Project Management Guide:

Program Manager vs. Project Manager.
What’s the Difference?

The first thing we need to take a closer look at is what project management even is and then we’ll start looking at some of the ways that you can optimize project management using the right tools and the best team for the job.

What is a Program Manager

Do you currently have a program manager in your business? Maybe you’re thinking, of course, I do, but we call them a project manager at my company. The two are very different and it’s important to understand how you can use each one within your business. A project manager is in charge of specific, short-term needs or projects. A program manager, however, is responsible for taking charge of a program, which is generally a grouping of different projects that work together to create a larger whole. That means, if you’re only utilizing project managers, you’re missing out on a vital piece of your team.

Understanding Projects:

So, what exactly is a project? A project is a small assignment that needs to be executed, generally as a one-time event. For example, if you were building a house a project would be installing the electrical. It has boundaries of costs, resources, time and budget. There’s generally a deadline of when it needs to be completed by and there are overall goals that need to be achieved to be successful. But this type of assignment is smaller in scope. So, like the electrical, it’s only a piece of the puzzle to building the house.

The idea here is to focus on the short-term and specifically on deliverables. The tasks that are being completed are generally very technical and quite specific. Overall, success or failure on a project is measured based on the quality of the product as well as whether it was completed in a timely fashion, followed the budget and complied with rules as well as how well it met the customer’s requirements or expectations. These projects are only small pieces of a larger puzzle that needs to be completed, rather than being a full puzzle on their own.

What is a Project Manager?

Now, a project manager, on the other hand, is responsible for taking care of the individual projects within the overall program. They have a smaller area that they’re responsible for, but within that area, they are the ones that watch over the entire team and make sure everything is happening properly. They’re also the ones that will report to the program manager. Within the project, they’re the ones that the team will report in to or ask questions of. They’re more of the tactical people within the process because they need to keep everything running smoothly.

Some of the tasks of a project manager could include:

  • Meeting deadlines
  • Staying within the pre-set budget
  • Delegating tasks to team members
  • Completing deliverable tasks
  • Coordinating time and resources
  • Reporting to the program manager
  • Organizing the overall team
  • Cost estimations and budgeting projects
  • Working with customers to ensure project scope
  • Monitoring progress of the team
  • Answering team member questions and concerns
  • Developing tasks and timelines
  • Managing overall project risk
  • Managing and updating reports and documentation
  • Clarify project scope and plan
  • Develop policies and procedures to achieve overall objectives

Project managers should be great at communicating with others and should be strong leaders. Not only that but they must be adaptable, analytical, decisive, strategic and willing to take accountability. These individuals need to be risk-takers and they need to be able to multi-task and to communicate both through written and oral manners. They need to know how to delegate tasks and while they need a working knowledge in their field, they primarily assign tasks to others, rather than executing the majority of those tasks for themselves. As a result, these individuals need to be able to recognize talent and utilize it well.

An effective project manager is a critical thinker, capable of paying close attention to detail and managing time effectively. They should be able to negotiate, make excellent decisions even under pressure and should be self-motivated. Most project managers have a bachelor’s degree in business administration, however, there are other ways to get into the field. Certifications are also available to further showcase the abilities that an individual has, though these are also not required in all situations. If you’re interested, PMP is one of the most popular forms of certification that you can get.

In general, project managers make between $50,000 and $100,000 a year as a salary. The rates vary based on where the individual is living (those working in larger cities tend to make more than those living in smaller areas) and also the specific field that they work in. Project managers in IT tend to make more than those who are working in any other field. Also, those who are considered a specialized project manager (such as IT versus a general project manager) tend to make higher rates. The average for this position within the United States is approximately $75,000.

Understanding Programs

On the other side of things are programs. If we go back to the idea of building a house, the program would be the entirety of the undertaking. It would be building the house. Each aspect of the house that needs to be completed would be more projects. This means that the program is a series of projects all grouped to achieve one objective, a completed house. With a program you’re going to have benefits and growth with the result, rather than just a small piece of the puzzle, you’re going to have a completed puzzle.

The idea here is to focus on the long-term and most specifically on the benefits that will be achieved when the whole thing is finished. Tasks that are being executed are quite strategic and they’ll generally be relatively overarching. The goal is the outcome and success or failure will be measured based on whether the needs and benefits that are to be achieved have been achieved. All of the smaller projects will be put together to create this full program and without all of the projects completed properly, the program will not be a success.

What is a Program Manager?

Let’s move on by diving a little bit deeper into just what it means to be a program manager. A program manager is responsible for understanding the full program that the business is working on and just how it’s going to impact the business overall. They are responsible for recognizing and evaluating all of the projects that need to be achieved for that overarching program to be completed. As a result, they’re the ones that the project managers should be turning to for assistance or to report in. From there, they can make sure that each project is being carried out properly.

Some of the tasks of a program manager could include:

  • Enlisting teams
  • Implementing strategies
  • Measuring ROI
  • Overseeing collaboration across project teams
  • Defining success metrics
  • Evaluating success metrics
  • Coordinate and track the progress of projects
  • Analyze policies, goals, and objectives of the program
  • Liaise between different project leaders
  • Evaluate overall program and project success
  • Develop strategies for continued program advancement
  • Defining success metrics

Program managers need to be strong leaders because they’re going to be in charge of the project managers and, by extension, the teams that those project managers are in charge of. They need to be excellent negotiators and need to be capable of critical thinking as well as strong communication. Program managers will be responsible for communicating both verbally as well as through written communication and must be able to interact with people from all levels of the organization. Likewise, they must be able to coach all members of their team from all levels of the organization, providing positive reinforcement at every step of the way.

It's going to take a sense of humor in most cases, to be able to get through all of the hard work and coordination that it takes to execute a program effectively. The program manager is also responsible for a great deal of planning and delegating, which means they must be capable of each of these tasks fairly and equitably. In most cases, these individuals will have a degree in business administration or they may have certifications and advanced training which prepares them for this type of leadership role.

Program managers tend to make salaries between $80,000 and $125,000 per year. This salary is higher in larger cities and lower in smaller markets, where program managers may be working for smaller companies. It also varies based on the actual project description and title. For example, a general program manager makes closer to the low end of this range while IT or technical program managers making the higher end of this salary range. Overall, the average for program managers within the United States is approximately $87,000 per year.

How They’re Similar

Now, for all the ways that they work in different areas, project managers and program managers are very similar overall. In general, a program manager does the tasks that a project manager does, but on a larger scale. They make sure that the project managers are doing their tasks in the same way a project manager makes sure team members are doing their tasks. It’s a process that allows everyone to know what they’re doing and to make sure they have the right support for their projects all the way through.

The skills that these two roles require are quite similar as well. Both managers need to be strong leaders and need to be able to communicate with people at different levels within the organization. They both need to be able to make plans and delegate tasks and both need to be able to think critically and carry out negotiations. In many ways, these individuals are going to be quite similar, with the main difference simply being the scope of the tasks that they execute, no as much the tasks themselves. Both will take a good amount of training and experience to be able to execute properly as well.

The Tools They Need

When it comes down to it, both project managers and program managers are going to need some important tools. Because they are responsible for so many different tasks and managing so many different people, they need better ways to keep track than just to remember everything. They need ways to monitor the progress of different aspects of the project or program and they need to be able to look in on employees without having to physically speak to them every day. The right tools make it easier for this to happen effectively and efficiently.

Instagantt is a great way to keep track of everything that both of these leaders need to know. It allows the creation of teams and different tasks that can then be assigned out to each individual. Each task can be given sub-tasks and can be given different deadlines and information. From there, everyone knows what they’re supposed to be working on and how their tasks interact with each other. They can also report in just how much progress they’ve made so project managers and program managers can check in on these stages along the way. All of this makes it easier for everyone involved.

Keeping Track of Tasks: First, managers need a way to keep track of all of the different tasks that are necessary for a project and the program overall. With this system, you can create as many tasks as you need within individual phases. This allows you to group tasks and to make sure that each phase knows what they’re supposed to be doing and just who they need to work with to complete the specific phase. They know who their ‘teammates’ are.
Assigning Tasks – Within each task, you’ll also be able to set the people who are responsible for executing it.

There could be one person in charge of a specific task or several people who need to work together within that task. Everyone who has access to the system will be able to see who is assigned to which tasks and therefore who they should be reaching out to if they have any problems or need to get clarification. This makes it easier to collaborate and also ensures that no one is left out on a limb or trying to figure out how to get a task completed. They always know who they can turn to.

Assigning Dates: You get to set up the start date and the due date for each task and the overall phases as well. This ensures that each person knows when they’re required to get started on their task when their specific task needs to be completed and also when the overall phase needs to be completed. Having these types of deadlines posted and easily visible to everyone on the team makes it much easier for everyone to hold themselves and each other accountable. They will be able to push each other as well because they know what each team member should be doing.

Create Dependencies: Sometimes some tasks have to be completed for the next task to be completed. When this happens it creates dependencies and this is possible through this system. Dependencies can be set up in many different ways and when changes are made to one piece of the puzzle, all dependent items will be adjusted automatically so that everything works together. This makes it easier for any project or program manager to make changes within the system as there’s no need to go through each task to make all of the adjustments. Only one adjustment is needed.

User Review: It’s easy to look at all of the tasks that a specific team member is responsible for and to see where these tasks fall on the spectrum of required tasks. Likewise, it’s possible to see which tasks that individual has completed and which tasks they still need to work on. There are different ways to view these charts to make it more convenient for the manager and there are also different features you can look for, such as dates, types of projects and more. It’s also super easy to move tasks to different individuals through this process.

Customization: Everything is customizable. So each task can be set with custom colors to make them easier to see. Subtasks can be added into the overall tasks to make sure no step is missed and milestones can be added in to set up special events. It’s also possible to set the progress of each task so team members can keep everyone updated on just how far they’ve gotten and what they still need to accomplish within their tasks. This makes it much easier for everyone to stay informed and know what they still need to do.Team Member

Collaboration: Everyone within the team needs to be able to collaborate quickly and efficiently. They need to be able to look at the different tasks that need to be executed within the phase they’ve been assigned to and reach out to the other people within that phase. They can then ask for help, get clarification and more. They’ll also have the ability to check each other’s work, which may give them the answers they need without actually needing to contact one another. This can be more efficient and provide for better project and program management.

Template Creation: In many programs, there will be specific projects that need to be executed continuously. What this means is that usually there are specific projects that must occur in any programs (or at least the vast majority of programs) that you complete. Creating a template allows you to have a project already set up that can be added to a program each time you create one. This saves time in having to recreate that project and reassign the tasks. If the same individuals are in charge of the same things every time it makes it easy to use a template to get those projects ready to go faster.


Overall, you’re going to need a lot of different features to be an effective project manager or program manager. You are the one responsible for what everyone on the team accomplishes and you’re likewise responsible for keeping track of the process and making sure the client is happy with the result. No matter what type of project or overarching program you’re executing, the goal is to bring everyone together as a single unit and single team to accomplish the goal. With the right project management software and the right gantt chart construction strategies in place that’s possible.

If you’re looking to get into a career as a program manager or a project manager the best thing you can do is work on the skills we’ve mentioned and started improving within your team. Becoming a leader, even without the title, can be a great way to get started and can prove to those in higher-level positions that you are ready to take charge. From there, make sure that you’re executing each of your tasks to the best of your ability and that you’re encouraging the use of effective tools and task managers to keep track of everything that needs to be done. You absolutely can become a better program or project manager with the right tools to support your process.

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