Understanding Project vs. Program (Explanation and Examples)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published June 18, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

In business, starting and completing new projects is often a common element of daily operations. Some organizations implement programs, which can take years to complete or run indefinitely. Understanding the differences between these two concepts can be useful for individuals wanting to work in project or program management. In this article, we explain project vs. program, define each and provide examples, explore differences, reveal benefits, describe project and program managers, list roles, and explain how to become one.

Project vs. program

When deciding to implement a project vs. program, it's often important to understand the differences. People sometimes use the terms interchangeably, but there are many key differences that can make each of these concepts unique, especially when seeking funding or grants for their operations. While they both have some similar features, understanding these differences and when to implement one or the other, for example, can be important for managers and key team members.

What is a project?

Projects are generally defined as a set of tasks that individuals or teams undertake in order to achieve a distinct objective or outcome. Each task within a project can be a simple and short initiative, or longer and more intricate, depending on their size and scope. Project initiators often break projects into various segments that eventually achieve a single goal, outlining each step from start to finish. Here are some examples of projects in different industries:

  • Construction: Building a block of residential homes

  • Marketing: Developing and implementing a marketing plan

  • Events: Developing a fundraising event for a non-profit organization

  • Manufacturing: Producing a new product

  • Technology: Upgrading an existing operating system

  • Architecture: Designing a shopping centre

  • Non-profit: Implementing a humanitarian relief effort

  • Information Technology (IT): Designing a software application

  • Human resources: Developing a new employee-retention strategy

  • Entertainment: The production of a new film

Related: What Is an Agile Project Manager? (With Crucial Skills)

What is a program?

A program is a collection of many related projects or specific activities that typically have a defined qualitative goal. A program might include two or more projects that are ongoing in which managers or teams focus on delivering a specific benefit to an organization or various stakeholders. Here are some examples of different programs in various industries:

  • Construction: A mechanism or tool for outlining the scope of individual projects

  • Marketing: An ongoing customer loyalty strategy for a particular organization or business

  • Events: A collection of organized activities for a yearly winter festival

  • Manufacturing: Production plant employee training

  • Technology: A quarterly innovation brainstorming event for employees

  • Architecture: A comprehensive list of a client's needs and requirements

  • Non-profit: An ongoing clean water initiative

  • Information Technology (IT): A collection of ordered directives used to create a software application

  • Human resources: An ongoing employee reward system

  • Entertainment: An annual film festival

Related: 8 Customer Rewards Programs (With Definition and Benefits)

Key differences between projects and programs

Projects and programs differ in several unique ways, although they both have specific outcome objectives. A key difference between the two is the scope of the endeavour. For instance, projects generally have defined targets, such as designing a new product, whereas programs are typically more of a collection of projects aimed at benefiting an organization or group. Here are some other differences between projects and programs:

Projects

Projects are typically singular events or activities. They are usually short efforts, although some projects, like building a new highway, can often take many years. Projects typically have an end goal that results in a product or service. Managers can measure the efficacy of a project through quantitative elements and metrics, like sales revenue from the design, manufacturing, and distribution of a specific product. Organizations can often contract out projects to a third party. Here are a few more defining factors of projects:

  • They maintain an approach of performing an endeavour correctly.

  • They typically avoid change in design, operation, or manufacturing.

  • They run on a smaller scale, with fewer elements.

  • They operate on a more technical level.

Programs

Programs are typically repeating events or activities. They are usually longer, often with no clear end date. Programs typically have an end goal that results in a benefit, like an annual clothes drive. Managers can measure the efficacy of a program through qualitative elements, such as a realized benefit, like improved quality of life. Organizations rarely contract out programs because they are more internally directed through a program team, each of which might have a more permanent title, like director of fundraising and events. Here are more defining factors in programs:

  • They maintain an approach of performing the right activities.

  • They adapt to change to accommodate new trends or stakeholder responses.

  • They run on a larger scale, often with multiple elements.

  • They operate more strategically.

Related: Tips to Help You Succeed When Collaborating on Projects

Benefits of projects and programs

Projects and programs typically have different objectives, so their overall benefits can vary. For instance, projects usually focus more on producing discernable outputs, so the benefit can be a new product or service. Programs focus on payoffs or intangible outcomes, such as a customer loyalty program that increases a company's reputation. Projects can have shorter and more defined milestones, which can provide a faster return. Programs offer ongoing returns, like improving health outcomes through a mental health awareness program.

Projects are often more organized in that they have set parameters and metrics goals. Programs often adapt to internal and external situations and allow for more individual and team creativity. Projects can often provide team members with more defined roles, which might reassure some individuals or stakeholders. Programs can often require team members to take on multiple roles, especially in nonprofit programs where funding might be finite. This can be a benefit for some individuals who like the freedom to explore new opportunities.

Related: Create an Effective Work Plan for a Successful Project (With Template)

What are the roles of project and program managers?

Both projects and programs typically require someone to lead a team of individuals to meet specific end goals. Project managers often focus on the defined deliverables of a project. Often, project managers are required to rely on constraints that have strict guidelines like product design, project timelines, and costs. Program managers typically have more freedom to explore various avenues to achieve a program's goals. Here's a general list of their different roles:

Project managers

Project managers are professionals who set up, plan, and implement projects that often come with defined guidelines. Project managers lead their teams, set project and individual team members' goals, interact with specific stakeholders, and follow projects from start to finish. The project manager is responsible for their team's success and typically answers to a program manager. Other roles a project manager may have include:

  • Maintain or reduce costs

  • Boost their team's performance and efficiency

  • Define project parameters

  • Remain on schedule

  • Create and maintain project budgets

  • Manage project resources

  • Hire and train team members

  • Achieve project goals

  • Assess and mitigate risks

  • Maintain quality assurance

  • Secure project deliverables

  • Keep detailed reports

  • Manage team members, including designers, engineers, and IT specialists

  • Manage individual project tasks

Program managers

Program managers oversee an organization's programs to ensure they are successful. They supervise the daily administration of a program to ensure a project stays on track regarding its timelines, budgets, and outcomes. Other roles a program manager may have include:

  • Oversee multiple projects within a program

  • Work with and oversee project managers

  • Establish, obtain, and secure program and project resources

  • Track program's and individual project's progress

  • Ensure individual projects meet milestones

  • Schedule program meetings with internal and external staff and stakeholders

  • Determine and handle barriers to success

  • Measure program benefits to ensure adequate return on investment

  • Identify and assure program efficiencies

  • Broker new stakeholder relationships

  • Monitor and update program strategies

  • Ensure individual projects and the overall program meet the organization's goals

  • Coordinate tasks between numerous projects while focussing on program strategies

  • Communicate program goals and progress with organization's senior management

How to become a project or program manager

Both project and program managers typically require candidates to have some practical and hands-on experience. Employers often want candidates to have a bachelor's degree in business management or a related field. Sometimes, employers may require program manager applicants to have a master's degree, depending on the size of the organization and required experience. Here are some tips for becoming a project or program manager:

1. Speak to people in the field

It's often beneficial to speak with individuals who already work in the type of position you want. This allows you to ask questions and learn what the job entails and what employers typically want. Speaking with others can also help you build valuable contacts that may help you find a job.

2. Get a degree or relevant certifications

Determine what type of management you want to pursue and then consider getting a degree and certifications in a relevant field. Both project and program management require knowledge of business operations, management, administration, and often technology, depending on the type of management. Having a degree or relevant certifications can often give you an advantage when applying for a position.

3. Build work experience

Most management jobs require previous experience, even with the necessary education. To gain this experience, you might consider taking an entry-level position in a related field. This can help you learn the business and build your skills as you work your way up to a managerial position.

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