

Program versus Project Management

Dec 15, 2009
IT Leadership

The difference between a Program and a Project manager may be a fine line.

I have heard a lot of talk over the past couple of years about the difference between program and project management. I suspect that the addition of PMI’s Program Management Professional certification has had a lot to do with the increased discussion. I will start with a couple of examples.

Let’s assume that we are tasked to develop a software package. This software package is a stand-alone package with no external dependencies on other programs other than the operating system (platform) on which this package is to run. There will be about 10 people who will work on this development at various times over a period of seven months. I clearly define this effort to be a project.

Now let’s assume that we are doing a data center consolidation of two data centers. Each center has a mix of mainframes, AS400s, UNIX machines, Windows servers, various types of storage devices, etc. Each of these pieces is managed by separate organizations. Many of the applications running on these pieces are dependent on applications running on other pieces. The interaction of these pieces is highly complex. I clearly define this effort to be a program.

Unfortunately not all activities are as clear cut. Most projects are somewhere in between with varying levels of size and complexity. As size increases I have found that complexity increases as well. The organization grows creating complexity between various organizations and designs. Therefore size creates complexity. Therefore the yardstick that we must use when looking at the difference between programs and projects really comes down to complexity.

We must then consider a person’s ability to handle complexity when we consider their role as a program or project manager. I believe that the ability to handle more complex activities is directly related to experience. This experience comes in the form of time as well as personal assignments. Through experience project managers attain the skills necessary to become program managers. But this still does not help to distinguish the difference.

I suggest that we do not look at program and project management as two distinctive types of roles. Rather look at these as sliding scales as projects grow in complexity toward programs and as project managers attain skills to grow into program manager roles.

So you see that it would be impossible to make any clear distinction between projects and programs. If there is any definition that can be made it is likely made within individual organizations. I would venture to guess that there are a lot of varying opinions within those organizations over these definitions and in defining a definition for each activity within the organization.

I suggest that we worry less about what’s in a name and worry more about matching skills to activities. The skill of the individual must match to the complexity of the activity. In the past I have provided project and program management support (as defined in my second and third paragraphs) but actually but never held either one of those titles. As an independent consultant I have found that title is more important when people review my vitae. Since most companies don’t assign me a specific title I get to choose what to put on my resume for a title. Therefore I can decide if the work I was doing was a project or a program. I have worried much less about title in my career but much more on responsibility. Therefore I personally put little emphasis on the definitions of program and project management and more emphasis on the job at hand.