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Project vs. Program Management: What's the Difference?

Insights / 09.01.2020

Richard Rowley / Client Services Associate

Have you ever asked yourself: What is the difference between project management and program management? If so, you are in the right place as we’ll describe project management and program management within the context of their similarities, differences, and how they ladder up to a larger goal. Both project and program management are essential to any organization, especially within the ecosystem of digital agencies. 

What is Project Management?

To define Project Management, we first need to define what a project is. According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), a project is defined as temporary, with a defined beginning and end date, and thus defined scope and resources. Per PMI, to manage projects is the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to successfully meet project requirements on time, on budget, and within scope. The key to project management is to focus on individual project goals rather than on operational goals.

What is Program Management?

A program, on the other hand, is a group of related projects managed in a coordinated manner to obtain benefits not available from managing the projects individually (site: PMI). When related projects are grouped into a program, the likelihood of their success is increased because of the shared goal(s) and vision across the program that helps individual projects meet their targeted goals, as well as contribute to the health of the program itself.  

How to focus your separate initiatives towards larger, aligned goals

Projects are inherently unique undertakings and if you have multiple projects with similar goals, it is advantageous to group them into a program to better manage them and achieve more value. This allows the organization to think strategically about how projects can help each other and the overall goals of the program. 

Digital Marketing is all about integrations between channels to create a holistic ecosystem. For example, SEO is interconnected with Paid Media/Search because the results coexist in the same space. Offline Marketing, your website, and Social Media are also interlinked with SEO and Paid Media/Search because these initiatives drive a user to that search term. Having all teams collaborate and understand each other’s goals allows the entire program to be successful.  

One unique and impactful example of this, that had multiple teams involved and saw high impact outcomes, was a Paid Media/SEO Siphon Analysis Project we recently completed for a Fortune 500 global communications and networking company. In this project, the analytics team worked with both the SEO team and Paid Media team to combine paid keyword data with ranking data to uncover gaps between paid and organic keyword performance and identify high converting paid keywords to add to on-page content to help boost organic conversions for a specific high impact page on their site. After the client implemented our search intent optimization and content changes to the page, we saw great results as the page outperformed itself in a few months’ time with orders hitting record-high monthly total over the last three years. The cross-team collaboration proved to be pivotal to the success of this project and was achieved with a program mindset.  

When individual projects are grouped into a program, this fosters collaboration and will allow each project team to learn and share ideas across different initiatives. Not only does this help the individual teams, it also helps drive success and performance for the program as a whole. If each project were to be managed individually, it would be very difficult to apply learnings from one project to another. 

What are differences and similarities between a Project Manager and a Program Manager?

Project managers and program managers are similar in that they leverage the same foundational project management knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques. Project managers are essential in ensuring that individual projects are successful and stay within the budget, scope, and/or timeline constraints set.  

Since programs are a grouping of individual projects, the program manager needs to understand what is required on both a project level and also understand how each individual project impacts and contributes to the overall goal of the program.  Program managers require a more in-depth and holistic understanding of how each project can help drive performance and impact other initiatives or channel work. The program manager needs to be a strategic thinker, have experience across the various channel or project types they will be managing, and have strong people management, leadership, and facilitation skills to bring together and align various projects and teams.  

How can both project management and program management help your organization?

Project management is extremely useful for individual initiatives such as redesigning a website, implementing a specific service, or facilitating a new creative concept. These are all examples of projects in that they have a defined beginning and end, and specific scope requirements unique to each initiative. Given that each project is unique and there is little commonality amongst them, they can be managed individually.  

Program management is very impactful when there are dependencies or a correlation between the projects and a shared desired outcome. A collaborative approach across the individual projects helps teams to assess risk from a different perspective, learn insights gained from complementary initiatives, and in the end, allow the program to achieve better outcomes that could not be accomplished if managed as separate, individual projects.  

Next Steps: Improving Overall Performance with Red Door

If you want to learn more about the Paid Search Siphon case study referenced in this article, contact us. We look forward to helping you understand the difference between project and program management, and which approach is right for your next campaign. You can also find a complementary article discussing the changing skill sets of project managers here that can help you explore your options further.

Insights