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The Difference Between Program Management & Project Management - How to Use Strategy to Align Them

By Jenna Sedmak - January 13, 2020


SME Strategy is a strategy consulting firm that specializes in helping organizations align their teams and operations around a shared vision, mission, values, goals, and action plans. Our strategic planning services offer guidance on how a strategic planning facilitator can provide support in constructing an effective strategic plan that ensures your strategy is communicated and implemented across your entire organization.


While program management and project management are often related, there are key differences that set them apart. For organizations that run programs, it’s important to understand these differences so that their program leaders and project managers are working towards the same organizational goals, and are aligned on projects that support program initiatives and organizational strategic priorities. 

A Google search will return an abundance of information on both program management and project management, so I will offer a quick synthesis of what each of these (usually) entails, as well as an example of an organization that would likely run both programs and projects.  

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Program Management:

  • Can be department-wide or company-wide, depending on the size of the organization and scope of the program
  • Usually focuses on one long-term program running at a time (either within the organization or the department
  • Requires an internal program manager to  run the program and monitor deliverables for its duration
  • May focus on prioritization of projects or initiatives that support the organization’s strategic direction over time
  • May involve the organization’s ability to transform and change, or require the organization to react to the environment or industry that they operate within
  • Is focused on outcomes & success metrics (i.e. program managers will decide on the right projects and actions that will help the program and organization reach success)


Project Management:

  • Involves specific projects that will often have a charter outlining the expectations and details, including a completion date where deliverables must be met
  • Requires either an internal project manager or external consultant to lead the project
  • Focuses on outputs or deliverables - Projects are usually operational in nature, and their main purpose is to “get things done”
  • May differ in style depending on the specific project and team culture (i.e. some projects may require a traditional waterfall approach, while others might benefit from a more agile management style, even within the same organization or under the same program umbrella)
  • May involve projects running under a program umbrella, or independent of a program within an organization



A department within the Federal Government concentrates on regional business growth in key areas. They will run a 5-year PROGRAM that offers to fund to small businesses in priority sectors and locations. The program manager will oversee this program, including managing the budget, goals, and associated projects. The individual PROJECTS that run under the program’s umbrella may include a series of community events or the development of marketing and promotional materials that will support the program initiatives.

Working through the strategic planning process at the start of the 5-year program will help this organization to align their people with their mission, vision, and values, as well as to make sure that everyone in the organization understands where they are going, how they will get there, and what success looks like. By understanding the organizational direction and top-level goals for the program, it becomes easier for the team to implement specific projects that will help the organization meet its program goals and execute its strategic plan.  


For more information, PMI offers deeper analysis on Program Management versus Project Management


If your organization is starting a new program or revising an existing one, strategic planning is a great way to help develop high-level goals and priorities that will support your organizational objectives and align your programs and projects. This means starting with a long-term focus and figuring out what strategic planning timeline your organization wants to be in 1, 3, 5, or 10 years. From there, program directions and strategic priorities can be established to align with your organization’s long-term vision and mission.

Once you’ve looked at the bigger picture and have alignment between your vision, mission, program and strategic priorities, the next steps in the planning process are to figure out what success looks like and how you will achieve it. This stage requires narrowing the focus and deciding on specific projects, initiatives and action items that will help your team implement your overall strategic plan.

By making time for strategic planning and alignment between your programs, projects, and actions, your people will be better equipped to make decisions and achieve the results that will help your organization reach its goals.


Is your organization starting the strategic planning process? 
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Check out our related article: What's the Difference Between a Strategic Plan & an Operational Plan


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