What’s The Difference Between Program Manager and Project Manager?

What’s the difference between program manager and project manager?
The difference between program manager and project manager is in their role and responsibility. Program managers take on a strategic role, responsible for planning and development goals, while project managers are tactical, tasked to execute the plan within a timeframe and set of milestones. It can be said that program managers are architects who develop the blueprint, while project managers are engineers who execute the blueprint to reality. Essentially, projects are shorter than programs, and program managers receive a higher salary given their bigger role.

There is much to be clarified when it comes to the difference between program manager and project manager. This should not be the case because, though the two roles are similar as both essentially involve management, they are still glaringly different at the end of the day.

They go by different names because the nature of their jobs is different. To make it simple, we begin with core concepts: a project is different from a program. The difference basically lies in two diverging points: timeline and scope. We’ll delve into details below, including roles and responsibilities, as well as how project management tools lend to both fields efficiency.

project manager

Managers get companies moving. They serve as the bridge between businesses and their employees — businesses and their goals. In a classic business scenario, the board of directors comes up with management decisions with specific growth trajectories. The execution of it all falls on the shoulders of managers. Managers are ground commanders. They get the ball rolling and make things happen. This concept is fully understood by Alibaba, China’s tech giant. As reported by, Alibaba recently rolled out hundreds of project managers to help key brands accelerate their profits, including its venture into futuristic hotels. Alibaba understands that project managers are essential in increasing a company’s efficiency.

A full understanding of the difference between program manager and project manager is essential to fully realize your company’s potential. Through it, productivity is really seen and movement can really be monitored. Conversely, failure to distinguish the two can lead to a case of mistaken project priorities, a sure way to miss your goals.

When there is a full understanding of how crucial the roles of program managers and project managers are, it would be easy for a business to predict if a project or program is going to succeed together with the time that it’s going to take and the additional workforce that it’s going to require. For example, project managers should focus on creating project risk assessment, while program managers should focus on SWOT analysis. Project leaders should have an organic knowledge of project management methodologies, while program managers must understand the broader management principles.

All these can be seen clearly if there is a full understanding of basic and integral concepts. It helps if a company has a project management software. Through it, productivity can be easily tracked, orchestrated, and boosted. Currently, the most recommended project management software by businesses is Wrike.

You can easily sign up for Wrike free trial here and get to know the features firsthand at no cost and without commitment.


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Programs vs. Projects

When it comes to timelines, projects are deemed shorter than programs. A project can be finished in a month or in a year while a program involves an ongoing progression towards a goal with no specific timeline being that it’s organic and dependent on the company’s growth. A project always has an end date and a definite time-controlled target. A program doesn’t necessarily have such.

Scope-wise, a project, although integrated, is singular and separate compared to a program that involves the entire company and the direction that it wishes to aggressively pursue as a business entity. A program involves the entire company while project zones in on just a special aspect of the business model.

In the case of a bakeshop, a program manager is busy figuring out the business plan of the bakery while a project manager is spearheading the release of new cupcakes. It’s that simple.


What they do will further clarify the difference between program manager and project manager. Program managers take on bigger roles. Given the scope of their job, they receive higher pay. Project managers are the specialized extension of program managers. They’re the right hand of program managers that deals with details. Nonetheless, both require leadership skills and would do well to read some of the best project management books to prepare them for steering the ship in the right direction.

Program managers calibrate the growth of the business in multi-sectoral levels. They serve as team leaders to project managers from different departments and ventures. Program managers are planners. They take on the role of a leader from the inception, execution, completion, and post-completion of a company’s growth track milestone. They oversee the holistic big picture of matters.

On the other hand, project managers take on the role of a leader when it comes to the particular tasks assigned to them and their team. Project managers do the dirty work. They prepare the budget, the schedule, and special needs of individual ventures. They are the ones that lead the team that do the actual work. They report to program managers. It bears noting that the career path of a project manager may lead him or her one day towards a program manager’s role. You can say that program managers prepare the menu for the whole week while project managers do the cooking.


Program managers are architects. They’re the ones responsible for coming up with plans, trajectories, boosted business models, and overall development goals. They oversee the status of every project and monitor if it’s compatible and in line with the company’s growth trajectory, mission, and vision. They evaluate results, matters, and incidents as placed in the bigger picture. They’re mainly responsible for securing that all the things that need to be done and that they are done in the desired and planned manner. They secure that the business is running at the desired pace. Reports and researches are handled by program managers.

Meanwhile, project managers are engineers. They receive the blueprint from program managers and take on the task of executing it. They manage the manner, speed, and details everything needed in order to execute their specialized task. They decide on how to do it and where to do it dealing primarily with arranging details and preparing all the intricacies for a smooth-flowing execution. If the program manager orders for the building of a new department as expansion is necessary, the project manager steps in and do the actual work of hiring new employees, buying new computers, preparing budget needs and all the tiny intimate details that need not be done and decided upon by program managers because project managers are already present and working in their stead. Naturally, program managers are held accountable at a larger scale while project managers can only be held accountable for their specialized individual tasks.

Why Project Management Software is Important to Both Roles

Whether it’s a project or program, a good project management software lets you see the big picture while allowing you to drill down to details (image courtesy of Wrike’s Gantt dashboard).

With all the minuscule details and tasks that businesses deal with on an ever-expanding volume on a daily basis, things can get easily overwhelming and confusing. Monitoring gets tricky and point persons get interchanged. Efficiency is easily hampered if an organization does not have a fluid and clear business model.  This is where an understanding of the basics of project management software proves essential and supremely beneficial. Knowing that program managers and project managers work hand in hand, productivity can be elevated if all tasks, activities and team members are easily monitored and this is possible with a good project management software.

Program managers and project managers will have an easier time coordinating if they have a hub that clearly shows how productive they are. Through a good project management software, it will be very easy to pinpoint problem areas. In one look, troubles can be avoided as a clear-cut delineation of accountability is present. With it, a program manager can easily evaluate which projects are lagging and which project managers are causing delays. Everything will literally be presented in a big picture; the flow and speed of productivity will be easily recorded and monitored.  

Furthermore, with project management software, the activities, files and tasks of all team members will be in one hub. Everyone will have a view of how the project is going: who is handling the project, who is responsible for a specific task, the deadline for specific tasks — everything will be shown and monitored. If a person is failing to deliver the amount of work required, such a person will be very easy to point out as all team members and the tasks required of them are recorded and monitored.

A good project management software is easy to use and customizable and adapts to a variety of methodologies, for instance, creating Gantt charts, laying out kanban boards or managing a Scrum process. Plenty of tools are offered in the market at different price points as businesses are now aware that solid business organization boosts growth. A recommended software that is used by many is Wrike. Wrike, just like most project management program, is cloud-based. According to reviews, users prefer it because of its fully-customizable simple interface. Users especially appreciated its 3-pane UI where you can see the big picture and drill down to details in one dashboard. Of course, you have other top project management solutions in the market, so make sure to compare them bearing in mind ease-of-use, scalability and pricing. Opt for a product with integrated file-sharing tools and sound cloud storage packages.

Program managers and project managers differ when it comes to their roles and responsibilities. Understanding the flow of work between them is key in truly improving your business productivity. Don’t turn a blind eye on the chance to fully maximize and utilize this managerial dynamic. Just always remember that program managers take the lead while project managers handle the execution. Whether you’re handling a program or project, why not sign up for Wrike free trial here to start you off the right foot?

Stephanie Seymour

By Stephanie Seymour

Stephanie Seymour is a senior business analyst and one of the crucial members of the FinancesOnline research team. She is a leading expert in the field of business intelligence and data science. She specializes in visual data discovery, cloud-based BI solutions, and big data analytics. She’s fascinated by how companies dealing with big data are increasingly embracing cloud business intelligence. In her software reviews, she always focuses on the aspects that let users share analytics and enhance findings with context.

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