Program Manager vs Project Manager

Program manager and project manager: the titles of these two positions sound so similar that the roles themselves must also be a lot alike, correct? Nope! While it’s true that some of the responsibilities that these two professionals are tasked with are similar, there are very distinct differences between these positions. 

Whether you’re thinking about becoming a program manager or project manager for your future career or you just want to find out how these two positions can improve their relations, knowing the differences and similarities between the two roles is crucial. 

Similarities and Differences Between Projects and Programs 

Before we jump in and discuss the similarities and differences between project managers and program managers, it’s first important to take a moment to understand the difference between what it is that these professionals will be managing. 

Essentially, projects are temporary, one-off tasks or activities. Typically, projects are obliged by four key elements: cost, budget, resources, and time restrictions. They have very clearly defined end dates and the objectives are short-term, and the result in demonstrable deliverables or outcomes. 

Programs, on the other hand, are comprised of a collection of projects that are interconnected. The projects that make up a program complement and build off of one another in order, each one leading to a bigger, longer-term objectives for a business. When implemented successfully, a program will drive definitive benefits and growth for an organization, as opposed to the single, demonstrable outcome or deliverable that a project gives way to . 

To illustrate, a firm’s objective is to convert more CIOs, and in order to achieve that goal, a marketing team may be asked to develop a program that focuses on demand generation that will drive CIO interest and conversion. A collection of projects, such as developing an eBook that’s focused on CIO, and hosting a webinar that is focused on CIO, may be involved in the greater program. 

Okay, so now that you know the difference between a project and a program, let’s take a look at the differences – and similarities – between a project manager and a program manager. 

Program Manager Defined

A program manager is a professional that clearly conveys the strategy and objectives of a program, and analyzes and assesses what impact the program will have on a business. A program manager is responsible for defining and overseeing a list of interdependent projects that will help direct the program reach its final objectives. 

A program manager can be equated to an architect who imagines and draws up a blueprint for a building. Though the architect doesn’t install electrical wiring, plumbing, flooring, or drywall, this professional does ensure that all of these crucial elements join together to create a functional, sturdy, and aesthetically pleasing house. When thought of in this regard, a program manager’s responsibilities go beyond the finalization of individual projects to the ultimate outcome of the entire program. 

A program manager is tasked with a number of big picture responsibilities, some of which include: 

  • Selecting and enlisting team members
  • Developing and implementing strategies
  • Calculating return on investment 

To reference the CIO example mentioned above, the responsibilities of a program manager may entail overseeing the collaboration of project teams and determining whether or not there is an increase in CIO lead conversion. 

Project Manager Defined

Conversely, project managers are tasked with overseeing the functions and operations of the individual projects that a program is made up of. These professionals are responsible for coordinating the time frames, calculating the budgets, and allocating the resources that are needed to complete a project and the work that it required within the guidelines that have been defined by the program. Additionally, a project manager has to report to the program manager about the progress that is being made on the projects, as well as any alterations that may need to be or that may have been made to the initial plan for the project. 

A project manager’s role is more tactical than that of a program manager. Using an architect to illustrate again, project managers are the drywall installers, carpet layers, plumbers, and painters that assemble the different components that will make the vision that the architect envisioned and drew up on a blueprint. 

Project managers primarily focus on the execution and management of all of the functional components of a project. Responsibilities include:

  • Meeting deadlines
  • Making sure the project stays within a budget
  • Delegating tasks to other members of a project team
  • Completing the tangible deliverables 

Program Managers and Project Managers: A Recap

As you can see from the above descriptions, while program managers and project managers have distinct roles with distinct duties, both professionals rely on one another. A program that a program manager oversees would not be able to be completed without a project manager, and the projects that a project manager oversees would not be needed if it weren’t for the program manager. 

With that said, here’s a breakdown of the three primary differences between a program manager and a project manager: 

  • A program manager oversees a collection of projects, whereas project managers supervise individual projects
  • A program manager focuses on long-term objectives for a company, while a project manager focuses on short-term, tangible deliverables
  • A program manager’s role is more strategic, while a project manager’s role is more tactical. 

Shared Challenges

Though project managers and program managers do have distinctive daily responsibilities, both professionals supervise a collection of moving parts, and as such, they have to be extremely organized and efficient. These professionals encounter several of the same challenges and they benefit from making use of many of the same tools and techniques, such as:

  • Templates
  • Dashboards
  • Flexible work views
  • In-context collaborations

As you can see, both project managers and program managers go hand-in-hand. They are distinct, yet they are closely intertwined, as one would not be able to exist without the other. 


Both project managers and program managers are invaluable professionals in an organization. Their roles and the services they provide can have a significant impact on the overall success of a company. Now it’s time to update your resume!

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