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Projects vs programmes

The difference between a project and a programme

Many believe a programme is simply a larger, longer version of a project. Despite the similarities, they are actually quite different. Briefly, a project is a specific, single task that delivers a tangible output, while a programme is a collection of related projects.

Definition of a project

PRINCE2 defines a project as “a temporary organisation that is created for the purpose of delivering one or more business products according to a specified business case”.

Projects have an end and aren’t designed to last very long. The project manager ensures the project delivers the intended goal, within a defined timeframe and budget.

Definition of a programme

A programme is defined as “a group of related projects managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits and control not available from managing them individually”.

Programmes are usually long term, sometimes spanning years, and don’t have a fixed deadline. A programme is a framework of related projects aligned in a specific sequence. They have predictable and repeatable elements to minimise or even eliminate risks.

Project and programme key differences

Comparison

Project

Programme

Focus

Content

Context

Scope

Well-defined, limited to an output

Broad and adjustable

Timeframe

Short term

Long term

Components

Small tasks

Projects

Functional units

Single

Multiple

Tasks

Technical

Strategic

Produces

Output

Outcome

Deadlines

Strict

Flexible

Designers

Mid-level staff

Top-level staff

Success

Product quality, timeliness, cost effectiveness, compliance and customer satisfaction

Long-term benefits to the organisation, ROI or new capabilities

Project vs programme example

Let’s say a company wants to build and market a new mobile phone. This programme would be a collection of different projects, like one for updating the operating system and another for sourcing the resources and raw materials, along with the legal, business and support elements. Programme management would manage the dependencies, so each project gets what it needs.

Programme and projects flowchart for making a mobile phone

Project and programme similarities

It’s good for project and programme managers to understand the challenges each has to deal with, as both projects and programmes:

  • Are temporary
  • Use business cases
  • Require a team
  • Are aligned to strategic objectives
  • Deliver change

Project managers vs programme managers

Project managers focus on the project’s deliverables, making sure the project reaches its intended outcome on time and within the budget.

Programme managers are usually less hands-on, but must view the bigger picture and visualise the benefits that individual projects will have on the whole programme.

Comparison

Project manager

Programme manager

Role

Monitor and control project tasks

Monitor and control projects

Focus

The project staff, i.e. technicians and specialists

Managing relationships with project managers and their teams, freeing up resources and resolving conflicts

Who they manage

The project team

Other managers

Planning level

Creates a detailed project plan for the resources, cost, timeliness and delivery

Creates high-level plans used by the project managers both as a guide and to develop the detailed plans

The biggest difference is that projects deal with delivering strictly defined outputs within a specific timescale and budget, whereas programmes deal with delivering outputs that benefit the entire organisation. Put simply, projects involve ‘doings things right’ and programmes involve ‘doing the right things’. Similar phrases, but very different meanings.