Explaining the difference between projects and programs?

by Mustafa Hafızoglu
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The difference between projects and programs has been confused by many people. Here are some of the differences between projects and programs and the benefits they provide organizations. 

Patrick Weaver’s paper presented at the PMI Global Congress in 2010—Asia Pacific, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia explains the key difference between a project and program very clearly as follows “Projects involve delivering a product to meet stakeholder needs and expectations with unnecessary change minimized. The key element in project management is efficiency.” 

In contrast, Weaver’s paper describes programs as being focused on “delivering benefits to the organization within defined constraints and in alignment with its strategic objectives. Changing the elements within a program to maximize benefits actually realized and maintaining alignment with changing strategic objectives are essential. Weaver continues that “the key focus of program management is in the delivery of value, working in concert with the operational and strategic elements of the organization.”

As the organizations grow rapidly, they initiate more projects. Since each project will focus on its specific objectives, which is to deliver its product (service or result) within a defined budget, schedule, and scope given the limited organizational resources; the level of focus on the business outcomes and strategic objectives generally decreases. Moreover, an increase in the number of such projects will also increase the level of complexity and uncertainty in the organizations. At this point, organizations have an option to initiate new programs to cope with these upcoming challenges.

Program management can be used to differentiate organizations in the competitive business environment. The programs focus on benefits and successful business results, and they have a strategic view compared to projects which aim to deliver the intended product. When a program is decided to get initiated, this is also a start to be different from the competitors, which are only executing with projects. Mindset shift, bridging the gap, discovering value, and creating a new future are the four advantages you’ll be experiencing with program management.

Shifting mindset

The success factors in a project-focused organization are limited to completing the project on time, within budget, and within scope. This mindset has a major drawback which is to ignore stakeholders’ expectations. As an example, due to changing market conditions, an internal stakeholder of the project, the marketing department, expects to deliver the product earlier, before the competitors dominate the market, even sacrificing some features of the product. Project Managers, focusing on completing the project within scope, will not consider the requests to complete the project with a lack of some features unless the project sponsor or senior executives decide the opposite.

Program management brings a new success factor: Benefit. PMI’s definition of a program is a “group of related projects managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits and control not available from managing them individually,” this implies the value that a program management mindset brings. Initiating programs will bring the mindset of defining multiple objectives, benefits realization, and desirable change. 

Bridging the gap

Projects are tools to execute the strategic objectives of companies. However, various researches show that companies are very unsuccessful in strategy execution. The gap between strategy and execution is quite high. Programs can bridge this gap with their strategic focus. For example, it is very difficult to kill a project for a project manager if the product will not add value to the company vision anymore, but a program manager can kill such a project. Or any required change in the project scope to create new value may be managed by a program manager. 

Discovering value

With programs, value is the driver rather than the schedule, cost, and scope, and the programs focus on reaping the maximum benefit from using project deliverables. Benefits management is a key part of program management and requires discovering what is valuable to the organization. 

Creating a new future

When is the benefit realized? At the beginning of the project or during the project, or after the project? The benefit is mostly realized after the project is closed. A program is a very powerful tool to define, monitor, and realize the benefits which take place after the project completion. Programs create a new future for the company by realizing the benefits which realize the vision.

Programs help your company be different, flexible, creative, and strategic. What is needed now is to make effective use of both program and project management to create a strategic advantage and create a new future.

 

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