Aug 04, 2021

Why the Difference Between Program & Project Management Matters: 5 Critical Success Factors

Blakely Kemp
Jeff Briggs

Blakely Kemp and Jeff Briggs

Why the Difference Between Program & Project Management Matters: 5 Critical Success Factors

In a world where new roles are evolving every day, it can be hard to keep track of the differing responsibilities in similar-sounding roles. Project manager and program manager are examples of these roles. The differences make a huge impact on organizations. Failing to consider these distinctions can result in uncoordinated efforts, missed expectations, and failed objectives.

Program and Project Management Defined

Let’s start by clearly defining both program and project management:

  • Program management is coordinating and measuring all potential and in-flight initiatives to ensure the right resources (e.g., people, time, money) are always invested in projects that support a business' short- and long-term strategic goals.

  • Project management is coordinating and measuring all in-scope activities against a defined business objective that, when completed, enables strategic initiatives.

By definition, a program is typically made up of multiple projects.

Both program and project managers want to achieve the holy trifecta of project management—ensure the initiative is on time, on budget, and within scope. How these factors are tracked and managed in a program versus a project may be different, but both programs and projects use these as definitions of success.

Programs and projects often share a similar but unfortunately harmful habit of focusing solely on these elements as success factors. There is no doubt “on time” and “on budget” are critical components of a project, but they should not be the only focus.

Organizations need to move toward success benchmarking based on the program or project’s contribution to accomplishing a specific strategic objective of the organization. If it doesn’t support the business’ strategies, then they should reassess the initiative.

To better manage our resources and efforts, we must also understand the differences in success definition across programs and projects. Project management measures success against a defined set of stakeholders and/or line of business goals. Typically, one or more deliverables are created, and there is a defined beginning and end.

In contrast, program management measures success against the value proposition of the entire business holistically. Because programs focus on the coordination and delivery of multiple related projects, there is a higher focus on the overall value and return on investment the coordinated projects are delivering to the organization.

Program and Project Management Execution

Execution is the key to ensuring programs and projects accomplish their objectives. The first step is to establish a sound program or project structure that gets the right work done without creating unnecessary overhead. A well-defined structure creates efficiency and clarity for the program. There are five foundational aspects of a structure that enable successful execution for both programs and projects.

1. Business Goals and Outcomes: These should be defined at the start of every project or program to define for the team what a successful outcome is. Outcomes should directly align with the strategic objectives of the organization; if they do not, the initiative should be cancelled, and resources should be refocused to strategically aligned initiatives. Most importantly, defining the desired outcome enables organizations to objectively measure whether the initiative accomplished its objective.

2. Team Structure and Responsibilities: A team structure defines the resources needed to execute an initiative and their relationships with one other. While there is flexibility in how the team is organized, the structure should ensure resources are allocated appropriately to complete their defined responsibilities. Specific roles and responsibilities create clarity for the team by assigning discrete tasks to team members and setting expectations for the work to be done. Clearly defining the structure and responsibilities aligns the team and ensures responsibilities are not missed.

3. Project Prioritization and Sequencing: Projects need to be appropriately sequenced for efficient execution based on available resources and cross-project dependencies. Well-sequenced projects prevent resources from being under- or over-utilized, meet their project commitments, and reduce the number of cross-project dependencies to keep the overall program on track.

4. Decision-Making and Escalation Path: Program and project leadership teams need processes for surfacing the right information to stakeholders, who can in turn make key, informed decisions that drive successful outcomes directly aligned with business goals. When items are escalated to executives, they need to make quick and clear decisions resulting in actionable steps for the program.

5. Transparency of Information: An effective program leader can get the right information to the right people to mitigate risks, resolve issues, and make decisions. Stakeholder visibility should not be limited to program and project statuses. Executives need to understand specifically where and how they need to mitigate risk, resolve issues, and make decisions.  

3 Factors for Taking Your Project and Program Management to the Next Level

Credera has a proven track record in the program and project leadership space. We have had the benefit and honor of working across numerous industries and project types and have learned many lessons along the way. As a result, we’ve found three strategies that take project and program management to the next level.

1. Measuring Success

While we build structure and apply rigor to ensure our projects stay on time and on budget, our measurement of success extends beyond those factors. We don't just measure success against deadlines and dependencies. Our primary objective is to guide our client to the right solution that accomplishes their desired outcome and measure strategic alignment through our proprietary framework so we can identify and proactively mitigate risks before time and resources are wasted. We design and set up projects and programs with the end in mind. We start by defining key success criteria, and then build a plan around those objectives.

2. Vertical and Horizontal Approach

Instead of only focusing deeply on a specific discipline, our teams are well-equipped to go deep into the details of a project while managing task-level alignment with our clients’ strategy and how their projects fulfill their short- and long-term goals. We are the connective tissue between the overarching vision of a program and the initiatives that support and execute those strategies. Our horizontal and vertical approach enables organizations to feel confident their objectives will be accomplished and their vision will be understood across all levels of the business.

3. 100% Conversations

We don’t shy away from confrontation when it is necessary—we are willing and equipped to facilitate respectful, tough conversations to drive alignment within our teams at every step of the process. Misalignment is one of the primary hurdles we see businesses face across different units in the organization. We bridge the gap across siloed organizations. We are not just technology representatives. We are not just business representatives. We are integrators and advocates, and we proactively promote the shared goal of achieving successful outcomes.

Putting It Into Practice

Managing programs and projects requires rigor and structure. Knowing how they differ is key to executing them appropriately. Want to know more about how Credera could partner with you to unlock success in your programs and projects? Reach out to us at to start a conversation.

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