The second most common question I’m asked, as a program manager with a PgMP Certification, is what is the difference between a project management and a program manager. The most common question I get is, “What exactly is a program manager?”
Deliverables Versus Benefits
The traditional distinction between project managers and program managers is that project managers are focused on deliverables, while program managers are focused on benefits. This is a correct definition, but I find it easier to explain the distinction with an example.
The example we’ll use is the development and commercialization of a satellite navigation device. There is a slew of things we’d have to do in order to accomplish this, including:
- Designing the device’s form factor
- Writing the device’s software
- Sourcing the materials or components that will be used to make the device
- Setting up a factory to manufacture the device
- Marketing the device
- Selling the device through distribution channels Designing and making the device’s cardboard box
Even if you outsourced all of the labor to third parties, managing all of the many specialists required to bring this product to market success would be impossible. There are simply too many people involved. The program manager enters the picture at this point.
Leading a Program
We might develop seven projects, one for each of the bullet points stated above, if we were to conduct the effort to successfully launch our satellite navigation system as a program. So, we’d have a software project, a project to source the components for the gadget, and five more projects.
If we accomplished this, each project would have its own project manager, and the program manager would be in charge of all seven projects, and hence the entire program. The goal of the program managers is to coordinate amongst all projects such that what is provided is more beneficial to the business than if we just started all these separate projects and let them run in isolation.
In this coordination function, one of the most critical things a program manager will do is manage project dependencies. Before the hardware design can be finalised, they must check that the components have been sourced in our case. They’d also make sure that any changes to software requirements didn’t distract from the value proposition that the marketing effort was presenting to clients. They are in charge of overseeing all inter-team dependencies.
Despite the fact that the program manager coordinates dependencies, the individual project managers are responsible for project planning. They may, however, provide top-down instructions on plans, which project managers will attempt to meet. Finally, the overall program plan should be the product of a combination of top-down and bottom-up planning.
Benefits administration is another crucial responsibility for program managers. Program managers are more concerned with the total benefit generated for the organisation than with the deliverables that individual projects create. We can think of benefit as profit in our example, but benefit can be assessed in a variety of ways. Because program managers are primarily concerned with advantages, they may advocate broad decisions such as eliminating entire feature sets in order to get a product to market faster, or sequencing the construction of a product in a way that may not be apparent to an engineer.
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