3 Ways A Program Manager is not a Project Manager

Many companies use the role names project manager and program manager interchangeably, such as at Google and Microsoft, but they are distinctly different roles, as I will explain. To define what a project manager is, the role entails ensuring that all projects are delivered on time, budget, and to the satisfaction of the product owner.

A Project Manager is a professional in the field of Management. Project managers have the responsibility of the planning, procurement and execution of a project, in any domain of engineering. Project Managers are first point of contact for any issues or discrepancies arising from within the heads of various departments in an organization before the problem escalates to higher authorities. Project Management is the responsibility of a project manager. This individual seldom participates directly in the activities that produce the end result, but rather strives to maintain the progress, mutual interaction and tasks of various parties in such a way that reduces the risk of overall failure, maximizes benefits, and minimizes costs. (Wikipedia)

As for Program Managers, they are more forward-encompassing, and rather than work on a sequence of projects, look out for the long-running programs instead. The Program Manager manages a portfolio of related projects that meet a specific strategic need, working with the individual project managers to calibrate and optimize each project, as well as the interdependencies in terms of resource and delivery between the projects. 

The program manager has oversight of the purpose and status of the projects in a program and can use this oversight to support project-level activity to ensure the program goals are met by providing a decision-making capacity that cannot be achieved at project level or by providing the project manager with a program perspective when required, or as a sounding board for ideas and approaches to solving project issues that have program impacts. (Wikipedia)

But there’s more to it, than that, as we will see, so here are the top 5 things a Program Manager does that Project Manager doesn’t:

1. Ensures Roles are Clearly Defined

A Program Manager in either a waterfall or agile structure, assigns and ensures each individual member, be it project manager, product manager, scrum master, gets assigned and maintains his oer roles, as well as scope or mandate. It sounds mundane, but it’s vital that each member doesn’t overstep his or her duties. I’ve been at many projects where the project manager sits in on product meetings and acts as a secondary product manager, which as you can see can be problemmatic. 

2. Ensures Allocation, Utilization and Direction Done at a Higher Level

The Program Manager sets up a Program Office (PO), to ensure resources are assigned across multiple projects in the best way, managing links between the individual projects as well as budget. The PO tracks the planning and monitoring of activities across projects, as well as cost tracking, and business agreements/contracts for supplies, as well as auditing those processes.

3. Selects and Kicks Off the Projects at Opportune Times

The Program Manager kicks off the individual projects at strategic times, to meet the needs of the business goals. In fact, before starting the project, the Program Manager creates a Program Charter, which is agreed by all stakeholders, objectives are set, deliverables set, time-frames, and the identification of known risks. The projects are also kicked off in logical order, with resources spread evenly to mitigate resource constraints.

Now Project Managers also have their charters, but the Program Manager Charter is at a higher level, aggregating things like risks and scope across project boundaries. The PO also establishes support, and funds and mandates from executives, as they work toward building a Business Case, which details the business As-is into what it Could-be.

Finally, a Program Manager should always do what she or he needs to do, before stepping back to a macro level and letting the project team do their thing. The Program Manager is there to counsel and advice, not to step on anyone’s toes. 

Instead, the Program Manager will sit back, document chnge, assess impact and find solutions to help the project team, and seek approval for change requests, in order to execute the solution. A great PM however will sense potential risks and proactively do change management, quality management and risk management, rather than just reach to changes.