Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
October 11, 2022 · 8 min read

What is Program Management & Do You Need It?

What is Program Management & Do You Need It?

If you’ve been managing projects long enough, you’ll know there’s a fair bit of confusion around roles and titles. But few cause as much confusion as the difference between project and program management.

While there are some similarities between the roles, there are critical differences that — if misunderstood — can lead to confusion, chaos, and project failure.

But how are projects and programs actually different? In short, it’s all about scale.

Projects focus on delivering individual outputs, whereas programs are far more strategic, combining the efforts of multiple projects to deliver long-term business outcomes. Those outcomes lead to a range of benefits, including greater transparency, stronger control of risk, and a higher probability of achieving strategic business goals.

Jump to a section:

While the difference between project and program management may seem easy to spot on paper, it’s not so easy in reality. An estimated 59% of project managers run 2–5 projects at any time, making the line between project manager and program manager more than a little blurry.

So, when do you know it’s time to bring in a program manager (or change your title)? In this guide, we’ll run down the essential skills and responsibilities great program managers embody and help you to understand when it’s time to add a program manager to your team.

What is Program Management? Why Does it Matter?

Program management is the coordinated management of multiple projects and “change initiatives” that, when combined together, achieve strategic benefits for an organization.

This doesn’t mean that programs are just a collection of projects. Instead, programs may also include changes managed as part of the day-to-day business operations, such as local process improvement, upskilling, and product improvements.

Think of it like this. Every good project plan is based on a business need. But these needs are usually focused on specific success metrics, such as increasing subscriptions or reducing churn. On the other hand, a program requires multiple moving pieces to see results. You might have an agile transformation program or a team efficiency program.

Because of this scale, program management is often found in larger organizations. Program management is most effective when multiple individual changes are bundled into one larger, strategic vision requiring holistic control, oversight, and management.

But, program management isn’t solely reserved for the big boys.

Any organization making many smaller tactical changes can benefit from a more coordinated and strategic approach.

Specifically, you should consider program management if you’d like to achieve the following benefits:

  1. A higher probability of achieving strategic organizational goals.
  2. Greater transparency of project interdependencies.
  3. More effective management of resources across different projects.
  4. Better control of risks, issues, and changes across different projects.
  5. A stronger focus on the definition, delivery, and realization of business benefits.

What Does a Program Manager Do? 7 Essential Skills

Program managers have a big job on their hands. Coordinating multiple work streams into a cohesive delivery is no small task. To be successful, a great program manager needs to embody and master these seven responsibilities and skills.

What Does a Program Manager Do? 7 Essential Skills

1. They align the program to the business strategy

The program manager’s overarching role is to ensure the program’s strategy aligns to the strategic objectives of the business. The moment the program deviates from that strategy, it essentially becomes a waste of time and money. A program manager needs to understand where they are, what’s happening, and when they should course correct.

What skills do they need?

2. They build relationships with senior stakeholders

As programs operate at the strategic level, program managers must build relationships with senior stakeholders — most often directors and board members. Gaining support from these influential stakeholders is essential to achieving project success.

What skills do they need?

3. They identify and manage project interdependencies

For program outcomes to be achieved, each supporting project or change initiative needs to deliver its outputs at precisely the right time. In complex programs, certain projects may rely on the outputs of others, so the program manager needs to spot this and manage the dependencies carefully.

What skills do they need?

Misunderstanding the roles of project managers and program managers can lead to confusion, chaos, and project failure.

4. They allocate and oversee project resources

When an organization implements program management, resource allocation happens at the program level rather than the project level. That means program managers become responsible for allocating resources — such as project managers and business analysts — onto the various projects that make up the program.

The program manager’s key objective is to allocate the right resources at the right time to keep the program moving forward.

What skills do they need?

5. They manage the program budget

Much like the resources, budgeting also moves to the program level when businesses adopt program management. This means the program manager becomes responsible for a large pot of money and has to allocate it out to the relevant change initiatives.

What skills do they need?

6. They coach, mentor, and guide project managers

Oftentimes program managers work their way up to the role by being a project manager first. This puts them in the perfect position to coach, mentor, and guide project managers within their programs, offering support and advice whenever needed.

What skills do they need?

7. They take responsibility for delivering the program outcomes

Ultimately, the program manager is responsible to their sponsor for the delivery of the program outcomes. Depending on the program, that can be a multi-million dollar responsibility that needs to be managed carefully.

What skills do they need?

Program Manager vs. Project Manager vs. Product Manager

Program vs. project manager isn’t the only confusion when it comes to the people managing projects and teams. Product managers also play a key role in your organization. But at small companies especially, these roles get blurred into one massive PM mess.

Here are the key differences between these three unique roles:

Program Manager Project Manager Product Manager
Manages a “program” of multiple projects working towards a strategic business goal. Manages a single piece of change work with a defined scope. Manages the vision and features of a single product strategy.
Balances the success of individual projects against the larger business goals. Manages actions, risks, and issues to deliver the project’s outputs. Manages a backlog of new features based on the needs of the product users.
Manages a team of project managers. Managers a team of project resources e.g., business analysts and tech leads. Manages a remote product team e.g., developers and designers.
Tasks are high-level and strategic in nature. Tasks are mid-level and tactical in nature. Tasks are granular and more technical in nature.
Works on a long-term horizon (1-3 years) Works on a mid-term horizon (3-12 months) Works iteratively on new product features (2-6 weeks)
Typically delivers across multiple business functions. Typically delivers within a single business function. Typically delivers on a single product within a function.
Success is measured by the delivery of long-term outcomes and business benefits. Success is measured by the mid-term delivery of project outputs. Success is measured by the delivery of user-requested features.

How to Tell if Your Product Team is Ready for a Program Manager

While program management undoubtedly delivers great benefits, it isn’t for everyone.

But saying that, there are loads of companies out there that could absolutely benefit from having a program manager on board.

Unsure which camp you’re in? To help you make the decision, let’s look at some clear signs that indicate you’re ready to take the next step and hire a program manager.

  1. You consistently complete projects but aren’t improving your key business metrics.
  2. Your project and product teams have a busy workload, constantly doing rework due to misalignment.
  3. Team members are confused about how their work impacts the strategic goals.
  4. You struggle with resource allocation across different teams.
  5. You’ve got multiple initiatives running in a similar function which all depend on each other to progress.
  6. You have complex/transformational strategy plans over the next 2-3 years.
  7. You have a team of junior project/product managers who would benefit from coaching and mentorship.
  8. Senior stakeholders feel disconnected from projects and need a single interface to steer their initiatives.
Hiring a program manager means benefiting from greater transparency, stronger risk control, and a higher probability of achieving business benefits.

5 Steps to Bring Program Management into Your Company

If you think you are in fact ready to bring program management into your organization, you need to approach it in a logical and controlled way.

5 Steps to Bring Program Management into Your Company

Just dropping a program manager into your team isn’t going to go well. Instead, follow these steps to manage the process effectively:

Step 1: Identify the problems a program manager needs to fix

Before making any change in your team structure, it’s best to know exactly why you’re bringing someone on board and the benefit they’re going to bring.

How to do it: Work with your stakeholders, both within the team and across the wider business, to understand the current pain points in your delivery.

In particular, keep an eye out for the signs we covered in the last section, such as team confusion, resource challenges, and a lack of improvement in business metrics. As you speak with stakeholders, document the conversations clearly to record the problems for future reference.

A real-world example: John is Executive Assistant to the IT Director of a mid-sized company. He’s noticed that while technology projects are going well, the department doesn’t see the reduction in overall technology costs they’re expecting. John reaches out to managers in the department to ask them what they’re struggling with on their projects.

Step 2: Define a common program idea

Once you’ve identified the pain points, you need a strategic outcome to build a program around. If it’s not aligned to a large, strategic outcome, it’s a project, not a program.

How to do it: With your pain points noted, take the time to understand how exactly you’re supporting the strategy of your organization. Ultimately, supporting that strategy will become the guiding focus of the program, so it needs to be well-understood and supported by senior stakeholders.

A real-world example: From speaking with stakeholders, John discovers that technology costs weren’t decreasing because the current infrastructure was simply too old and expensive.

To deliver the cost savings outcome, the IT department would need to migrate to new, cloud-based infrastructure systems that were far cheaper to operate. This would align with the company’s strategic goal to reduce expenses over the next 2 years.

Step 3: Hire (or promote) a superstar program manager

You can’t just hire any old program manager. As the manager of a large, strategic initiative, they must have the experience, seniority, and credibility to lead the entire team towards the objective.

How to do it: While every organization has a different recruitment process, focus on relevant experience and expert certification when looking for a program manager.

Whether it’s a technology, transformation, or commercial program, look for candidates with relevant qualifications such as Program Management Professional (PgMP)® in the US or Managing Successful Programmes (MSP®) in the UK.

A real-world example: John heads to the market to find a program manager, specifically looking for a candidate with tried-and-tested technology migration experience. He finds a great candidate, Sarah, who’s also PgMP certified and has over ten years of experience in program and project management.

Step 4: Pick a program management methodology to follow

With the right candidate on board, you need to select the right program management methodology to follow. This will give you a structured framework to work within that maximizes your chances of success.

How to do it:

Here, you’ve got three options.

  1. If you’ve hired a certified program manager, they should be able to advise on a methodology based on their certifications.
  2. If not, base your program methodology on your project methodology, taking it up a level in scope, breadth, and governance.
  3. If that’s still not right, get online and research a program management methodology that’s the right fit for your business.

A real-world example: John and Sarah discuss how they’ll implement program management into the business. Sarah’s PgMP certification provides her with an excellent method of running a new program that will fit nicely into how the IT department currently works.

Step 5: Use planning software to plan, track, and monitor your programs

A program is a pretty big undertaking, so you need help to make it a success. A central program management software tool, such as Planio, helps get the entire team together in one place while providing oversight, control, and reporting.

Planio Agile board colored by priority

How to do it: Do your research and find a program management tool that works for you. Specifically, look out for tools with features such as task management, a knowledge base, team chat, file storage, and time tracking to help you keep everything in one place.

A real-world example: Sarah searches the market for a program management tool to help her keep track of the program. She settles on one that has a solid knowledge base offering, as she knows this program will be full of technical documentation.

Planio Wiki Konwledge Base

Make the Move From Project To Program Management

There’s still a lot of confusion out there when it comes to program management. Many people just assume a program is simply a ‘big project.’ But in reality, it’s so much more than that.

If you’re struggling to deliver benefits, allocate resources effectively, or you’re losing sight of the bigger picture, it could be time to hire a program manager. If you do, you’ll benefit from greater transparency, stronger risk control, and a higher probability of achieving business benefits.

And when you do take the plunge, ensure you’re supported by a program management software tool such as Planio. Our range of intuitive features will help you align your programs, projects, and products to maximize the efficiency of your deliveries.