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Projects, programmes and portfolios: What’s the difference?

Known as P3 management, projects, programmes, and portfolios can work together to achieve business objectives using different methods, techniques and governance structures. Some aspects of projects, programmes and portfolios are very different and require unique methodologies, but all can be valuable and effective when working together.

Whether launching a new product, implementing a new IT system, or achieving a strategic business outcome, understanding the structure of these initiatives is essential. Projects, programmes, and portfolios represent these structures, each with a unique role in achieving business objectives.

In this blog, we delve into the definitions, differences, and similarities between project, programme, and portfolio management, offering insights into how they each contribute to organisational success.

What is a project?

A project is a temporary endeavour to create a unique product, service, or result. It has a defined start and end time, as well as specific objectives and constraints, such as scope, time, and budget. Projects are characterised by their uniqueness and the fact that they are not part of regular business operations. It helps to use project management techniques and tools to ensure successful completion and delivery.

Example: Developing a new software application to improve customer service is a project.

What is a programme?

A programme consists of a group of related projects managed in a coordinated manner, which offers greater value than managing them individually. Programmes may also include elements of ongoing operations. Programme management focuses on achieving strategic objectives and delivering benefits that contribute to the organisation’s wider goals.

Example: A programme to enhance digital customer experiences might include several projects, such as developing a new app, upgrading the online shopping platform, and implementing a new CRM system.

What is a portfolio?

A portfolio is a collection of projects, programmes, subsidiary portfolios, and operations managed as a group to achieve strategic objectives. Unlike projects and programmes, a portfolio is not necessarily a group of related work. Instead, it is organised based on achieving specific strategic business objectives. Portfolio management ensures that the projects and programmes are aligned with the organisation’s strategic goals and are executed efficiently.

Example: A portfolio could be a company’s investment in innovation and could include a mix of new product development projects, technology upgrade programs, and research and development activities.

What are the key differences?

Project Programme Portfolio
Focus and objectives Focused on delivering a unique product or service Aims to achieve strategic benefits and capabilities by managing related projects Focused on achieving strategic business objectives by overseeing a collection of projects, programmes and other work
Management Concerned with the execution of individual projects Coordinates multiple related projects to achieve greater business benefits Oversees the selection, prioritisation, and alignment of all projects and programmes in relation to organisational strategy
Scope and change Have a defined scope that is progressively elaborated Encompass a broader scope that evolves as the programme’s components interact Continuously evolve to respond to strategic business changes
Timeframe Temporary with a defined beginning and end May consist of ongoing activities beyond the projects they contain Are ongoing efforts that adapt to strategic business needs


How are projects, programmes and portfolios connected?

Projects, programmes, and portfolios are not isolated from each other but are intricately connected.

Projects may be rolled up into programmes when they are related and collectively contribute to a specific strategic objective.

Programmes and their constituent projects, along with other non-related projects, form part of a portfolio that aligns with the strategic goals.

Developing your skills in project, programme and portfolio management

Embracing the principles of project, programme, and portfolio management can lead to improved efficiency, better resource allocation, and enhanced strategic alignment, driving success on an individual level and also contributing significantly to the overarching goals of the business.

Improve your project, programme and portfolio management skills with our range of certified project management courses.