Program manager vs. project manager — what’s the difference?

A project manager in an office oversees tasks using a laptop.

You’re hiring for a managerial role — or maybe you’re considering a career change yourself. Whether you’re hiring or looking for work, there are two types of manager roles out there — one for programs, one for projects.

While program managers and project managers both oversee teams and manage tasks, the scope of their work and the nature of these two roles are quite different.

Organizations need both programs and projects to succeed. Program managers create the roadmap. Project managers define the route and all the stops along the way. It’s the perfect combination of big-picture thinking and a daily hustle mentality that helps take a business where it needs to go.

By the end of this article, you’ll understand the differences between program managers and project managers, what each role entails, and how they work together. Specifically, you’ll learn:

Program manager vs. project manager

Both program managers and project managers are leadership roles that are responsible for managing teams of 6–10 people, on average. They mostly differ in terms of the types of work they take on and their timelines. If you’re trying to understand the difference between project managers and program managers broadly, projects are micro while programs are macro.

Program managers are responsible for big-picture work for organizations. The job is more high-level and focused on the overall direction of the organization. Program managers are all about long-term strategy, so the duration of their work is ongoing. They support larger company initiatives and more than likely will only change direction on a quarterly or annual basis.

Project managers, on the other hand, are responsible for individual projects with fixed end dates. They’re in charge of specific deliverables that are highly structured and organized. Project managers have a narrower scope than program managers. They’re also time-bound and guided by the budget. When a project manager completes their project, they move on to the next one.

Now that we know how these two roles differ in a general way, let’s dive deeper into the specifics of each.

What is program management?

Programs serve a business’s strategic goals and are usually more permanent in nature. To create a program, businesses take their long-term objectives and map them to annual initiatives, which shape and influence the organization’s projects. Program management then takes an organization’s big goals for the year and breaks them into smaller — but still high-level — programs to execute.

The ultimate goal of program management is to optimize a business. It touches on the principles of change management and digital transformation to proactively spot inefficiencies and solve them. It’s common for businesses that want a competitive advantage to invest in program management as a way to future-proof the business and support silo-free decision-making.

A program manager’s work is ongoing, includes multiple projects, and supports larger company initiatives, while project managers focus on specific deliverables with set start and end dates.

Key responsibilities of program managers

Program managers oversee these high-level objectives, which means they often work on many different projects at once in service of a program. Since programs support the overall direction of the organization, it isn’t unusual for program managers to pivot their focus as needed. Their work is rarely time-bound by deadlines, and it usually doesn’t have a set stopping point either.

A program manager’s role will change depending on the organization’s objectives, but they usually oversee tasks like:

Program managers need the ability to think big. Unlike folks who get tied up in the minutiae and tasks required to get across the finish line, program managers look beyond the finish line. They are forward thinkers who inspire, motivate, and rally an organization behind a greater cause.

What is project management?

Project management is the better-known sibling of program management. Like program management, project management ties back to your organization’s goals. But unlike a program, a project doesn’t last forever — it’s clear, organized, and quantifiable.

Projects often follow SMART goal-setting frameworks. They have:

Nearly every industry uses project management to take care of business. Whether you’re hiring or looking for a career in IT, marketing, HR, graphic design, or finance, you’ll likely need project management skills. However, organizations waste more than 11% of their resources on low-quality project management, so businesses have to set the bar high to get the most value out of it.

Not all project management is the same, either. Depending on the business and how your team works, you’ll likely need to rely on one or more of the different types of project management (PM), including:

Since project management is 2.5 times more successful — and 28 times more efficient — when you follow a specific PM methodology, it’s a good idea for project managers to educate themselves on the various types of project management styles.

Unlike program management, project management works within a specific scope and timeline with the goal of achieving a tangible outcome. Program management might concern itself with long-term digital transformation, while project management puts boots on the ground to make the transformation happen. That might include initiatives like auditing your digital assets, assessing new platforms, or upskilling your current staff.

77% of the highest performing teams rely on program and project management tools to get more results.

Key responsibilities of project managers

Like program managers, project managers are strong leaders who know how to bring people with diverse skillsets together. While program managers focus more on strategy, project managers’ responsibilities are more task-oriented.

Program managers also tend to focus on a singular high-level strategy, while most project managers juggle multiple projects at once — in fact, just 15% of project managers report that they work on one project at a time.

Project managers are responsible for:

However, project managers today are responsible for more tasks than ever before. Since only 46% of organizations make project management a focus of their culture, it’s no wonder four out of five project managers say they need proper portfolio management to do their jobs.

Whether you’re hiring a project manager or want to become one yourself, these qualities are a must to succeed:

Project managers are in charge of facilitating communication not only among their team but also with stakeholders outside of the team. Unlike program managers, project managers don’t necessarily need to worry about the big picture. They have set finish lines that they work hard to cross together with their team. Project managers certainly have a lot on their plate, but they’re focused more so on the small to-dos that need to happen to turn the cogs in the machine that is your business.

Tools for managing programs and projects

Even the most talented program managers and project managers need support handling the complexity of their jobs. Fortunately, the right tools will help program managers and project managers complete their deliverables on time and within budget. In fact, 77% of the highest performing teams rely on program and project management tools to get more results.

It’s easier than ever before to work collaboratively and efficiently — from anywhere — as a manager. Ask yourself if current tools:

There are plenty of tools on the market, but if you want a platform designed to bridge the gap between programs and projects, Adobe Workfront can help you meet your goals.

Workfront is a project planning platform that fully integrates with Adobe Creative Cloud. It unites people, processes, data, and technology across an organization so you can manage the entire lifecycle of projects from start to finish. By optimizing and centralizing digital projects, cross-functional teams can connect, collaborate, and execute from anywhere to help people do their best work.

Take a Workfront product tour now or watch the overview video to learn more.