Just as a project manager coordinates activities on a project, a program manager coordinates activity across multiple projects. Does that mean that a program manager is a project manager’s supervisor?

The answer is no. A program manager typically has the purview of executive-level decision-makers, with the purpose of orchestrating the delivery of multiple projects in such a way that they move toward the strategic business goals. Although their activities seem to be similar in nature, they are quite different.

Program managers do not typically oversee individual projects. In project management, much time is spent identifying specific tasks and activities to schedule them with a clear beginning and a specific end goal. Program management oversees multiple projects as pieces that drive to the overall organization goals, delivering greater value to the organization over a longer period.

A project manager is similar to a naval ship captain who has total control of the vessel and is responsible for all details of that ship.  On the other hand, a program manager is likened to a naval fleet commander who is responsible for the operation of an entire fleet of ships, ensuring they all maintain consistent levels of operation and stay on course to maintain strategic positioning.

Project managers plan the right tasks at the right time to meet the time, cost, scope, and quality measurements to deliver the project. Program managers must develop the timing and alignment of the projects across the organization. Sometimes an organization identifies multiple projects that can be implemented simultaneously as individual projects. However, a program manager is responsible for evaluating timing and looking for opportunities to leverage other project development or technology, which can reduce development on subsequent projects. The program manager is then responsible for identifying if it is more effective to delay a project.

In my experience with program management, there are critical skills required for success in this role:

  1. Communication Skills
  • Executive-level leadership communication of ever-evolving organizational vision.
  • Project management communication of project risks and mitigations.
  • Project team communication of successes and skill sets among team members.
  1. Forward-thinking
  • Know where your organization is going and keep moving towards that, even as the organization continually evolves and sets a further strategic vision.
  1. Ability to Assess and Adapt
  • Assess: Unpredictability is predictable. It is certain that unforeseen issues arise and although you cannot always plan for it, you should expect it.
  • Adapt: Recognize when you need to train staff for emerging technology, hire required talent, and outsource specific skills not available in-house.
  1. Ability to enforce organizational governance
  • The right hand must know what the left hand is doing.

Program management is an art form that develops over time and would be difficult without hands-on project management experience. However, one of the pitfalls of moving from project management to program management can be the transition from daily and detailed task-driven work to big-picture thinking and visioning about how projects impact an organizations’ strategic goals.

Would you rather be a ship captain or a fleet commander?