Best Practices

Program Manager vs. Project Manager: Know What Your Business Needs

Jonathan Friedman
December 5, 2020
Program Manager vs. Project Manager: Know What Your Business Needs

You're in the process of growing your business, and you just landed a huge contract that could change your company's course. You'll be working on something that could take several months or even years to complete, and you need to start building out your team. What's the first job you post for this new initiative: project manager or program manager? The program manager vs. project manager question is one plenty of business owners have asked over the years. Unfortunately, some people still don't know the difference between these two critical roles.

Understanding when you'll need a project manager or a program manager can be absolutely crucial for your business. You'll understand how to build teams to handle both external and internal initiatives. Once you have that down, you'll be surprised at how smoothly work goes.

We're going to be your ultimate guide into the world of program management and project management. Below is everything we'll cover, but keep reading to learn the differences between both roles and what qualities you should look for in each.

Projects vs. programs: a definitive guide

A lot of the confusion that people have about program and project managers comes from the work they do. Programs and projects essentially have the same issue program managers and project managers do: both things overlap in key areas, but the few differences between them mean everything.

If you genuinely want to understand what role is right for your business, you need to understand the key differences between programs and projects.

What is a project?

Overall, you can view a project as something temporary. People on the project all work towards a well-defined goal. Time and resources need to be devoted to it, but they'll free up once the project work is completed.

When people think about planning projects, the most important factors revolve around cost, budget, resources, and time. Projects may come in stages and take a while to complete, but overall there is an exact end date.

Along with having a precise end date, projects should be able to produce tangible deliverables or outcomes. A project may have several potential deliverables, but there still is an end goal people can reach.

Success in projects is easy to measure. Specific improvements in product quality, customer satisfaction, or compliance could be the primary end goal.

What is a program?

Programs have many moving parts, but the program's importance is the sum of those moving parts.

When you break it down, a program is essentially a large and interconnected group of projects. In a well-organized program, the individual projects that make up the program are designed to complement and build off of one another.

Projects have very tangible deliverables, but programs don't. As an example, a project deliverable may be to decrease eCommerce cart abandonment rates by 15%. A program deliverable may be to improve the online shopping experience as a whole.

Program manager vs. project manager: what's the difference?

Understanding that projects and programs have very different focuses and outcomes can give you insight into your organization's needs. Now that you know a bit about the difference between programs and projects, we can take some time to think about what it takes to manage both.

Both roles will overlap in that they involve management, but the main difference between them comes down to size and scope. You'll see what we mean after we take the time to break down each role.

What is a program manager?

A program manager oversees several projects to ensure that everyone is on track to meet their end goals. They're much more focused on the long term goals of a business or organization and are more concerned about meeting significant milestones.

Program managers put an essential focus on strategy in their jobs. It may be up to project managers to handle the small details of work, but program managers need to make sure that project managers have the right guidance through the strategy they provide.

Program managers do handle certain things that some project managers do but from a much broader perspective. Project managers have to determine the budget, scope, and resources they need for individual projects. Program managers are expected to do the same thing, but for the individual projects under their program.

Overall, program managers are big picture thinkers. They're not supposed to worry about every small detail of certain things that need to be done. Their main concern is reaching the company's overall larger goals and ensuring that projects are on track to meet the program's main objectives.

What is a project manager?

When program managers think about the overall goals that need to be met, project managers are busy managing the projects that work towards that shared goal.

Project managers are very much in the weeds of day-to-day work, and they take care of the individual projects that make a program. Overall, a lot of essential responsibilities are on their plate.

Their main concerns focus on budgets, resources, and making sure that their team is on track to meet certain goals. The close eye they keep on project work allows them to manage risks and quickly adapt to anything that may change their scope of work or cause problems in the long run.

Project managers and program managers have a special relationship. Much of the work the project manager does comes from the direction given by the program manager. In turn, it's the project manager's job to keep the program manager informed of their progress and any issues they have encountered.

Do I need a program manager or a project manager?

If you're wondering if you need a program manager vs. a project manager, your decision is going to have a lot to do with timelines, project size, and scope.

Do you need someone that can manage the day to day work of specific tasks? Are you looking for someone that can give you timely updates about work and project progress? Do you have work that you need someone to come up with an actionable plan for?

If you answered yes to those questions, you're most likely looking for a project manager. They're ideal for people who need help planning certain aspects of their project and ensuring that employees get their work done.

Do you want to plan a strategic initiative but don't know where to start? Do you have a large and growing project that doesn't have an end date in sight? Could you use help with guiding your work's overall direction and what goals you should be meeting?

People that answered yes to those questions should consider hiring a program manager. They're big picture thinkers that can help you figure out the strategic vision of the work you want to complete.

Qualities of a good project manager

Qualities of a good project manager infographic

Now that you know what you need for your work, program manager vs. project manager, let's spend some time thinking about finding the best people to fit the roles you need.

A good project manager is worth their weight in gold. In order to successfully manage projects, you need a unique mix of people skills and analytical thinking that can be hard to come by.

There are a ton of certifications and experience someone can list on their resume. However, know that they may not be someone you want to hire if they don't have these three qualities.

1. Stellar communication and people skills

Project management isn't the right field for people that lack strong communication skills. A project manager is a job where there's little room for guessing and interpretation. Being able to clearly communicate what needs to be done to team members is very important.

Good communication skills and people skills often go hand in hand. Being able to deliver important feedback to team members is essential. Someone that's too critical or curt could cause problems.

2. Ability to organize and delegate

Every project is made up of a variety of moving parts. Being able to keep everything on track is going to require someone with a unique ability to organize and delegate.

Successful project managers need to make sense of all of the data, requests, and objectives they're given to make a solid project plan. On top of that, they need to organize things in such a way that helps everyone meet specific deadlines.

It's important to remember that proper delegation doesn't just mean assigning work and holding people accountable. Being able to prioritize certain tasks and adjust to specific timelines is just as important. Finding someone that can do all of this without falling into the trap of micromanaging is essential.

3. Flexibility

Sometimes even the best-planned projects will experience some problems down the line. Scopes of works may change, timelines may shift, and essential employees may get shuffled onto other projects.

It's important to find someone that can be flexible and roll with certain changes. People that can't adapt to change aren't people that should be managing projects. An inability to change can lead to projects that go over budget and employees that are overworked.

Qualities of a good program manager

Qualities of a good program manager infographic

A successful program manager is someone that has no issue taking a top-down look at things. Instead of being focused on the day-to-day details of work, they're hyper-focused on meeting the larger end goals of every project in their domain.

If you're looking for a program manager to bring into your company, be on the lookout for these three qualities.

1. Project management experience

It may seem strange to list project management as a must-have skill after we spent so long describing the differences between the two roles, but take a moment to hear our reasoning.

Program managers may be focused on reaching the main goals of a business, but the only way those goals can be met is through well-managed projects.

A program manager who doesn't understand how to manage projects won't see if projects are in jeopardy. They also won't be able to step in when project managers need help.

2. Curiosity about your business

Finding a program manager with experience in your field can be a big plus, but you shouldn't turn down a great candidate just because they're new to your domain. Every business is unique, and finding a qualified program manager that wants to learn about your business is just as good.

A good program manager will put in work to understand as much as they can about your company and the space you occupy within your industry. They'll want to learn as much as they can about your business strategy, product and service portfolio, and customer base.

Suppose you want to gauge their interest in your business, as them how they'd familiarize themselves with your company if you were to hire them. People that start to excitedly talk about what they've done at other companies instead of giving generic answers could be a strong hire.

3. Ability to drive change

If you're looking for someone that has the power to truly drive innovation at your company, look no further than a program manager.

Since they're so used to thinking through a big picture lens, they have a good sense of what's going on across different projects. They know how certain things fit together and benefit one another, so they'd be the perfect agents of change in your business.

A good program manager can be seen as a cheerleader for their work. They'll use their management skills to get buy-in from stakeholders and the people they manage. They can motivate people to go the extra mile to get things done and give you invaluable insight into your company's inner workings.

Start your new manager with the right tool: TrueNxus

TrueNxus understands the difference between program manager vs. project manager, and it has everything that both roles need to collaborate from end-to-end. TrueNxus is the most pragmatic work management platform for cross-functional teams.

Whether you need help with:

TrueNxus has got you covered!

Here's a look at some of its features:

1. Multiple views

Personalized views illustration

A program manager vs. a project manager both require different ways to visualize work across time. Not only that, but each individual specializes in a specific domain, and as such, each thinks about work differently. To ensure successful planning and execution, you need software that provides personalized views that make sense to program managers, project managers, and the people executing the actual work. These views need to be in sync as well.

TrueNxus provides you with the following views:


Plan screenshot

A list is a table that allows you to manage your cross-functional projects easily. You can organize your project work into groups such as workstreams or any logical way to categorize tasks.


Product roadmap or project timeline screenshot

With TrueNxus's Timeline, a Gantt-chart like view, you can visualize your project plans across time. It lets you understand how all of the work fits together. You can make updates to the project plans through an interactive interface.

3. Automated project status reports

Automated project status reports illustration

We understand that each cross-functional team member is busy balancing multiple priorities, from your day-to-day responsibilities to various programs and projects. Therefore, TrueNxus successfully executes monitoring and controlling projects by automatically analyzing the project's health in real-time, giving senior leadership and the team the insights they need to make decisions and move the ball forward.

4. My Work

View all of your work in one place

Another essential thing for everyone involved in program management and project management is understanding what you're on the hook for delivering. With TrueNxus, you can view every task and every dependency vital to you, across every project, in one location, ensuring success.

5. Dependencies


Additionally, we know that you don't want to let your colleagues down or be let down. You can ensure the successful delivery of programs and projects through collaboration and documenting task dependencies. By doing so, you can be accountable when others are reliant on you. You can understand dependent tasks, change implications, and adjust course as needed.

6. Automated notifications

Automated workflows - notifications

Whether you're a program manager vs. a project manager, you can also successfully execute work by leveraging software to notify when changes occur. With TrueNxus's 20+ out-of-the-box automated notifications, you will have the transparency you need to stay in-the-know.


Cross-functional team collaboration - comments

Additionally, the entire cross-functional team can ensure project plans are successful by collaborating directly in the app. With TrueNxus, you can communicate with colleagues, clients, consultants, and contractors in one place.

8. Project charter

Charter illustration

Lastly, if you are a program manager or a project manager, you can leverage OKR and create a project charter. You can ensure the successful execution of projects by documenting and aligning the project's objectives, benefits, and risks from the very beginning. TrueNxus is the only software that has a project charter directly in the app.


The program manager vs. project manager question isn't difficult to answer. Once you focus on timelines, scope, and actual needs as a company, it's much easier to understand what you need to succeed.

Whether you're going to bring on a new program manager or project manager, you need to make sure that they're given the right tools.

Are you ready to use a workspace management tool that understands the true meaning of program manager vs. project manager and can help you with cross-functional collaboration? Then you're prepared for TrueNxus. Sign up for your free trial today and see what the tool can do for your company.